WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was whisked a few blocks from the White House to the Trump hotel on Wednesday night for his first re-election fundraiser, where he raised an estimated $10 million behind closed doors.
Some 40 months ahead of the 2020 election, the president held court for about two hours at a $35,000-per-plate donor event at the Trump International Hotel. About 300 people were expected to attend the event, which was expected to raise about $10 million, said Lindsay Jancek, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Security was tight at the hotel, where guests in long gowns and crisp suits began arriving around 5 p.m. But the event also drew critics. The president’s motorcade was greeted by dozens of protesters, who hoisted signs with slogans like “Health care not tax cuts” and chanted “Shame! Shame!”
Among the fundraiser’s attendees: Longtime GOP fundraiser-turned television commentator Mica Mosbacher and Florida lobbyist and party financier Brian Ballard were among the fundraiser’s attendees.
Breaking the tradition of his predecessor, Trump didn’t allow reporters into the event – despite an announcement earlier in the day that a pool of reporters would be allowed in to hear the president’s remarks.
“It’s a political event and they’ve chosen to keep that separate,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said when asked why the event is closed to the media.
After reporters complained, Sanders announced that the president’s remarks would be opened to the press – only to reverse herself hours later.
Sanders said there was nothing unusual about raising political cash so early.
“He’s raising money for the party,” she said. “I don’t think that’s abnormal for any president.”
Sanders’ statement that Trump is raising cash for the GOP told only part of the story, though.
The first cut of the money raised goes to Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. The rest gets spread among the RNC and other various Republican entities. Having multiple beneficiaries is what allowed Trump to ask for well above the usual $5,400 per-donor maximum for each election cycle.
Those contribution limits are likely to change because this fundraiser is so early that new donation limits for 2020 have not been set by the Federal Election Commission.
Trump’s hotel has become a place to see and be seen by current and former Trump staffers, as well as lobbyists, journalist and tourists. Several Washington influencers popped into the hotel’s lobby even though they didn’t plan to attend the event.
Several bar patrons also expressed enthusiasm about the unusually lucrative fundraiser so soon after the last election.
Trump’s decision to hold a fundraiser at his own hotel again raised issues about his continued financial interest in the companies he owns. Unlike previous presidents who have entirely divested from their business holdings before taking office, Trump moved his global business empire assets into a trust that he can take control of at any time. That means that when his properties – including his Washington hotel – do well, he stands to make money.
Trump technically leases the hotel from the General Services Administration, and profits are supposed to go to an account of the corporate entity that holds the lease, Trump Old Post Office LLC. It remains unclear what might happen to any profits from the hotel after Trump leaves office, or whether they will be transferred to Trump at that time.
Under campaign finance rules, neither the hotel nor the Trump Organization that operates it can donate the space. It must be rented at fair-market value and paid for by either the Trump campaign, the RNC or both.
First-time candidate Trump got a late start on fundraising in 2016, holding his first big-ticket donor event only five months before Election Day. This time, he’s started unusually early.
Trump’s historically early campaigning comes with benefits and challenges.
In the first three months of this year, the Trump campaign raised more than $7 million, through small donations and the sale of Trump-themed merchandise such as the ubiquitous, red “Make America Great Again” ball caps.
The RNC also is benefiting from the new president’s active campaigning, having raised about $62 million through the end of last month. The party has raised more online this year than it did in all of 2016 – a testament to Trump’s success in reaching small donors.
Trump’s re-election money helps pay for his political rallies. He’s held five so far, and campaign director Michael Glassner says those events help keep him connected to his base of voters.
The constant politicking, however, means it is challenging for government employees to avoid inappropriately crossing ethical lines. Some watchdog groups have flagged White House employee tweets that veer into campaign territory. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters says the employees work closely with lawyers to avoid pitfalls.
Walters also says the White House takes care to make sure that Trump’s political events and travel – including the Wednesday fundraiser – are paid for by the campaign and other political entities.
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