President Donald Trump plans to kick off his 2020 re-election fundraising with a $35,000-a-plate event at his Washington hotel Wednesday, a gathering that stands to benefit his business as well as his political aims.
Because Trump has retained an ownership interest in the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. — along with an array of other businesses — holding a campaign event there promotes the property via his political prominence and raises questions about self-dealing, some critics said.
“He’s a businessperson, so he’s certainly not oblivious to the increased value to his own properties that will stem from his own use,” said Paul S. Ryan, a vice president for the group Common Cause, which advocates for tougher campaign-finance laws.
Tickets to the fundraising dinner, which benefits the Republican National Committee in addition to Trump’s 2020 campaign, cost $35,000, according to Lindsay Jancek, an RNC spokeswoman. Organizers expect 300 attendees and project that the event will raise $10 million, she said. Former President Barack Obama had been in office more than two years before he headlined his first re-election fundraiser.
The gathering won’t be open to the public. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s deputy press secretary, said Wednesday afternoon that a media pool would be admitted for a limited time to hear the president’s remarks to donors — but then withdrew that statement two hours later. Sanders, in an email, cited “confusion with the RNC” and “the logistical challenges bringing in the press at this late moment.”
Federal law generally allows campaigns to deal with candidates’ businesses if they are “able to show that they have and they will offer the same deal to anybody else who comes,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission.
Should Trump’s campaign pay his hotel more than other, similar events would, it may run afoul of legal prohibitions on candidates getting personal benefits from campaign funds, Noble said. If it pays less, the Trump Organization — the umbrella company for the president’s various business interests — may have made an illegal corporate campaign contribution, he said.
The campaign’s arrangements with the hotel aren’t clear. Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization responded immediately to requests for comment about the intersection of his business and political interests.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump faced similar questions over Secret Service payments to fly on his personal planes, which he used for campaign travel, and the rent he charged his campaign for its Trump Tower headquarters.
Since taking office, Trump has also faced criticism over his frequent trips to Trump properties, including his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and the Trump National Golf Club, Washington, D.C.
“They will be become more valuable by association with the president,” said Common Cause’s Ryan.
The Washington hotel is just a few blocks from the White House. A Trump company leases the building from the federal government, and spent more than $200 million to renovate the structure. It has already become a focus for ethics questions over the role of Trump’s businesses in his administration.
Lobbyists for the Saudi government disclosed this month that they had spent more than $250,000 for lodging and food at the hotel, and three lawsuits pending in federal court allege that foreign governments’ spending at the hotel would violate the U.S. Constitution. While a constitutional clause bans officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments, Trump’s lawyers say it doesn’t forbid standard, arms-length business transactions. His lawyers have pledged to donate the estimated income its hotels earn from foreign government to the U.S. Treasury.
This month, Trump’s latest financial disclosure revealed the Washington hotel hasn’t seen a major jump in revenue since the election. Trump’s net worth also decreased slightly largely due to underperformance at three of his Manhattan properties.
Unlike predecessors, Trump hasn’t divested from his businesses or transferred assets into a blind trust. Instead, he transferred his ownership into a trust overseen by his adult sons and a longtime employee of the Trump Organization. During his time in office, the limited liability company that operates the Washington hotel won’t pay income into the trust. Instead, it will maintain any such earnings for its own business purposes, according to correspondence Trump’s companies sent to the federal General Services Administration.
That agreement hasn’t alleviated concerns for several Trump critics.
“That is such a preposterous so-called safeguard that it’s hard to believe the Trump administration and Trump business put it forward,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a government-transparency group that plans to picket Wednesday’s event. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m putting the money in the bank so it’s not my money while it’s in the bank.”’