Most expensive event of reelection campaign is reversal of 2016 criticism
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.”
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.