US President Donald Trump (R) gestures as he talks with US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson (L) preparing to board Marine One to depart the US ambassador’s residence Winfield House in London on July 13, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Billionaire and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson is part of a very small group within former President Donald Trump’s inner circle: Wealthy supporters who are willing to invest their own personal capital to convince Republican megadonors to donate to Trump’s presidential campaign.
Not only is Johnson backing Trump himself, he is also doing something even more important: Lobbying members of the unofficial Republican billionaire’s club to come back into Trump’s fold, said several of Johnson’s allies who were granted anonymity in order to relay private conversations.
“The sales pitch from team Johnson has been ‘it’s going to be Trump based on the polling. Are you just not going to get on the train as Trump heads to be the nominee?'” a Republican fundraiser familiar with the engagement told CNBC.
Beyond the outreach to fellow donors, Johnson has also signaled that he plans to help organize and host fundraisers for Trump as the primary season ramps up next year, when the pivotal caucus and primary elections begin, a person close to the Jets owner explained.
So far, many of the biggest names in Republican fundraising, like Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, steel magnate Andy Sabin and real estate titan Stephen Ross, are reluctant to “get on the train” with Trump. Several of them have said both privately and publicly that they were disillusioned with the former president after his first term ended with the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
But not Johnson. A longtime personal friend of Trump’s and his ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2017-21, Johnson has told friends he is all in on helping his onetime boss win back the White House in 2024, according to people familiar with the matter.
Read more of CNBC’s politics coverage:
So far, they said, none of Trump’s controversies, not the 91 criminal charges he faces in state and federal court, nor his continued false insistence that he won the 2020 election, nor even the riot on Capitol Hill that has resulted in more than 370 prison sentences to date, has chipped away at Johnson’s support for Trump.
On the contrary, Johnson has remained personally close to Trump throughout his post-presidency. Since April, friends of Johnson’s say he has taken part in meetings and attended small, private dinners with the former president at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Florida.
At a CNN town hall in New Hampshire in May, the former president publicly thanked a man he called “Woody” and gestured throwing a football. At the time, it was unclear exactly what Trump was pointing at.
It was Johnson, a person with direct knowledge later told CNBC, adding that Trump’s team had given the Jets owner and his aides special tickets to the event.
Those close to Johnson believe that if Trump were elected president in 2024, the billionaire would accept a job in a second Trump administration, largely due to how much he enjoyed his years as an ambassador.
A spokesman for Johnson declined to comment. A representative for the Jets and a spokesman for the Trump campaign did not return requests for comment.
An heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune with an estimated net worth of just over $3 billion, Johnson already donated $1 million to the pro-Trump super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., in April of this year.
This contribution made Johnson one of only seven donors who gave $1 million or more to the PAC in the first half of this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.
But while very few of Trump’s richest donors from 2016 and 2020 have donated to his current campaign, it’s not because they have been shelling out millions to help his primary opponents, either.
Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer attend the 2017 TIME 100 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 25, 2017 in New York City.
Patrick McMullan | Getty Images
Instead, key contributors like Rebekah Mercer and Peter Thiel, people whose support would send an important signal to the rest of the donor class, appear to be sitting on the sidelines and waiting to see how the crowded Republican primary field shakes out before they make big donations.
But the sheer fact that GOP donors are still waiting to see what happens, when one candidate is dominating the field by 50+ points is a testament to how reluctant they are to back Trump, and how doggedly they are holding out hope that another Republican can win the nomination.
The latest Quinnipiac poll showed the former president winning 62% of support in the GOP primary, with his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at just 12%.
This gap between how strong Trump is polling versus how relatively weak his support is among major donors has added a fresh urgency to Johnson’s calls to onetime contributors and their advisors to try to get them back in Trump’s corner, according to those familiar with the outreach.
For now, Johnson’s role is still largely behind the scenes. Since Trump’s departure from the White House, the two men have only had a few public interactions.
One of them was at a rally last year for TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz’s failed Senate campaign.
As he took the stage, Trump gave Johnson a shoutout.
“A friend of mine who is a great businessman and a great person, Mr. Woody Johnson and his wife Suzanne Johnson,” said Trump.