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Donald Trump's all-over-the-place take on big money in politics

Donald Trump warns big donations are ruining politics, but he’s not sure about limiting them.

Dubuque, Iowa Real estate mogul Donald Trump loves to boast about his ability to attract wealth, but lately he’s devoted just as much time to bragging about how he turns away cash from others.

"The week before last a lobbyist, a very good person came to me, offered $5 million, 'Please. I want to give you $5 million for the campaign,’” Trump recounted to reporters before a speech here on Tuesday. “I said ‘I have no interest in taking that.' In fact, I think it's the first time he's ever been turned down."

Trump has worked the anecdote into his speeches and interviews this month, and his take on the corrosive influence of money in politics has emerged as a favorite topic. But he’s so far hesitant to offer any policy prescriptions to curb the issue and has offered up contradictory answers on his own fundraising that suggest he’s more willing to take outside cash than he lets on.

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Asked by msnbc on Tuesday whether he would make any changes to the law to curb the kind of rampant corruption he’s alleged in speeches and interviews, Trump only said he wanted more “transparency” in outside spending and said he was unsure about imposing any limits on campaign spending.

“I’m talking about PACs,” he said. “I got a lot of good friends who like to put money into PACs, many friends, some enemies too … you need to know who's putting up what so when they start making deals in a year or two years or three years, you know what’s happened.”

“He's investing his own money, not taking others' like everyone else.”'

He complained in particular that he didn’t know who was behind super PACs supporting Jeb Bush that have raised more than $100 million. In fact, super PACs do have to disclose their donors and that information is already available, although some nonprofits supporting Bush and other candidates do not disclose donors.

His vague answer was not unusual within the Republican field, but Trump has also raised the issue far more prominently than his rivals have and accused some of them of being a “puppet” controlled by their donors.

“The fact is that whether it's Jeb or Hillary or any of them, they’re all controlled by these people and the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists, and the donors,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

His immigration message and daily feuds get the most attention, but, in conversations with supporters waiting two hours just to hear his remarks, it was striking how many brought up his take on money in politics.

"Trump can speak his mind because he's not backed by these donors who say what he can and can't say,” Travis Klinefelter, a 38-year-old nurse in Dubuque, volunteered. “He's investing his own money, not taking others' like everyone else.”

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"He can take on the big corporations because he doesn't need money from any sources,” Cliff Morgan, a 44-year-old shipping contractor in the area, told msnbc.

"It's great that he's using his own money so nobody can push him around,” said Sharon Hynes, a 75-year-old retiree who drove in from Wisconsin.

Rather than suggest any kind of systemic reforms, however, Trump’s answer to their concerns is to put a benevolent billionaire in charge. He’s not the first self-financed elite to sell himself as above the special interest fray thanks to his wealth — billionaires from Ross Perot on the presidential level to Michael Bloomberg on the mayoral level have done the same. In many ways, it’s a logical byproduct of the current campaign finance system, which is fast becoming dominated by a small coterie of ultra-wealthy individuals.

“You saw my income is almost $500 million a year, if I want to, I can do [spend that] at some point.”'

“I’m not doing anything about raising money, I don’t care about raising money,” he told reporters. “Part of my thing is, frankly, I’m not controlled by anyone, because other people are raising hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Trump’s purported purity, however, is not so clear. The last campaign filing period ended only a couple of weeks into Trump’s campaign and showed him, true to his word, raising minimal campaign funds compared to the rest of the field. So far Trump hasn’t needed much cash — as his competitors often grumble, the amount of attention his antics get in the media is more valuable than tens of millions of dollars in advertising, especially given his current immunity to bad press.

But Trump does have super PACs supporting him that can accept unlimited donations. These outside organizations are not allowed to coordinate with his campaign, but Politico reported that Trump attended a fundraiser for Make America Great Again PAC last month, the kind of move candidates make to signal their approval of an independent group. The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi noted that some of the consultants listed in the PAC’s filings were lobbyists. He told CBS News last week that he would accept donations — even “big contributors” — if there were “no strings attached” and has encouraged small donors to show their support with campaign contributions.

On Tuesday, Trump said he looked forward to major backing from the Republican National Committee should he win the nomination, and that could obviate some of the need to spend as much of his own money.

“You saw my income is almost $500 million a year, if I want to, I can do [spend that] at some point,” he said. “The Republican Party, once you get the nomination, is going to kick in and a lot of money will come in to the campaign.”

Asked whether he would then be beholden to the Republican establishment he’s criticized so often, he responded: “I don’t think so.”

There’s nothing new about decrying the current campaign finance rules while raising gobs of cash. President Obama in 2012 and now Hillary Clinton have given their blessing to super PACs supportive of their campaigns, arguing that while they support overturning the current financing regime, they can’t unilaterally disarm and hope to compete with Republicans. But Trump’s argument is different — he’s made next to no case for any legal reforms and instead argued that his self-financing is what makes him uniquely trustworthy. Raising dollars from big donors, directly or indirectly, undermines that message.  

For what it’s worth, Trump has said he doesn't think scheduled meetings with supporters are fundraisers. To him, they’re merely friendly get-togethers.

“I don’t consider it a fundraiser, in fact, people don’t even have to pay,” he said. “They’re just people who have been supporting me from the beginning, they’re terrific people.”

Trump is attending a $100 per ticket event in Massachusetts on Friday that, according to an invitation obtained by NBC News, asks guests to bring money to donate to his campaign. The Boston Herald reports that the event is set to attract several hundred people. 

Taken together the message is clear: Vote Trump because he doesn’t take big money, don’t trust the other candidates because they do, but if there is a “big contributor” out there willing to donate to Trump out of the goodness of his heart, an exception can be made. As long as America can maintain a steady supply of independently wealthy moguls with Trump’s integrity to run the country, Americans have nothing to worry about when it comes to campaign finance law.   

Additional reporting by Ali Vitali.