Are Billionaire Donors Driving Trump’s Iran Policy?

Home Depot co-founder and Republican megadonor Bernard Marcus

by Eli Clifton

President Donald Trump’s latest denunciation of the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) at the United Nations was hardly a surprise. Indeed, attacking the agreement was a mainstay of Trump’s campaign rhetoric from the early days of his candidacy. But with an October 15 deadline looming for the White House to certify Iranian compliance with the deal, as the president must do every 90 days, there is growing speculation that he will not certify Iran’s compliance.

Trump is considering this move despite the U.S. military’s assessment and International Atomic Energy Agency certifications that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. Also, decertification would decrease the likelihood of Iranian willingness to negotiate on the Trump administration’s stated areas of concern, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s support for Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Trump is leaning in this direction to fulfill one of his campaign promises and tear up President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.

But a review of the statements and activities of some of Trump’s key donors also helps explain why he is considering reneging on the agreement. A small number of his biggest campaign and legal defense donors have made extreme comments about Iran and, in at least one case, advocated for the use of a nuclear weapon against the Islamic Republic.

Bernard Marcus

Take, for instance, Bernard Marcus, billionaire and Home Depot founder. He’s one of a handful of wealthy donors paying for legal costs incurred by Trump and Donald Trump Jr.’s attorneys as part of the probe into Russian election interference, via a Republican Party account. Marcus contributed $101,700, an amount matched by five other big donors.

Marcus is also an outspoken critic of the Iran deal. In a 2015 Fox Business interview, he said, “when you do business with the devil you’re in deep trouble and I think that Iran is the devil.”. Marcus went on to insist that the JCPOA “is a treaty as far as I’m concerned,” which it is not, describing it as a “deadly, deadly treaty” that should have gotten a “full vote by the full Congress” and an “abrogation of the congress’s control.”

Watch it:

And Marcus is happy to put his money to use in supporting groups that have opposed nuclear diplomacy with Iran. In 2015, his foundation contributed $1 million to the American Israel Education Foundation (AIPAC’s 501c3 wing), $3.5 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), $75,000 to Israel Emergency Alliance, $250,0000 to The Israel Project, $350,000 to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and $250,000 to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), all groups which actively opposed the JCPOA.

Sheldon Adelson

Marcus isn’t the biggest donor opposing the Iran deal. Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, alongside his wife Miriam, was Trump’s biggest single campaign supporter, sending $35 million to pro-Trump Super PAC Future 45.

Earlier in the election cycle, Trump made clear that Adelson’s financial support came with strings attached. He mocked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was courting the Adelsons. In October 2015, Trump tweeted “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to [Marco] Rubio because he feels he can mold him into the perfect little puppet. I agree!”

Trump didn’t say why Adelson wanted to use Rubio, but in 2012 Newt Gingrich said that Adelson’s “central value” is unconditional support for Israel, specifically its right-wing Likud party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (the two have reportedly experienced a falling out over the past three months).

Adelson was treated as a guest of honor when the Israeli prime minister delivered a March 2015 speech before Congress to blast the Iran deal, a rare moment in which Netanyahu appeared to be dabbling in partisan politics and throwing into question the bipartisan support usually enjoyed by Israeli leaders on Capitol Hill.

Adelson, like Marcus and Singer, has given generously to groups opposing the JCPOA, contributing at least $1.5 million to the FDD by the end of the group’s 2011 tax year. In 2015, his foundation contributed $400,000 to Christians United for Israel (CUFI), $50,000 to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, $100,000 to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), $7.45 million to the Israeli American Council, $250,000 to JINSA, $1.47 million to Shmuley Boteach’s The World Jewish Values Network, and $1 million to the ZOA, all groups that have opposed the JCPOA.

And the Las Vegas-based billionaire makes no secret of what he considers a preferable approach toward the Islamic Republic, telling a Yeshiva University audience in 2013 that U.S. negotiators should launch a nuclear weapon at the Islamic Republic as a negotiating tactic.

Paul Singer

Although less outspoken than Marcus or Adelson and an early opponent of Trump’s candidacy, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer opened his wallet to Trump’s inaugural committee, contributing $1 million, while simultaneously funding a number of groups opposed to the Iran deal.

Politico reported that Singer was included in a White House meeting of key donors in June.

In 2015, Singer’s foundation made a number of contributions to groups opposed to the Iran deal, including, $2 million to the American Israel Education Foundation, $150,000 to the Israel Emergency Alliance, and $118,982 to JINSA. Singer, according to The Atlantic, was the primary donor to the Foreign Policy Initiative, a small neoconservative think tank with a hawkish foreign policy agenda, before withdrawing his funding last summer.

A 2011 donor roll from the FDD showed that Singer had contributed at least $3.6 million to the group.

Trump’s Turnabout

Trump told the Republican Jewish Coalition, of which Adelson, Singer, and Marcus are all members, in a December 2015 meeting that:

You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians; that’s fine. …I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.

But he promptly went back on his word when he accepted their support for his candidacy once he had secured the nomination.

Marcus, Adelson, and Singer would not be the first political donors, as Trump readily admits, to seek a return on their investments.

Photo: Bernard Marcus

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Most old guys settle for fishing and collecting stamps in retirement, others buy senators and manipulate foreign affairs policies as their pet vanity projects. This is how money runs government in the US.

  2. Buying cheap politicians is not like buying cheap products to sell at high margins. There is no return policy. At every turn there is a new low for the Israeli firsters in the US.

  3. Rich fanatical supporters of Israel, hoping to bring the US another idiotic war. Disgusting.

  4. Bernie Marcus’ toupee is so ridiculous it makes Trump’s comb-over look credible.

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