A top nonpartisan political crowdfunding site on Tuesday cut ties with its CEO, a Fox News weekend host, and temporarily suspended all fundraising on its platform for Republican candidates.
In a Medium.com post, entitled “A stand against Trumpism, a stand for democracy,” Crowdpac, a for-profit website that helps candidates raise money online, announced a series of major changes including the departure of founder and CEO Steve Hilton, acknowledging that his vocal advocacy for President Donald Trump “created a tension within our platform and community.”
“We’ve heard from many quarters of the Crowdpac community that, in light of Steve Hilton’s political profile, the use of our platform is seen as an endorsement of President Trump and his political movement,” acting CEO Jesse Thomas wrote.
“This isn’t even close to true, but it has created unnecessary drag for many of our users working to raise funds and build support for their campaigns on our platform,” Thomas continued. “Our business has been built around removing friction from participation for leaders and candidates, and any perceived endorsement of Trumpism, true or not, could hinder our growth and their success.”
The acting CEO also explained that the company had decided that Trump and his beliefs “run counter to our values and the values of the vast majority of our users.”
Citing examples of a neo-Nazi candidate attempting to raise money through the platform, Crowdpac announced it will suspend the crowdfunding of GOP candidates “until we can figure out how to systematically confirm that those campaigns and candidates align with the values of our community in a way that Trumpism does not.”
“This decision has been a hard one for our company, but as Trumpism has spread through the Republican Party we’ve started to see an increase in campaigns for Republican candidates that we cannot allow on our platform,” Thomas continued in the Medium post.
In a telephone interview with The Daily Beast, Hilton said when he was disappointed to learn that the company had to pick a political side, but emphasized that he had decided to leave on his own.
“I’m sad that my initial dream of building a nonpartisan platform didn’t come to fruition,” Hilton said. “But I’m very happy that Crowdpac has found a community that finds it useful.”
Hilton, a former top adviser to British prime minister David Cameron, had been the company’s most public face since its inception in 2013, evangelizing about its ability to help raise awareness and funds for unknown candidates.
But the dramatic shift in Republican party orthodoxy and Hilton’s own rising stardom at Fox News spelled trouble over the past several years for his stewardship of the fledgling political fundraising site.
Three people familiar with the circumstances of Hilton’s departure said Trump’s ascendence to the presidency created a deepening rift between the CEO and top staff, the majority of whom are opposed to the president and his policies.
Further, company leadership had become increasingly unsettled by the CEO’s outspoken support on Fox News for Trump’s actions, feeling that his boosterism had alienated potential Crowdpac candidates, and possibly steered business to rival platforms.
Since last year, Hilton has hosted the Fox News weekend program The Next Revolution With Steve Hilton, a self-described platform for “the populist movement.”
While Hilton made a point to invite guests supportive of politicians like democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), he has more often used the program to boost Trump—not unlike the rest of Fox’s commentary programming.
Despite his own wealth, he’s mocked the media as “decadent,” defended some of former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s controversial statements, and said he’s uncomfortable calling French national front leader Marine Le Pen racist despite her open flirtations with Holocaust denial. He repeatedly called for former FBI director James Comey to be prosecuted, and earned plaudits from President Donald Trump for saying that the president’s “triumphs are driving his critics crazy.”
It didn’t take long for some Democrats to connect the dots between the Fox News host and his tech platform.
Earlier this year, Democratic California State Sen. Henry Stern publicly called for a boycott of the company, and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suspended the Crowdpac account for his gubernatorial bid.
Though two former staffers told The Daily Beast said Hilton was always upfront with employees about his political views, others said he presented a slightly different side when he launched the company.
According to one insider who spoke to The Daily Beast, Hilton met with Democratic strategists in 2014 and explicitly sought meetings with immigrant activists in order to promote Crowdpac candidates who supported comprehensive immigration reform. Over the past year, however, Hilton has been an outspoken critic of many Democrats’ positions on immigration.
Other higher-ups felt that although the CEO was initially very enthusiastic about the company, his focus wandered as he became more deeply involved with Fox News.
Hilton’s own ambitions were seemingly emboldened by Brexit and Trump’s election. One senior source told The Daily Beast that the outgoing CEO voiced interest in an American political career for himself, including a potential bid for governor of California in the future.
He also continued to foster a friendship with Fox News chair Rupert Murdoch, who, according to two sources, has visited the Crowdpac office on at least one occasion.
“His top priority has been positioning himself as a leading contrarian but basically right-wing personality,” an insider told The Daily Beast.
Hilton, however, said he hoped his show on Fox News could have been a draw for candidates. “When we are trying to show that we are nonpartisan, which was our strategy in the company at that time, I thought it could actually be helpful because it could show we are balanced as a platform,” he told The Daily Beast.
Crowdpac staff’s disapproval of Hilton’s politics have occasionally spilled out into the public. For example, it did not go unnoticed by staff that Crowdpac co-founder and incoming CEO Gisel Kordestani liked a series of tweets in April suggesting Hilton step aside.
And in a profile of Hilton last year, The New York Times reported that the founder was occasionally criticized at work over his support for Trump and role as a booster of the president on Fox News. Someone once left a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on it on Hilton’s desk, and a Trump tee shirt hanging in the company office went missing.
“Fox? Thank God it’s on Sunday nights,” Kordestani told the paper. “He just keeps it separate. We all have our things.”
—Additional reporting by Gideon Resnick.