WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign last year spent over a half-million dollars for Trump Tower offices ― a choice that put donors’ money into the president’s pocket, but provided workspace for at most a handful of staff.
According to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, the monthly rent was more than what candidate Trump had been charging from June 2015 to March 2016, back when he was largely self-funding his campaign and when there were, on average, several dozen employees in the midtown Manhattan office.
And while it is unclear why Trump’s re-election campaign has rented so much room for so few people, its decision to do so has helped fill office space that appears to have become much more difficult to rent out since Trump won the presidency.
Neither the campaign nor the Trump Organization would say how many square feet the campaign is currently leasing or what it is paying per square foot. On the commercial market, however, the building has been forced to drop its prices dramatically.
Trump Tower had been charging $120 per square foot per year in 2016 – about 50 percent more than the going rate in midtown Manhattan. Today, the asking price is down to $80 a square foot, according to a New York City real estate broker, and there is plenty of space available, including the entire 14th floor where Trump had his campaign headquarters for the 2016 general election.
“He is really unpopular,” said the broker, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
“There’s nobody there. It’s like two guys. There is no campaign. There is no operation. It’s just a joke.”
One Republican consultant close to the White House who is familiar with the office and its workload laughed when asked about the expense.
“There’s nobody there. It’s like two guys,” the consultant said on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the leader of his party. “There is no campaign. There is no operation. It’s just a joke.”
According to those FEC filings, Trump’s campaign sent paychecks to a total of 21 people over the course of last year. Ten left at the end of January 2017. Two more received their last paycheck in mid-March. Only six collected a paycheck at the end of December, and one of those now has an auto-response email stating that she left the campaign this January.
No one on the campaign staff at year’s end responded to HuffPost emails. The campaign’s phone number provided an email address for media inquiries, but emails sent there were returned as undeliverable. A security guard in the Trump Tower lobby turned away a HuffPost reporter who tried to visit the campaign office on Tuesday. Eventually, a public relations business owner in Northern Virginia replied to a query that had been sent to newly named campaign manager Brad Parscale’s social media and data analytics firm in San Antonio, Texas.
“Brad is not currently available for interviews,” wrote Mark Serrano of ProActive Communications. “He is working with the campaign leadership team to develop plans to engage in the 2018 midterm elections, providing support and endorsements for candidates, and engaging Trump supporters in districts and states throughout the country to support and vote for GOP candidates.”
‘It’s What You Signed Up For’
Trump opened his re-election campaign account on the day of his inauguration last year, which enabled him to continue using donor money to rent space in his own building. No other presidential victor has kept his campaign alive in this fashion. Barack Obama did not start his re-election campaign until April 2011. George W. Bush did not start his until May of 2003.
Stuart Stevens, a GOP consultant who worked on the campaign of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, said donors should not be shocked that Trump is spending their money this way. “This is the least surprising president in history. He’s exactly the same person he was in the campaign,” Stevens said. “It’s what you signed up for.”
Trump made a practice of spending donor money at properties that he owned from the time he locked up the GOP nomination in the spring of 2016. The rent on the Trump Tower offices nearly quintupled, from $35,458 to $169,758 a month by July 2016, even though the number of campaign staff remained about the same. Trump also spent hundreds of thousands of donated dollars at his hotels and golf clubs, where he hosted fundraisers for himself and the party.
That habit continued into the first year of his presidency. With control of the Republican National Committee’s purse strings, Trump started to personally profit from contributions to that group as well.
In 2017, the RNC spent $232,042 at Trump International Hotel in Washington, $3,000 at Trump’s golf club in Miami and $1,228 at Trump Café in Trump Tower. The RNC also took over the monthly $37,542 rent payment for the re-election campaign’s space at Trump Tower in mid-autumn, spending a total of $150,169 by the end of the year. In the same period, it began paying the salary for campaign staffer John Pence, nephew to Vice President Mike Pence, which amounted to $28,412 by year’s end.
The RNC did not respond to questions about why it took over the latter expenses. The move did coincide with the party’s decision to no longer pay the president’s legal expenses incurred as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia (the timing was first noted by CNBC).
Trump Likes To Pay Trump
Trump’s campaign has been even more generous at his properties in 2017 than the RNC. It spent $473,371 for rent at Trump Tower before that cost was shifted to the party, although about $150,000 of that was likely for the month immediately after his election, when the campaign was occupying more space in the building. The campaign also spent $58,686 at Trump’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida, and $14,860 at his hotel in Las Vegas. In all, the Trump campaign spent $774,163 in donor money at Trump-branded businesses last year.
What exactly the campaign has done to work toward Trump’s re-election is less clear. It staged several rallies in states that the president had won in 2016, including one in Melbourne, Florida, not even a month after he took office. It continued to pay Parscale’s firm an average of $474,000 a month.
The GOP consultant who believes there are only a few campaign staffers working at the Trump Tower headquarters said that Parscale was named to his new job last week only because the president hoped to draw attention away from the news that son-in-law Jared Kushner had lost his top-secret security clearance.
“They knew the bad stuff was coming. It was a media spin play,” the consultant said, adding that Parscale would certainly be replaced by someone else following the midterm elections this fall. “He’s a great guy. But he doesn’t know anything about politics. He knows about digital marketing.”
HuffPost reporter Nina Golgowski contributed to this report.