Hollywood’s Top Donors Freak Out After Biden’s Debate: ‘If He Doesn’t Drop Out, We’re Not Giving Any More Money to Democrats’

It was meant to be a night to assuage Hollywood’s donor class’ concerns about President Joe Biden’s fitness. But it quickly turned into a nightmare for some of the industry’s biggest Democratic backers.

Top donors from the media and entertainment business are panicking about Biden’s performance after he stumbled through a 90-minute debate against former President Donald Trump that was watched by some 51 million people.

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“With all the text chains I’m on, people are basically like, ‘If he doesn’t drop out, we’re not giving any more money to Democrats or the Democratic Party.’ It’s like super intense,” said one high-profile Hollywood donor.

Adds another who is plugged in at the highest level of Hollywood fundraising: “There is a sense that the money dried up last night about 10 minutes into the debate.”

The Friday hangover coincides with four separate New York Times opinion pieces Friday morning that added fuel to the entertainment industry’s angst: “Joe Biden Is a Good Man and a Good President. He Must Bow Out of the Race”; “Biden Cannot Go on Like This”; “I’m Hearing High Anxiety From Democrats Over Biden’s Debate Performance”; and “Is Biden Too Old? America Got Its Answer.”

Despite the alarming media coverage, other Hollywood donors took a less dramatic position, with one calling Biden’s CNN debate showing “concerning” but vowing to remain in his corner, while another notes that the town’s check-writers will back the Democratic Party regardless of whether the sitting president is atop the ticket or not. It’s also worth noting that many of the donors contacted by Variety were responding to the torrent of criticism and concern raining down on the party’s presumptive nominee in the immediate aftermath of the debate. Faced with the prospect of another Trump term, their feelings could soften and they might return to the fold and to raising money for the president.

By midday Friday, Biden’s reelection campaign put out an email blast from from a Hollywood big name in Robert De Niro, who asked for recipients to feed the campaign coffers. “It’s going to take all of us to make sure Donald Trump never returns to the White House, so I’m personally asking: Will you please chip in $25 to the Biden-Harris reelection campaign to help ensure Donald Trump never steps foot in the White House again?” the message read.

The Biden campaign announced it had raised $14 million in the 14 hours after the debate. Michael Tyler, a campaign spokesman, told reporters there are “no conversations” about Biden stepping aside, and said the president is committed to doing the second debate in September.

“He didn’t have the best night on the debate stage,” Tyler said. “But you’d rather have one bad night than a candidate with a bad vision for where he wants to take the country.”

But in Hollywood, all eyes are on Jeffrey Katzenberg, the town’s most active Democratic fundraiser, who organized the recent fete that brought Biden and former President Barack Obama to L.A. and drew the likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jimmy Kimmel and Jack Black. Sources close to Katzenberg say he is taking a wait-and-see approach to how Biden’s debate performance plays out in the coming days. The same is true for media mogul Haim Saban, traditionally one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific donors. Saban has kept a low profile after someone, presumably within the White House, leaked an email he sent to two Biden aides criticizing the president’s move to withhold some military support to Israel. Both Katzenberg and Saban declined to comment.

Hannah Linkenhoker, a political adviser to Hollywood donors, said she was dismayed that Biden did not forcefully make the case on protecting abortion rights.

“We need a champion who can properly hold Trump accountable and articulate what’s going on and be crisp on this issue above all else,” she said. “It’s just really hard to see how we keep supporting him. He needs to dig deep about whether he can in good conscience be our nominee.”

Biden needs a unified and enthusiastic Hollywood behind him, given that some Silicon Valley donors already have begun migrating to Trump in recent months. To that end, there was a fundraiser on Thursday night in L.A. with Govs. Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), Andy Beshear (Kentucky) and J.B. Pritzker (Illinois) and hosted by ambassador James Costos and his husband Michael Smith. Still, some of the donors who are ready to break with Biden expressed enthusiasm for the idea of Whitmer, Gov. Gavin Newsom (California) or even the return of Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket. Of course, it won’t be up to them to decide who might be the standard-bearer since Biden’s fate remains in his own hands and replacing the president as the nominee comes with its own challenges.

Vice President Kamala Harris will be on hand tomorrow for a Pride month presidential fundraiser in Los Angeles, with Idina Menzel scheduled to perform.

But the push for a new candidate isn’t just being whispered behind closed doors. Andrew Yang, who ran for the Democratic Party presidential primaries in 2020, wrote on X: “Guys, the Dems should nominate someone else – before it’s too late. #swapJoeout.”

Harris would be a natural successor, should Biden decide to step aside. Linkenhoker argued that the replacement process should not be an “anointment.”

“It needs to be a democratic process,” she said. “There’s an incredible bench of highly qualified Democrats to fill his place.”

Michael Trujillo, an L.A.-based political consultant, argued Biden’s delegates would be naturally disposed toward Harris, and that talk of installing some other alternative at a brokered convention is unrealistic.

“That’s someone hoping for a ‘West Wing’ episode,” he said. “That ain’t going to hunt.”

Biden sought to reassure supporters at a public rally on Friday in North Carolina.

“I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to,” he said on stage. “I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth.”

Some feel the collective freak-out over Biden’s ability to go the distance will subside. But it will be hard to walk back the negative headlines, scathing social media posts and pundit panic from the past 18 hours. Even Friday’s episode of “The View,” typically a venue of unwavering support for Biden, featured two co-hosts, Sara Haines and Alyssa Farah Griffin, calling for Biden to step aside. Their colleague Sunny Hostin said Biden “maybe” needs to go.

But co-host Ana Navarro offered a take reflected by a slice of Hollywood’s donor class, saying, “Until Joe Biden tells me he’s giving up, I’m not giving up on Joe Biden,” adding, “I’m not going to judge Joe Biden on 90 bad minutes.”

Outside Hollywood, some believe Hollywood needs to be less rigid when it comes to backing a presidential candidate. “Funders have the tendency to be sucked into the duopolistic status quo instead of imagining what the future should look like. Now, they have the opportunity to enlist sorely missing vibrant and charismatic voices in a game-changing convention,” says Alexander Heffner, PBS and Bloomberg host who is releasing a new series July 4, “Breaking Bread With Alexander,” which features next-gen U.S. politicians including Gov. Wes Moore and Sen. Raphael Warnock. “It’s a Hollywood dream come true if they realize the urgency of the moment.”

(Marc Malkin and Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.)

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