WASHINGTON – On the night of this spring’s Florida primary, the pastor giving the invocation at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago victory party prayed: “Lord, give Mr. Trump the power to rise above the GOP establishment.”
Turns out the prayer worked. Not only did Trump win the Republican presidential nomination, but two months later, on May 18, Trump signed a deal with the Republican National Committee giving him access to a top-notch fundraising operation after not having had one at all through the primaries.
That same day, Trump’s campaign, now set to receive tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money, finally sent five- and six-figure checks to Trump’s properties for events that had happened months earlier. Meaning that the GOP establishment had not only been defeated, it was now actually paying for that March 15 victory party attended primarily by members of Trump’s Palm Beach country club.
“Any way you slice it, this level of self-dealing looks bad. It looks like a candidate who is pocketing donors' money.”
In all, just shy of $1 million went out the door on May 18. More than $600,000 of that went to Trump-owned businesses, with $423,000 of it going to Mar-a-Lago alone, which hosted that March 15 party, an earlier one on March 1 and a news conference on March 11.
It’s unclear from Federal Election Commission filings what other expenses, if any, that payment covered ― it is listed as “facility rental/catering,” and the resort does not appear to have hosted any other campaign events. Trump’s campaign would not provide an explanation. Had Trump instead chosen to hold those events at the nearby West Palm Beach Marriott, he likely would have spent no more than $45,000 for all three, based on its estimates for catering the number of people who attended his parties.
What’s more, the two-month delay in reporting those expenses may have violated Federal Election Commission rules, which require an expense to be disclosed in the same reporting period ― in Trump’s case, in the same month ― as it was incurred, said a campaign finance law expert.
“It’s such a scam.”
“It doesn’t look right, even if it is legal,” said Paul S. Ryan from the Campaign Legal Center watchdog group. He called Trump’s heavy spending on his own properties “unprecedented” and said the timing of the payments is curious. “Any way you slice it, this level of self-dealing looks bad,” he said. “It looks like a candidate who is pocketing donors’ money.”
Increased scrutiny of Trump’s spending patterns could not come at a worse time for the developer-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential nominee. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has announced that she and her party raised $143 million in the month of August, a figure that could dwarf the amount pulled in by Trump and the RNC.
Both anti-Trump Republicans and RNC members supporting Trump said most GOP donors probably don’t know the details about how Trump’s campaign is spending their money.
“I think they’re only vaguely aware,” said Florida strategist Rick Wilson. “It’s Putinesque.”
“It’s such a scam,” added Stuart Stevens, a top aide to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
One RNC member and GOP donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the nominee, offered this joking defense of Trump’s propensity to spend campaign dollars at his own properties: “Great business guy.”
RNC Donor Money Meant A Windfall For Trump Businesses
It is the new prominence of donors’ money that casts Trump’s campaign spending in a radically different light since the signing of that joint fundraising agreement in May. Even as Trump has skimped on traditional expenses like campaign staff or advertising, he has spent campaign money lavishly on his own businesses.
During the primaries, Trump paid about three-quarters of his campaign expenses out of his own pocket, with much of the rest coming from the sale of hats and other campaign merchandise. But since the Republican Party turned over its fundraising operation to him, Trump’s own contributions to his campaign have fallen off while money from donors, both large and small, has accounted for the bulk of what is spent.
“In the final months of the primary campaign, Trump’s own money accounted for 82 percent of the campaign’s cash. Since securing the nomination, that figure is down to 12 percent.”
In the final five months of the primary campaign, when Trump sensed that the party establishment was trying to prevent him from winning the nomination, he spent an average of $7.6 million of his own money each month. In the three months after locking down his nomination, he has kicked in an average of $2.6 million, with only $2 million in July, the last month on file.
In the final months of the primary campaign, Trump’s own money accounted for 82 percent of the campaign’s cash. Since securing the nomination, that figure is down to 12 percent, according to a Huffington Post review of FEC filings.
And with that dramatic shift to donors’ money has come a dramatic increase in the number and size of checks flowing to Trump’s businesses.
Prior to that May 18 deal, Trump had sent only a single five-figure payment to one of his golf clubs: $25,927 on Jan. 26 to Trump National Doral in Miami, where he had earlier staged a rally. Since the deal was signed, there have been a half-dozen such checks.
Trump’s golf club in West Palm Beach received $29,715 on May 18. The only campaign event there was an election night “victory” party on March 5. His golf club in Jupiter received $35,845, while the only campaign event at that location was the victory party on March 8, where he displayed “Trump” steaks and other products. Both were attended mainly by dues-paying members of his clubs, rather than staff and volunteers, as is common with most campaigns as a way to reward them for their work.
Trump Restaurants LLC, which operates eateries in Trump Tower, also got a May 18 check for $125,080 for unspecified “rent and utilities.”
But the biggest winner on that date was Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, which received $423,372, even though the only campaign events at the property appear to have been the two victory parties and the news conference announcing the endorsement of former rival Ben Carson, all in the first two weeks of March.
“The biggest winner on that date was Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, which received $423,372.”
The Trump campaign would not provide any information on what other services may have been provided for all that money, despite repeated requests from The Huffington Post and an initial promise to look into the payments.
The preference for spending big at his own properties has continued since the RNC fundraising deal was signed. On July 29, for example, Trump’s campaign paid $48,240 to his golf club in Briarcliff Manor, New York, for “facility rental and catering.” The only campaign event there had been Trump’s June 7 party celebrating his wins in California and New Jersey that formally gave him enough delegates for the nomination.
And Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, received $21,330 on June 30. The only campaign-related events that appear to have taken place there in that time period are meetings between Trump and would-be vice presidential candidates.
A Pattern Of Needless, Excessive Spending
In all of these cases, Trump chose his own properties and likely spent substantially more than he would have had he chosen nearby venues.
For the March 5 and March 8 victory parties, for example, Trump instead could have held the events at the West Palm Beach Marriott, only 5 miles from one of his Palm Beach County golf clubs and 15 miles from the other. It would have cost the campaign about $15,000 for an open bar and light hors d’oeuvres for about 200 people, the approximate attendance at those events, according to a catering manager at the hotel.
Instead of spending $48,000 at his club in Westchester County, New York, Trump could have used a ballroom at the Westchester Marriott 9 miles away. The likely cost there: approximately $20,000, said that hotel’s director of catering.
Renting hotels or banquet halls is what campaigns typically do for victory parties ― and it is what Trump has done when he owns nothing nearby. His celebration of his New Hampshire primary win on Feb. 8, for instance, was catered by The Yard restaurant in Manchester and took place at its affiliated banquet facility a few hundred feet away. Trump’s FEC filing for that period shows that the restaurant was paid $15,574 the following day.
“Trump’s preference for expensive venues that he happens to own has also extended to his campaign airplane.”
Trump’s preference for expensive venues that he happens to own has also extended to his campaign airplane: his 25-year-old 757 jetliner that, thanks to its older, less efficient engines, burns some $10,000 in fuel every hour. That helped Trump rack up among the highest travel costs of all the presidential candidates, despite having kept one of the lightest campaign schedules.
If Trump had used his smaller Cessna business jet (he does, on occasion, when his destination does not have a runway long enough to accommodate the 757), he could have cut his $5.6 million in private air travel costs thus far in half.
While general election candidates typically do switch to using chartered airliners, they have defrayed the costs by letting their traveling press corps fly with them and then billing them for their share of the expense. Trump, instead, has flown only with a few staff members, with the media flying in a separate chartered jet.
Trump’s fondness for returning to his Manhattan penthouse every night has also added to his expenses. Instead of staying overnight on the campaign trail, Trump has almost always flown back to New York – spending on average tens of thousands of dollars in jet fuel rather than a few thousand dollars for a block of hotel rooms.
These large, needless expenses mirror the nearly fivefold rent increase Trump began charging his campaign for office space at his Trump Tower in Manhattan, even as his campaign staff actually shrank from its primary season peak.
For more than a year, Trump’s campaign workers had been using spare space on the building’s fifth floor – a few rooms that once had been a back office for the set of “The Apprentice,” which starred Trump. With its unfinished ceilings and makeshift drywall partitions, the space would have been difficult if not impossible for Trump to rent to paying tenants.
But Trump could have used space on the 15th or 17th floors that the building had actually had on the market during that period, but chose not to ― that is, until the RNC deal was signed. At that point, the campaign moved into larger quarters, including the 15th floor, and ramped up its rent payments from $35,500 a month to $170,000 a month.
After The Huffington Post published a report about the rent increase, the campaign said that it had to up the rent because it planned to hire more staff in the coming weeks. But over the time of the rent increases, Trump’s staff actually decreased before slightly increasing again. At the end of July, it still remained below its high point in March.
In any event, Trump could have chosen much cheaper office space in New York. The going rate in his midtown neighborhood is about $70 per square foot annually, compared to the $90-$120 per square foot that Trump Tower charges.
Or Trump could have gone to Queens or Brooklyn for his campaign headquarters, like the Clinton campaign did. It rents two floors in a Brooklyn Heights office building for about $32 per square foot.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.