President Trump, who is fond of dining at his Trump International Hotel near the White House, will have some company Wednesday — a roomful of people who paid as much as $35,000 or $100,000 each to be there.
The money will go to two joint fundraising operations — Trump Victory, which will take in large donations and Trump Make America Great Again Committee for smaller-dollar donors.
When Trump Victory started sending out invitations four weeks ago, it announced the price points, but kept the venue secret until a prospect had RSVP'd.
"There's nothing flat-out illegal about it, but it's pay-to-play," said Richard Painter, former White House ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration and a critic of Trump's ethical standards. "The appearances are terrible."
Trump has merged two problems — first, Painter points to the usual Washington practice of powerful officeholders selling access to big donors; and second, the new opportunity for interest groups to steer cash to his businesses.
The fundraiser is emblematic of the way Trump has seemed to close a circle of politics, money and influence unlike any past president. During the campaign, some of Trump's companies did business with his campaign. It paid $8.7 million, for example, to TAG Air (the Trump company that owns most of his airplanes) and $2 million to Trump Tower, the building where he housed the campaign headquarters. His private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, received $435,000. Even Trump Ice, his bottled water brand, got $3,000.
In total, $1 out of every $10 that went into his presidential campaign went back to Trump in some way, and $1 out of every $5 Trump donated found its way back Trump brands and properties.
In the White House, Trump uses his properties for official business, and they appear to profit from it. Over the winter, he spent many weekends at Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida, sometimes meeting with foreign leaders while club members looked on. The club doubled its annual dues to $200,000 and appears to have upped its revenue.
Trump's 2016 personal financial disclosure showed Mar-a-Lago had revenues of 29.8 million; in 2017, it went up to $37.3 million. (The two reporting periods are not identical, and overlap for several months, so a direct comparison can't be made.)
When Trump International opened for business last fall, a few blocks from the White House, it initially faltered. But after Trump moved into the White House, it became a go-to spot for foreign diplomats and interest groups to hold events.
Earlier this month, Justice Department filings revealed that the hotel benefited from $270,000 in payments tied to Saudi Arabia. (After news broke of the payments, the Trump Organization said it would donate the funds at the end of the year.)
Now, for the first time, Trump is explicitly using Trump International to solicit money to hold onto the presidency. The individual ticket price is $35,000; joining the host committee costs $100,000 (some of it presumably coming from donors invited by a host committee member). And Trump Make America Great Again has been raffling off a small number of tickets, plus accommodations and round-trip travel.
Together, Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again raised $372.1 million to elect Trump in 2016, and $9.9 million in the first three months of this year, according to Federal Election Commission reports. (As joint fundraising committees, they distribute their income mainly to the RNC and Donald J. Trump For President.)
The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign did not respond to queries about the event.
"All it takes is a contribution of $1 or more," the TMAGA event email says.
The fine print at the bottom says, "No purchase, payment or contribution necessary to win. Contributing will not improve your chances of winning."