‘It’s the Tone at the Top.’ Major Jewish Donor Who Left GOP Discusses Synagogue Shooting

4 minute read

For Les Wexner, Saturday’s shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue wasn’t just an attack on his faith; it was a reaffirmation of his decision to leave the Republican Party.

The Ohio billionaire, who owns the conglomerate of stores that includes Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, was a top donor to the GOP until announcing last month that he was severing his ties and identifying as an independent.

Now, he is directly linking the rhetoric of President Trump with both the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue that killed 11 people, the bombs mailed last week to both CNN and multiple leading Democrats, and the shooting at a Kentucky supermarket that left two African-Americans dead and is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

“I think it’s more than coincidence,” Wexner told TIME of the these three incidents occurring so close together. “I think that clearly it’s the tone at the top.”

What initially began to drive Wexner away from the Republican Party, he explained, was Trump’s comments equivocating blame on both white nationalists and counter-demonstrators after a Charlottesville rally turned deadly in the summer of 2017. Most recently, Wexner was incensed when Trump proclaimed himself a “nationalist” at a rally in Houston. Wexner categorized this type of “dog whistles” that have “liberated the darkest angels.”

“Its like Voldemort stimulates all the Death Eaters,” he said, referring to the villains in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. “They’re there. And then when somebody frees them up they start behaving. And I think that’s what we have.”

During the 2016 election cycle, Wexner and his wife Abigail donated over $2 million to super PACs backing Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, as well as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The Columbus Dispatch has described him as the “wealthiest Republican supporter” in Ohio, a state crucial for Presidential hopefuls.

Since Trump’s election, he has remained faithful to other Republican organizations; in May, for instance, he donated the maximum $33,900 to the National Congressional Campaign. Since he cut his ties with the party last month, however, he and his wife have given at least $15,000 to Democratic candidates in Ohio, public documents show.

“I’m not a Democrat,” Wexner said. “The Republican party has left me. I still believe what I believe but the party is not expressing my belief.”

But Wexner’s response is a clear deviation from other members of his former party who have continued to remain supportive of the President throughout his White House tenure. One GOP operative with close ties to the donor community, requesting anonymity to describe internal discussions, said there has not been any complaints with the White House’s reaction to the Pittsburgh shooting.

“I think certainly they struck the right chord,” this operative said, noting that it was a contrast from the administration’s response after Charlottesville.

And on Monday, Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and Matt Brooks, the respective chairman and executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, released a public letter to the President, thanking him for condemning both the attack and anti-Semitism as a whole.

Part of their letter also condemned those they believe were exploiting the attacks.

“It is regrettable that there are some who are trying to use this tragic moment for political gain. This is no time for political attacks” Coleman and Brooks wrote. “Eleven members of our Jewish family, of our American family, have been taken from us. As we come together, we should try to mourn this loss rather than try to score political partisan points.”

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com