During the last presidential campaign, Facebook board member and billionaire Peter Thiel was among Donald Trump’s most important backers, campaigning for the future president as a “proud,” openly gay supporter of the Republican nominee and even speaking at the Republican Party’s 2016 convention. Four years later, Thiel has taken on a dramatically reduced—if not altogether nonexistent—role in pushing for Trump 2020.
Though Thiel declared a year and a half ago that he supports Trump’s re-election, he so far hasn't donated large sums to any of the major Trump campaign committees, and it is unclear to various Trump lieutenants if those contributions are forthcoming. Top officials in the president’s political orbit say that Thiel has been absent from 2020 discussions, with one proclaiming the famous investor had “ghosted” Team Trump lately. And several people familiar with the situation say he has privately criticized Trump in recent months and contemplated limiting his support to other GOP or conservative-nationalist politicians such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, to whom he donated the legal maximum of $5,400 in 2017.
Thiel’s cold front has come as the data-mining firm that he co-founded has been raking it in from federal contracts with the Trump administration, including a recent deal to help build what the government hoped would be “the single source” for data to understand and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. But, as it were, sources say the heart of Thiel’s disaffection with the president is Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
One person in Thiel’s circle tells The Daily Beast that Thiel has been “shit-talking” Trump over what he views as the president’s hamfisted and botched handling of the pandemic that has resulted in a stalled economy, massive job losses, and a U.S. death toll approaching 90,000. Another person familiar with Thiel’s recent griping said that Thiel was “clearly very frustrated” with the president’s uneven public appearances, particularly the daily White House press briefings Trump held that often ended in head-scratching pronouncements or politically disastrous boasts.
In that regard, Thiel was hardly alone. Trump’s briefings got so bad that his own most senior advisers were urging him to cut down on them, arguing to him directly that these hours-long briefings were tanking his poll numbers and handing a gift to Team Biden. But for a once-declared MAGA diehard to feel this way underscores the degree of self-inflicted damage Trump may have done.
“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”
The Daily Beast asked more than a dozen Trump campaign officials, White House aides, and others close to the president and involved in his re-election effort if Thiel had been quietly working with Team Trump on anything 2020 or campaign cash-related, if there had been any meaningful contact in the past three months, or if Thiel had come up in any planning conversations, even in passing. None could offer any examples, and each said they weren’t aware of anything of that nature.
“He ghosted us,” a senior 2020 Trump campaign source said bluntly. “If anything [new] has happened, I haven’t heard about it.”
The White House and Trump campaign did not provide comment. The Daily Beast emailed Thiel and his representative a detailed list of questions and gave them multiple opportunities to comment. They did not respond, though in this case, the money—or lack thereof—may tell the story.
Though a major financial supporter of Trump and other Republican politicians in the past, Thiel has donated nothing to the president’s re-election campaign or the Republican National Committee since 2018, according to the most recent available Federal Election Commission data. He’s donated to just one federal political candidate since last year: former Kansas secretary of state and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hardliner and Trump buddy. Thiel has also backed a super PAC supporting Kobach’s Senate bid, and last year chipped in $5,000 for Facebook’s political action committee.
May of an election year is, historically, when Thiel begins to truly open up his wallet to the political candidates he supports, suggesting that FEC filings covering the second quarter of 2020, which will be filed in July, might show new beneficiaries of his support, including Trump. Thiel began donating to Trump’s 2016 campaign in July of that year. But he also continued providing financial support to the Trump re-elect through the midterm election season, with his last donation to the president coming on July 10, 2018.
To those who know the tech investor, his softening on his pro-Trump position doesn’t come as a shock, as he is known to be mercurial with his support for political figures, according to two people familiar with Thiel’s public relations and personal calculus.
Like so many other prominent right-leaning members of the industry and political elite who now profess their love of Trump, Thiel bashed Trump first before becoming a defender. During a 2014 conversation with conservative commentator Jamie Weinstein, then of the Daily Caller, Thiel dinged Trump as “sort of symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City.”
In August 2017, BuzzFeed News published a story on how Thiel had been telling friends that he believed there was a 50-50 chance the Trump presidency “ends in disaster,” even as he was publicly singing Trump’s praises and flexing his influence with the 45th president’s inner circle and policymakers such as the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. In May 2018, CNBC reported that certain allies of the president were sounding the alarm that Thiel might not open his wallet for 2018 GOP congressional campaigns “after being given the cold shoulder by some White House officials.”
Thiel ended up giving to the Republican Party anyway, and in November 2018, just days before the midterm elections, Thiel was on-stage at a conference lauding President Trump as “relatively successful” and promising his support for the 2020 race, according to a Bloomberg report.
While Thiel may be cold on Trump because of, among other things, the handling of coronavirus, he’s not altogether removed from the president’s orbit. NBC News revealed that he and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dined at the White House with Trump in October. And even before COVID-19 overtook America, Palantir, which Thiel co-founded, had increased its contracting business with the government astronomically, capped by a piece of an $800 million data-management contract with the Pentagon. Since then, it’s drawn on its decade-long relationship with U.S. health agencies to become one of the data-mining companies of choice for tracking coronavirus logistics issues.
On April 22, according to federal contracting records, the firm inked a relatively small $7.5 million deal to form the backbone of a platform for the Department of Health and Human Services, called HHS Protect Now, for integrating large amounts of coronavirus-relevant data from around the country.
—With additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman