WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee raised an unprecedented $107 million for a ceremony that officials promised would be “workmanlike,” and the committee pledged to give leftover funds to charity. Nearly eight months later, the group has helped pay for redecorating at the White House and the vice president’s residence in Washington.
But nothing has yet gone to charity.
What is left from the massive fundraising is a mystery, clouded by messy and, at times, budget-busting management of a private fund that requires little public disclosure. The Associated Press spoke with eight people – vendors, donors and Trump associates – involved in planning and political fundraising for the celebration, an event that provides an early look at the new president’s management style and priorities. The people described a chaotic process marked by last-minute decisions, staffing turnover and little financial oversight.
Among the head-scratching line-items was the pre-inaugural Lincoln Memorial concert, which came with a $25 million price tag, according to four of the people. The price dwarfs a similar event staged eight years earlier for Obama’s first inauguration. One person familiar with the committee’s thinking said the $25 million included broadcasting costs and other events, complicating an apples-to-apples comparison with past inaugural concert expenses.
Other people familiar with the committee’s activities before and after the inauguration said its efforts were hobbled by a shortage of staff with relevant experience.
Tom Barrack, chairman of the private Presidential Inaugural Committee, and other former committee officials said the inauguration was a great success but declined to answer detailed questions from AP about how money was spent. Barrack said that keeping the books closed was no different from any past inauguration.
In a recent statement, Barrack said the committee’s donations to charity “surely will exceed any previous inauguration,” but will have to wait until the end of November, when he said the committee will publicly disclose details about its finances.
Barrack told the AP in June that “a full and clean external audit has been conducted and completed” of the inaugural committee’s finances, though the committee would not share a copy with AP or say who performed it.
Two Trump associates familiar with efforts to sort out the financing said they were unaware of a completed third-party audit. Three people said the delay in doling out leftover money comes amid ongoing confusion about how much is left after the Jan. 20 celebration.
The people spoke only on condition of anonymity in order to reveal details about private conversations.
Leaders of previous inaugurations expressed surprise at the slow timeline. They say they had a general handle on their finances – and had already started giving money away – within three months of Inauguration Day, though formally closing down the committees took many months longer.
“The thing about inaugural expenses, they’re not complicated,” said Steve Kerrigan, head of President Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural committee. “You take money in, you pay it out, and then you know what you’re left with when it’s done.”
Because inauguration funds are private money, there are few limits on how leftover money can be used. Previous administrations have used it to supplement budgets for work on the White House residence or events like the annual Easter Egg Roll.
Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump, confirmed Trump has continued the practice of using some leftover inauguration funds for renovations to the White House and Naval Observatory, home of the vice president. She declined to disclose the amounts spent on those projects.
Trump has a history of making bold charitable promises – with slow follow through.
In January 2016, he held a high-profile fundraiser for veterans’ causes, but it took him four months – and pressure from the media – to follow through on his pledge to donate $1 million of his own money. During the campaign, Trump’s longtime personal foundation came under fire for its use of other people’s money to fund his charitable pledge.
Trump’s inaugural committee was aggressive in its fundraising.
While both Obama and President George W. Bush both limited the size of individual and corporate donations. Trump’s committee allowed unlimited individual donations and corporate donations of up to $1 million. The group took $5 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and millions more from business giants including Boeing, AT&T and Reynolds American.
The committee’s total haul of $107 million was nearly twice that of Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“Our ability to raise more private funding than any inaugural committee before is a tribute to the generosity of the American people and their excitement to “make America great again,” Barrack told the AP in a statement this month.
Even as Trump’s inaugural committee ramped up fundraising, however, its planning goals remained modest. On Dec. 29, spokesman Boris Epshteyn told Breitbart News the planners would avoid pomp and circumstance.
“This is not a coronation,” he said, noting Trump would have only three inaugural balls – unlike the eight to 14 at the inaugurations of Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama.
But the spending got out of hand, according to vendors and others involved with the planning.
“They blew out their budgets on so many things,” said one person in the events industry who requested anonymity in order to preserve professional relationships.
The committee got a late start, according to people in the events industry and Trump associates. That guaranteed the work would be rushed and done at higher cost.
A second major problem, according to people involved in the work, was that the committee failed to hire employees with past inauguration planning experience. Among the lead figures overseeing inaugural events, these people said, was Stephanie Wiston Wolkoff, a longtime friend of Melania Trump and high-end events planner in New York. Wolkoff referred questions from the AP to Barrack and the inaugural committee.
A final factor in the events’ high costs, said people who worked on the inauguration, was planners’ relentless focus on ensuring TV quality production for nearly every detail – even ones that were unlikely to be televised. Broadcasting is “what threw the budgets out the window,” said one person who worked on the inauguration.
Perhaps nowhere did the spending mount as quickly as for Trump’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration.”
The opening concert featuring Toby Keith and Three Doors Down was broadly similar to concerts put on for Obama in 2009 and Bush in 2005 – except for the cost and size.
Bush’s inaugural committee spent $2.5 million on its concert on the National Mall. Obama’s concert had 10,000 ticketed seats – twice the size of Trump’s – and cost less than $5 million, said Kerrigan, and was produced at a high enough level that HBO paid for the rights to telecast it.
“I couldn’t tell you how we possibly could have spent $25 million on a concert,” said Kerrigan.
Greg Jenkins, the executive director of Bush’s second inauguration, reviewed the Bush committee’s budget to see how much it had spent on an opening event and concert. He said he’d received a clear directive from the president-elect: “Don’t raise a lot more than you need. Don’t go crazy.”
“President Trump’s inaugural committee was an unparalleled success,” Alex Stroman, a former spokesman for the inaugural committee, wrote to the AP in June, saying it would be irresponsible to rely on “uninformed anonymous sources” for information about the inaugural committee’s finances.
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