Pro-Trump groups spending big at Trump properties

• Apr 21, 2018

Maggie Severns, Politico

Watchdogs say there should be a ban on such money being funneled to the president’s business empire.

Political groups supporting President Donald Trump are doubling as big-spending customers for the business empire he has not divested from.

Trump’s reelection campaign has spent $670,000 at Trump properties since he was elected president, and $125,000 during the first three months of this year alone, recent disclosures show.

But Trump’s campaign is not the only group paying Trump’s companies for events, catering and sometimes even rent: The Republican National Committee has also paid $1.1 million to Trump properties since the election. Outside PACs supporting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have also been two of the biggest political spenders at Trump properties during that time.

Because Trump has maintained his financial interest in his vast business while president — and, unlike previous presidents, filed for reelection soon after taking office — the relationship between pro-Trump political groups and the Trump businesses has no precedent. While congressional campaigns for Republican lawmakers have also spent money at Trump properties, much of the spending at Trump properties from outside political groups appears to come from those linked closely to the president.

The RNC paid $320,000 to Trump properties in March alone, new disclosures show, the majority of which was spent at Trump’s Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago property, likely for an early March RNC retreat featuring the president himself that reportedly raised $12 million for Trump’s reelection and the RNC.

Of the $1.1 million total the RNC has spent at Trump properties since the election, the RNC has spent $225,000 on rent at Trump Tower, which it has done as a contribution coordinated with the Trump campaign. Most of the rest of the expenses are on venue rental and catering at Trump’s properties.

For the Trump campaign, the biggest expense at the Trump business is rent at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The Trump campaign has spent more than $500,000 total on rent at Trump Tower since the election. It has also spent more than $100,000 at Trump International Hotel, mostly on events and catering.

Trump’s business also appears to have paid for the water consumed by campaign staff: The Trump campaign paid $1,768 in 2017 to Trump’s bottled water company, Trump Ice LLC.

The spending has led some watchdogs to call for a ban on such spending.

“There are two serious problems with allowing campaign money to be spent on personal properties owned by the candidate. When the campaign money comes from the candidate, the candidate is using donor money for self-enrichment," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen. “When the campaign money spent on a candidate’s personal properties comes from others — say, special interest groups or even other officeholders — it is often done so as a means to buy access and endear the candidate as an influence-peddling tool.”

An RNC official cited several reasons the committee has held events at Trump properties, including that the size and price point of Trump venues suit large presidential-level events; that Trump's properties "are consistently willing and able to accommodate the president and his security needs, which can be disruptive to a hotel's guests," and that "several Washington hotels have long declined to host events attended by the president — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — because of the hassle they create for everyone else at the hotel."

The official did not explain the RNC's payment of rent at Trump Tower, which was listed by the committee as an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump departed from tradition when he decided to maintain ownership of his company after being elected president. Trump placed his stake in the company into a trust, which is being managed by his sons.

Other campaigns and PACs have paid to host events at Trump golf courses and hotels. Great America Committee, a leadership PAC established by Pence in 2017, has spent $110,000 at Trump International Hotel this year for venue rental and catering. The bulk of that spending was in the form of a single $93,000 payment on March 1. Great America Committee did not report spending any money at Trump properties last year.

America First Action — which has the president’s unofficial blessing as a leading pro-Trump super PAC — paid close to $60,000 in January to Trump International Hotel for facility rental and catering. The group had hosted events at the Trump hotel during the 2017 holiday season, which was disclosed this year, spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said.

While dozens of Republican members of Congress have disclosed spending campaign money at Trump properties since the 2016 elections, only a few individual politicians had spent upward of $10,000 at Trump properties, according to a Washington Post analysis as of November 2017. Most had spent smaller amounts.

A few members of Congress have laid out serious money to hold events at Trump properties, however: Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, reported spending $26,000 on two occasions on facility rentals and catering at Trump International Hotel in 2017. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) also held a 2017 fundraiser at Trump International hotel.

And a joint fundraising committee composed of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) and others paid $15,000 to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a fundraiser last July.

Trump attended the fundraiser, which reportedly raised $800,000 from the roughly 100 people who attended.

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