Earlier this month, the hashtag #WendysIsOverParty went viral on Twitter after Business Insider reported in May that James Bodenstedt, CEO of Muy! Companies, an owner of Wendy's, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises, had donated more than $400,000 to Donald Trump's reelection campaign. At the time of the reporting, Bodenstedt was set to join a roundtable discussion hosted by Trump on how to reopen the restaurant industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With mass actions against the police killing of George Floyd as the backdrop, the outcry mounted against what many perceived as Wendy's ties to President Trump, who has berated and tear-gassed protesters, encouraged police violence, and defended participants in the 2017 "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as "very fine people."
Wendy's responded to the public relations fracas by denying it has made any contributions to Trump. "We never have and will never contribute to a presidential campaign," Wendy's tweeted. "For the record our CEO has always kept that same energy too. Facts."
But Wendy's downplaying of its ties to Trump is disingenuous. First, corporations are legally prohibited from making campaign donations. Second, while it may be technically true that Wendy's and its CEO have never donated to Trump or any other presidential campaign, this is only half the story. The real power behind Wendy's is its top owner, the hedge fund Trian Partners, and Trian's billionaire CEO, Nelson Peltz, who is the chairman of Wendy's board of directors.
In sum: The Twitter wave that went after Wendy's Trump ties wasn't wrong — it just focused on the wrong guy.
Wendy's, Nelson Peltz and Trump
Trian Partners is a hedge fund that oversees $6.9 billion in assets as of June 2020. One of Trian's flagship portfolio companies is Wendy's. According to Wendy's most recent proxy filing, Trian and its executives are, by far, the fast food chain's top owners. Far from being a passive investor, Peltz has a reputation for being a hands-on, activist owner, with Trian occupying board seats and exercising influence over its companies.
Indeed, Trian Partners plays an active governing role over Wendy's. Trian CEO and Founding Partner, Nelson Peltz, is the Chairman of Wendy's board, while Trian President and Founding Partner Peter W. May is Wendy's Vice-Chairman. Matthew Peltz — Nelson Peltz's son — also sits on the board. Trian also has ties to other Wendy's board members.
While Wendy's has downplayed its ties to Trump, Nelson Peltz is a major donor and fundraiser for Trump, and the two are personal friends. Peltz has personally donated $185,800 to the Trump campaign since June 2016, including three donations of $25,000 apiece to Trump Victory, the Trump campaign's joint fundraising committee with the Republican National Committee, and $100,000 to Trump's Inauguration Committee. (In previous reporting, we have cited the $85,800 that Peltz donated to Trump that shows up in Federal Election Commission search results. OpenSecrets.org reports an additional $100,000 that Peltz donated to Trump's inauguration committee which can be seen in the committee's "Report of Donors Accepted.")
Moreover, on February 15, Peltz personally hosted the priciest-ever Trump reelection fundraiser at his Palm Beach, Florida oceanfront estate. The estate, called "Montsorrel," is reported to be worth $136.4 million, and is just a few miles from Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.
The price tag for entry to the Trump fundraiser was $580,600 per couple, and was expected to raise $10 million for Trump Victory. The Washington Post called it "the most expensive such fundraising event since Trump took office."
Trump and Peltz are longtime friends. The Palm Beach Post reports that, according to someone who knows them both, "Trump and Peltz have been friends for over 20 years and Trump was known to stop by Peltz's home, several miles north of Mar-a-Lago, for lunch before Trump was president."
The same day of the Trump fundraiser at Peltz's estate, Peltz attended a Trump press conference on the U.S.-China Phase One Trade Agreement. During his remarks, Trump spoke fondly of Peltz:
Nelson Peltz is here, a friend of mine. Where's Nelson? Nelson is around here someplace. Hi, Nelson. What are you doing sitting all the way back there, Nelson?
While Wendy's has downplayed its Trump ties after facing a social media backlash, it's noteworthy that Trump mentioned Peltz by name during May 6, 2020 remarks. When asked about the meat shortage at Wendy's caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump replied:
I'll have to call Nelson Peltz. I'll have to — I'm going to call Nelson Peltz. He's going to be — they're going to be okay. They'll be all right.
This came just over a week after Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing plants "critical infrastructure," even as cases of COVID-19 skyrocketed at these facilities. Given Wendy's purported meat shortage, this was a measure that the company likely supported.
Moreover, Peltz's close relationship to Trump raises questions over whether Wendy's, in light of its reported meat shortage, benefited from Peltz's access to Trump when it came to the president's decision to order meat plants to stay open, even at the expense of the health of those plants' workers.
Peltz also visited the White House on March 23, 2017, to have lunch with Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in the Presidential Dining Room, according to Politico.
Additionally, Peltz has a history of publicly praising Trump. In January 2018, for example, Peltz praised Trump's tax reform, which has been widely criticized as a giveaway to the wealthy. "I'm a results-oriented guy," said Peltz, "and I'm happy with what he's done. The markets have been great."
In October 2017, The Washington Post also reported that Eli Miller, then Mnuchin's chief of staff, had recently flown to Palm Beach on Peltz's private jet. Miller has since left the Trump administration and is now managing director of government relations for the private equity giant Blackstone Group.
Did Twitter get it all wrong?
All this suggests that the #WendysPartyIsOver viral wave, in focusing on Muy! Companies CEO James Bodenstedt for his huge Trump donations, missed the even more significant ties between Wendy's, at its highest levels of ownership and corporate governance, and Trump.
This was pointed out by the former manager of Wendy's Twitter account, though few outlets covering the #WendysPartyIsOver viral wave dug deeper into — or even mentioned — Nelson Peltz's connection to Trump as the more compelling example of Wendy's-Trump ties.
Moreover, while major media identified Bodenstedt as giving more than $400,000 to Trump since January 2019, his family — namely, his spouse, Deanna Bodenstedt — also gave Trump at least an additional $100,200during that time. The Bodenstedts also gave Trump $151,235 from November 2016 to January 2018. All told, the Bodenstedt family has given at least $651,635 to Trump's electoral efforts from November 2016 to March 2020.
Wendy's responded to public outrage over Bodenstedt's donations to Trump by announcing in early June that it would give $500,000 to "support social justice, the youth and education in the Black community starting with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and we'll have receipts."
But the extent to which Wendy's donation will go toward achieving core demands of the current protest wave — such as defunding the police — is questionable. The chairman of the board of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Charlie Merinoff, has been a member of the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation for over 20 years and currently serves as its treasurer and as "an active member of its Board of Directors," according to his biography page.
The fund also has corporate partners who have bankrolled the conservative right, such as Koch Industries, and numerous banks and corporations, such as Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola, Amazon and others, who fund and sit on the boards of police foundations across the U.S.
Moreover, if Wendy's wants to support racial justice with real accountability, it could show its support for the Brown and Black workers of the fast food industry supply chain by joining the Fair Food Program. For years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a widely lauded human rights organization, has waged a high-profile boycott of Wendy's over its refusal to join the program, which has a proven record of ensuring safer working conditions and higher wages for farmworkers. Brand name companies, such as McDonald's, Walmart, Burger King and Taco Bell are partners with the Fair Food Program — but not Wendy's.
At a time when millions of people are seeking to hold corporate power to account for its support of political and civic structures that uphold police brutality, and as corporations make charitable donations with one hand while propping up these structures with the other, the public needs real access to the whole story around Wendy's ties to elected officials like Trump. If Wendy's wants to be truly transparent, it should address the significant monetary, political and social connections between its top owner and chairman to Trump, and whether it has benefited from these ties.
Copyright © Truthout. Reprinted with permission.