Wealthy donors

Most ex­pen­sive event of re­elec­tion cam­paign is re­ver­sal of 2016 crit­i­cism

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOSH DAWSEY AND MICHELLE YE HEE LEE [email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com

Pres­i­dent Trump is set to head­line a $580,600-per-cou­ple din­ner.

Pres­i­dent Trump will be the guest of honor at a Satur­day fundraiser at the pala­tial Palm Beach es­tate of bil­lion­aire Nel­son Peltz. Trump’s fel­low guests: donors who gave $580,600 per cou­ple to sup­port the pres­i­dent’s re­elec­tion, mak­ing it the most ex­pen­sive such fundrais­ing event since Trump took of­fice.

The din­ner, tak­ing place just a few miles from Trump’s Mar-aLago Club, shows how en­thu­si­as­ti­cally Trump has em­braced big­dol­lar fundrais­ing in his bid for a sec­ond term — a dra­matic about­face from 2016, when he crit­i­cized the in­flu­ence of wealthy donors on the politi­cians who court them.

It also shows the spe­cial ac­cess en­joyed by many of Trump’s wealth­i­est donors, in­clud­ing business ex­ec­u­tives and lob­by­ists, who get the chance to air their griev­ances with the pres­i­dent’s tar­iffs or pro­mote their pet projects, of­ten while dining on Trump’s fa­vorite foods.

Since Oc­to­ber 2017, Trump has at­tended at least 48 in­ti­mate gath­er­ings with the Repub­li­can Party’s elite donors, in­clud­ing din­ners or round­table dis­cus­sions, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis of his fundrais­ing sched­ule. Tick­ets to these events can range from $50,000 to six fig­ures per per­son.

Repub­li­can of­fi­cials note that pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents also raised large amounts from wealthy people and that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama reg­u­larly held small din­ners with top donors.

“Pres­i­dent Trump is the most ac­ces­si­ble pres­i­dent in history, both with the press and with sup­port­ers. These round­tables, which pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents at­tended as well, are an op­por­tu­nity for our sup­port­ers to get an up­date on the cam­paign and his record as pres­i­dent, all things the pres­i­dent dis­cusses pub­licly all the time,” said Mike Reed, a spokesman for the RNC.

But they go against the pres­i­dent’s rhetoric from the 2016 cam­paign, when he rode a pop­ulist wave into Wash­ing­ton vow­ing to “drain the swamp.” Back then, he de­nounced the chase for wealthy back­ers and crit­i­cized his op­po­nents for do­ing so, say­ing it made can­di­dates be­holden to donors and declar­ing it was “not going to hap­pen with me.”

“Some­body gives them money — not any­thing wrong — just psy­cho­log­i­cally when they go to that per­son, they’re going to do it,” he said in a Jan­uary 2016 CNN in­ter­view. “They owe them.”

He has re­peat­edly said that New York politi­cians are in­debted to him be­cause he gave them large checks.

Now, he has adopted a take-al­lcomers ap­proach to rais­ing money — from wealthy back­ers and low-dollar givers alike — and has built a his­tor­i­cally large re­elec­tion money ma­chine that has al­lowed his cam­paign to leap ahead as Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates squab­ble over the ap­pro­pri­ate role of wealthy donors in pol­i­tics.

The pres­i­dent and the Repub­li­can Party have as­sem­bled a for­mi­da­ble war chest, with about $200 mil­lion on hand as of last month for the gen­eral-elec­tion fight, party of­fi­cials said.

Those who seek to re­duce the role of wealthy donors in pol­i­tics said Trump’s em­brace of the world of wealthy po­lit­i­cal donors con­tra­dicts his prom­ise to his voters and fu­els the same frus­tra­tions they were re­ject­ing when they elected him.

“He’s un­der­cut­ting the spirit of the en­ergy that he’s help­ing fo­ment, by hang­ing out with and pos­si­bly do­ing the bid­ding of the wealthy and spe­cial in­ter­ests,” said Nick Pen­ni­man, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Is­sue One, a bipartisan group work­ing to re­duce the in­flu­ence of wealthy in­ter­ests on pol­i­tics.

“You’ve got to won­der now if the Trump pres­i­dency is the con­tin­u­a­tion of the kind of oli­garchy that many people think is tak­ing over in Amer­ica, or whether or not it is a cor­rec­tive mea­sure like many people thought it would be,” Pen­ni­man added.

A spokes­woman for Peltz’s com­pany — he is an in­vestor worth $1.7 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Forbes — did not re­spond to re­quests for comment. His 13-acre beach­front es­tate lined with hedges was worth $94.9 mil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Palm Beach Post.

An in­vi­ta­tion ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post for the $580,600 din­ner says the price in­cludes a photo with the pres­i­dent and lists other GOP big­wigs ex­pected to be in at­ten­dance.

The din­ner is ex­pected to at­tract about 30 people and raise more than $10 mil­lion for the pres­i­dent’s re­elec­tion com­mit­tee and the party, ac­cord­ing to an RNC of­fi­cial. Oth­ers on the guest list are Ike Perl­mut­ter, a Trump friend and chair­man of Marvel En­ter­tain­ment, and Louis De­joy, fundrais­ing chair for the 2020 Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with knowl­edge of the gath­er­ing, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the event is pri­vate.

Though it is the most ex­pen­sive such event Trump has head­lined for the party, other pricey gath­er­ings are planned as the elec­tion nears.

In­ter­views with people who have at­tended these fundraiser­s say the pres­i­dent is highly en­gaged, con­ver­sa­tional and charm­ing. Trump of­ten asks the guests what they need from the ad­min­is­tra­tion — but not be­fore tick­ing off dozens of ac­com­plish­ments in ex­tended open­ing re­marks.

The con­ver­sa­tions are of­ten held over a meal of the pres­i­dent’s fa­vorite dishes, such as New York strip steak with a dessert of two scoops of vanilla ice cream, served on or­nate place set­tings. Un­like many politi­cians who leave their food un­touched, at­ten­dees say Trump usually eats.

The round­tables are typ­i­cally side events to less ex­pen­sive fundraiser­s in­volv­ing a larger group of people. The pres­i­dent of­ten ar­rives through a side door re­served for him, greets the crowd leisurely, takes photos and then veers off to a smaller room for an in­ti­mate round­table with the top-tiered donors, said one donor who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate set­tings.

Dan Eber­hart, a donor who has at­tended sev­eral round­tables fea­tur­ing the pres­i­dent, re­calls one gath­er­ing where Trump made a show of prais­ing an at­tendee wear­ing a Trump-branded tie.

Though Trump ap­pears to en­joy him­self, he has com­plained about vis­it­ing so many houses of people he did not know, said a for­mer White House of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate dis­cus­sions. Since then, more events have taken place at a friend’s home or at one of his prop­er­ties, the per­son said. Trump con­sid­ers Peltz a friend.

But the op­por­tu­nity to have close in­ter­ac­tions with the pres­i­dent is a par­tic­u­lar perk en­joyed by at­ten­dees with agen­das.

“Trump wants to talk about the news of the day and per­son­al­i­ties,” Eber­hart said. “The donors want to talk about poli­cies and what’s af­fect­ing them.”

At a Texas round­table at the stately Belo Man­sion in Dal­las, donor Doug Dea­son, the or­ga­nizer of the event and sev­eral oth­ers, said sup­port­ers spoke with the pres­i­dent about en­ergy and oil policy while of­fer­ing sup­port for his dereg­u­la­tion agenda. The room was packed with Texas Repub­li­can business fig­ures.

“People say, look, these kinds of reg­u­la­tions are kick­ing my butt. And then Trump responds that he un­der­stands and is ide­o­log­i­cally with you,” Eber­hart said.

Lev Par­nas and Igor Fru­man, the two in­dicted as­so­ciates of pres­i­den­tial lawyer Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani who, ac­cord­ing to Par­nas, dis­cussed the Ukrainian am­bas­sador with Trump, gained ac­cess to the pres­i­dent at two sep­a­rate such events in 2018 af­ter promis­ing to do­nate $1 mil­lion. Trump later fired the am­bas­sador, Marie Yo­vanovitch, who be­came a cen­tral fig­ure in the im­peach­ment. Their com­pany ended up do­nat­ing $325,000 to the su­per PAC sup­port­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­elec­tion.

Some donors dis­puted the idea that at­ten­dees at these gath­er­ings have spe­cial pull with the pres­i­dent.

“I just don’t see it. [Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials] pay more at­ten­tion to maybe the Cham­ber of Com­merce [and other business groups], pay more at­ten­tion to the source of ac­tual votes, than they do to some in­di­vid­ual who’s giv­ing a lot of money,” said the donor, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate dis­cus­sions.

One lob­by­ist, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, said he told sev­eral clients that it did not make sense to pay for the events — be­cause it would not solve their po­lit­i­cal is­sues and would put them on the radar screen for news cov­er­age.

Donors who turn up reg­u­larly at these events say they have de­vel­oped a ca­ma­raderie. But ev­ery once in a while, a new donor at­tends and asks a ques­tion that is “an­noy­ing” to the rest be­cause it re­lates too specif­i­cally to that per­son’s business, said one donor, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate set­tings.

“What do I care about the drilling rights in freak­ing Kansas, or a par­tic­u­lar per­mit, or some­thing? These are broader au­di­ences and broader par­tic­i­pants,” the donor said.

“There’s al­ways some­one in the group who is ask­ing him to stop tar­iffs,” Dea­son said. “They’ll say, ‘No, you’re killing me on this.’ A lot of people are wor­ried about them­selves and they are wor­ried about their par­tic­u­lar in­dus­try. A lot of people are con­cerned about how this or that might af­fect them.”

Trump of­ten refers such re­quests to his staff and se­nior aides. Se­nior staffers some­times in­ter­ject and offer to talk to the donors later.

“What he doesn’t like is some­one push­ing for a con­tract for a par­tic­u­lar com­pany,” Dea­son said of Trump. “It just re­ally frus­trates him.”

On a record­ing of one of the fundraiser­s re­leased by a lawyer for Par­nas last month, a steel ex­ec­u­tive can be heard press­ing the pres­i­dent on re­mov­ing tar­iffs. An­other donor can be heard pitch­ing the pres­i­dent on his Korean golf course for a po­ten­tial sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Guests are not al­lowed to bring their phones in any­more, GOP of­fi­cials said, for fear that they will record the dis­cus­sion.

Aside from a cur­sory Se­cret Ser­vice check, the White House does not vet guests, cam­paign and White House of­fi­cials said.

At one event, Dea­son said he en­cour­aged the pres­i­dent to tell Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment to ease off Iraqi Chris­tians in Michi­gan, ar­gu­ing that it could hurt his elec­tion chances in a re­elec­tion year. Dea­son said he en­cour­aged Trump to be more pos­i­tive to­ward His­panic au­di­ences in his tweets.

But the tone at the events is pre­dom­i­nantly jovial. He of­ten calls out note­wor­thy donors — such as oil mag­nate Harold Hamm, or Paul Singer, a New York bil­lion­aire who orig­i­nally did not sup­port him — for be­ing so rich. Dea­son said that White House staffers on sev­eral oc­ca­sions made a slash­ing sign for the pres­i­dent to wrap up but that Trump wanted to keep talk­ing. “He would say, ‘ One more ques­tion, one more ques­tion,’ ” Dea­son said.

Eber­hart, an oil ex­ec­u­tive, said that the op­por­tu­nity to speak di­rectly to the pres­i­dent was just an added bonus for be­ing a donor to the party and that he would have given money any­way.

“I want that ide­ol­ogy to pre­vail,” he said. “It’s very en­er­giz­ing to be in the room with the people who have mo­men­tum on the causes you be­lieve in.”

PA­TRICK T. FAL­LON/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The Satur­day fundraiser will be held at the Palm Beach es­tate of Nel­son Peltz, an in­vestor worth $1.7 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Forbes. An in­vi­ta­tion says the event in­cludes a photo with the pres­i­dent.

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