‘It’s Not 2016 Anymore’: Trump Finds Friends in Silicon Valley

One March night in the nation’s capital, Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, left a conservative gala to join a group having dinner with Donald Trump Jr.

As the meal wrapped, Mr. Vance decided, on a whim, to invite a friend, whom he had just introduced at the gala dinner, to meet the former president’s son. Soon, the three Republicans — Mr. Vance, Mr. Trump Jr. and Mr. Vance’s friend, David Sacks, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur — were getting to know one another for a half-hour or so in a private dining room of the Conrad Hotel.

It was there, at that impromptu post-dinner hang hours after Mr. Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, that Mr. Sacks signaled that he was all-in for Trump 2024.

On Thursday evening, this time on his own California turf, it was Mr. Sacks’s turn to host Team Trump. The former president himself flew to San Francisco to attend a fund-raiser at Mr. Sacks’s $20 million home on the toniest street in the city’s tony Pacific Heights neighborhood. The private event, the first campaign fund-raiser since Mr. Trump’s criminal conviction last week, was expected to raise north of $12 million, according to people involved in the gathering.

Beyond the money, the fund-raiser in the beating heart of the liberal tech industry was also in some ways a landmark event, at least symbolically.

Four years ago, and certainly eight years ago, the Bay Area remained a haven for liberalism and offered little support for Mr. Trump. But that Obama-era bonhomie between Silicon Valley and the Democratic Party has come close to disintegrating. These days, entrepreneurs complain as much about President Biden as they do about Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, who has ascended to Darth Vader-like status in some corners of the technology industry.

To be sure, most of the tech industry’s elite maintain their liberal leanings on everything from immigration to climate change. Mr. Biden made his own trip to Silicon Valley last month, where he raised millions of dollars and was feted by internet icons, including Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist, and Marissa Mayer, the former Yahoo chief executive. But times have changed, and Republicans on a national level see an opportunity to make incursions with wealthy entrepreneurs who have drifted rightward following the Covid pandemic and the resistance to the social-justice movements of 2020.

“It’s safe to say that there’s a wellspring of support in Silicon Valley,” Mr. Sacks wrote in a text to The New York Times, “especially given the backlash to the political prosecution of Trump.”

Mr. Sacks had expressed a desire to friends to make the San Francisco event something of a statement. He hoped to portray Silicon Valley as a changed place — and San Francisco as no longer the liberal mecca of the Grateful Dead and Allen Ginsberg.

Over the last few years, Mr. Sacks, a longtime associate of Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, has transformed from a prominent Silicon Valley executive into an unlikely media celebrity for would-be entrepreneurs, especially those leaning right, who listen to his popular “All-In” podcast. He has also substantially increased his political involvement, hiring aides to steer his giving, setting up his own super PACs and, as of late, building relationships at Mr. Trump’s Florida home base, Mar-a-Lago, links to which he lacked just a few months ago.

“There’s a ton more latitude that people feel like they have now,” said Saurabh Sharma, the head of a conservative advocacy group called American Moment, which hosted the gala featuring Mr. Sacks and Mr. Vance. “It’s not 2016 anymore.”

The trip to San Francisco was Mr. Trump’s first visit to the famously left-wing city in at least a decade. The former president has called San Francisco “horrible,” “filthy” and “drug-infested,” and he has often invoked its homegrown political figures, such as Gov. Gavin Newsom and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as exemplars of what he sees as liberal excesses.

Some attendees of Mr. Sacks’s event flew in from out of town. The event at his home — nicknamed the Broadcliff by him and his wife, Jacqueline — had sold out of its two ticket levels, $50,000 per person and $300,000 per person. Several people who belatedly expressed interest in going learned they would be unable to do so. Later, over the weekend, Mr. Trump will be hosted in Orange County in Southern California by another tech entrepreneur, Palmer Luckey, a former Facebook executive who went on to co-found the defense tech company Anduril.

People involved in the San Francisco fund-raiser said the roughly $12 million they expected to raise will beat their initial goal of about $5 million. About 25 people were expected to attend the dinner, and about another 50 or so were slated to attend a bigger reception. Mr. Trump flew to the event Thursday night from Arizona, where he took part in a town hall in Phoenix, his first campaign event since his criminal conviction.

San Francisco police cordoned off several blocks surrounding Mr. Sacks’s home, while a small group of Trump supporters rallied outside the barricades, waving flags and occasionally trading insults with passers-by. Attendees of the dinner arrived in S.U.V.s with tinted windows, some waving to the gathering as they drove past.

A few of the more famous Silicon Valley Republicans skipped the event. Mr. Thiel, who has been in Europe this week for the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group, was not expected to attend, according to two people familiar with his plans. Neither was the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, a person familiar with his plans said. Keith Rabois, a prominent G.O.P. donor and an early PayPal executive alongside Mr. Sacks and Mr. Thiel, wasn’t there — but his husband, Jacob Helberg, was, along with his guest, Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee.

The fund-raiser drew heavily from leaders in the crypto industry. Ryan Selkis, a politically active crypto entrepreneur, told people he planned to attend. The industry has taken a recent beating from Mr. Biden, whose veto last week of a crypto-friendly bill drove a few attendees to the Trump gathering, according to a person involved in the event.

“As opposed to an event in Palm Beach, where it’s more likely a bunch of wealthy people who want to go to France or England, this event is a little bit more about the business community saying, ‘Enough,’” said Trevor Traina, a former ambassador to Austria under Mr. Trump. A friend of Mr. Sacks, Mr. Traina planned to attend the event.

Mr. Sacks has had two primary sources of help.

The first has been Chamath Palihapitiya, an early executive at AOL and Facebook, who is now one of Mr. Sacks’s so-called “besties” on their joint podcast and a former large donor to Democrats. The other is Mr. Vance, the Ohio senator who lived briefly in San Francisco and worked as a venture capitalist at one of Mr. Thiel’s firms. At the fund-raiser on Thursday evening, Mr. Sacks saluted Mr. Vance and said that without his help, the event would have never happened. Mr. Vance, who was also at the event, co-founded a donor network popular with some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, called the Rockbridge Network, and he was deeply involved in urging his friends in the industry to turn out for the gathering.

Mr. Vance has called Mr. Sacks “one of his closest confidants” in politics. Mr. Sacks helped launch Gov. Ron DeSantis’s failed presidential bid alongside Mr. Musk on X in early 2023 and was slow to embrace Mr. Trump. Mr. Sacks said in the aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, that the riot at the Capitol had disqualified Mr. Trump from serving in elected office, but Mr. Vance then spent upward of a year trying to change Mr. Sacks’s mind.

Mr. Sacks has expressed to friends that he no longer thinks that being a Trump supporter in Silicon Valley is so provocative.

During Mr. Trump’s last trip to Silicon Valley for fund-raising in the fall of 2019, organizers worked hard to disguise the host of the event, out of fear of a backlash, not informing guests of the precise location until very close to the day of the fund-raiser. Nowadays, Trump supporters in tech take pride — a sign in itself. Ron Conway, a leader of liberal tech executives for decades, has grown alarmed by the trend and encouraged a few friends to skip the event, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Other Democratic veterans in tech have even questioned the hosts privately and effectively asked them if they had lost their minds.

Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California who has worked in politics for decades, called the pro-Trump cohort of Republican givers “true, new gladiators.”

“I gave up on Silicon Valley years ago,” Mr. Steel said. “There’s been a transformation — real money is coming.”

Mr. Sacks had expressed an interest in turning the event into a content-creation opportunity, perhaps by pulling out microphones for a live taping of Mr. Sacks’s and Mr. Palihapitiya’s podcast. That plan was scuttled. Still, the paper invitation to donors was sure to attach a rather specific honorific atop the names of these two professional venture capitalists: “All-In Co-Hosts.”

Kate Conger contributed reporting.

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