Trump in Palm Beach: For 2020 fundraising, Mar-a-Lago is a money machine
On a recent, balmy Saturday night in Palm Beach, President Donald Trump headed a few miles up the road from Mar-a-Lago for a fundraiser at the 45,166 square-foot, oceanfront estate of billionaire investor Nelson Peltz.
It was a small affair as Trump fundraisers go, with about 40 of the biggest donors to the president and the Republican National Committee. By the time the two-hour dinner ended, Trump had raised $10 million.
Four days later, Trump flew to California where billionaire tech-giant Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, hosted the president at his Rancho Mirage estate for an exclusive “golf Outing and Reception” fundraiser, ranging in contributions between $100,000 and $250,000, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by The Desert Sun. The fundraiser was expected to raise $7 million.
The events are anomalies for Trump, who has shied away from old-school fundraising in which presidents solicit contributions from mega-donors at the private homes of other mega-donors.
Instead, Trump has preferred to raise money at his own businesses. Mar-a-Lago is among his favorite and most profitable — for himself and his re-election campaign.
“Fundraising is no longer the same since he took over as president,” said Teresa Dailey, a Palm Beach-based GOP fundraiser and Realtor. “He’s got his own venue, he’s an icon, everybody wants to be there. It’s not like it used to be where you have to work for it.”
Since October 2017, Trump has attended at least 48 intimate gatherings with the Republican Party’s elite donors, according to a Washington Post analysis of his fundraising schedule. Ten of those fundraisers were at Mar-a-Lago.
The next event is scheduled for March 25 when first lady Melania Trump — rarely seen during the 2016 campaign — will host her first fundraiser at the Southern White House.
Already, events at Mar-a-Lago have raised tens of millions of dollars for Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee.
A donor-call day on Feb. 7, a fundraising telephone bank, with the president’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, also drew prominent notables. Those included Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who tweeted a selfie from Mar-a-Lago.
The event raised an estimated $25 million.
“It’s almost like monopoly on campaign fundraising,” said Ann Herberger, a longtime GOP fundraiser who has focused on raising political money for the Bush family.
How much elite donors are motivated to see and be seen at Mar-a-Lago fundraisers, or if a sort of Mar-a-Lago fatigue will set in after repeated events at the president’s private club, is not known.
“Do they want to go to Mar-a-Lago and write a check or is that the only option where they get to go to?” Herberger said, adding that fundraisers are also held at the president’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“Where he owns properties, there is no choice,” Herberger said.
Each event at a Trump property is also a money-maker for the president. To date, Trump’s own campaign has been his best political customer at Mar-a-Lago. Since scoring decisive wins on Super Tuesday 2016, Trump’s campaign has paid his club $781,925 to host events. The RNC, with whom his campaign has a joint fundraising agreement, comes in second — having paid Mar-a-Lago $289,335.
“He just is a phenomenon on his own,” Dailey said.
For decades Mar-a-Lago has been recognized on the Palm Beach society charity circuit as a top-notch, lucrative venue for philanthropic fundraisers for health care providers, animal welfare groups and social aid societies.
That changed in August 2017, when more than 20 of Palm Beach’s highest society charities, including the Red Cross, canceled events at the president’s private club after he stated his belief there were “very fine people on both sides” at a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Most groups have not returned and the club has since transitioned from society galas to political fundraising. As the 2020 presidential election ramps up, more campaign dollars are being raised and more events are being held to help Trump remain in the White House.
Candidate Trump began raising money at Mar-a-Lago before he was elected in 2016. From the start, joint fundraisers with the RNC at Mar-a-Lago commanded five- and six-figure ticket prices. Attending a meet-and-greet breakfast on Oct. 24, 2016 — two weeks before the election — cost $10,000 per person or $100,000 per couple in money raised or donated.
The hosts included a slew of Republican notables. They included: Reince Priebus, then-chair of the RNC and later Trump’s chief of staff, Steven Mnuchin, former finance chair of Donald J. Trump for President committee and now Trump’s treasury secretary; GOP-allied lobbyist and then Florida Trump Victory finance chair Brian Ballard; and Lewis Eisenberg, then Trump Victory national finance chair who Trump later appointed ambassador to Italy.
On Jan. 20, 2017 — the day of Trump’s inauguration — his re-election campaign officially filed notice with the Federal Election Commission. A year later, fundraising at Mar-a-Lago began in earnest.
Trump was slated to appear at a $100,000-per-couple fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 20, 2018, but canceled because of a short-lived federal government shutdown. The president’s son, Eric, and his wife, Lara, along with the RNC’s McDaniel filled in and reportedly raised about $5 million.
The president made-up for his no-show with two fundraisers on the weekend of March 2, 2018, during a visit that lasted just under 24 hours. Trump hit the fundraising circuit about three hours after Air Force One touched down, attending a round-table with RNC supporters, then spoke at the party’s annual Spring Donor Retreat dinner.
Trump returned on April 20 of that year and met with a small group of Republican donors beneath crystal chandeliers in the mansion’s smaller, more intimate original ballroom.
The event went largely unnoticed until last month. That is when a video surfaced showing Trump speaking with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the indicted businessmen who assisted Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, in his efforts to oust Marie Yovanovich, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Parnas, a Boca Raton resident, and Fruman donated $325,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC in early 2018. The men have since been charged by federal prosecutors with campaign finance violations. Both have pleaded not guilty.
On the evening of March 8, 2019, Trump spoke for more than an hour to about 300 donors who have given $50,000 or more to the RNC. Two days later, after four hours of golf with LPGA star Lexi Thompson, Trump returned to Mar-a-Lago where he spoke to about 475 donors who paid at least $2,500 apiece to attend the affair. The events reportedly raised about $7 million.
The president returned on March 30, 2019, for a third fundraiser that month, billed as a round-table discussion with supporters, that pulled in an estimated $2 million.
Since then, the fundraising has only ramped up.
The fundraiser at the Peltz estate was the second Trump’s campaign has hosted in Palm Beach this year. During a fundraiser over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January, Trump delivered a dramatic account of the airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The big-ticket fundraisers like those at Mar-a-Lago, other Trump properties and private homes represent a shift in fundraising tactics.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign broke records for small-dollar donors. Trump used those donations from his base as evidence that he had widespread support among working-class voters. He decried opponents who took big donations from wealthy, powerful donors, claiming they would be beholden to them once in office.
Trump vowed he would not do so. Instead, he would “drain the swamp.”
However, Trump’s apparent shift toward wealthy donors was on display during donor-call day earlier this month when Trump Jr. took the stage and explained how he would handle calls to potential and previous supporters.
“Every dollar is important but when I have someone tapping on my shoulder to close a $100 donation and I’m speaking to a six-figure guy, it’s not good use of our time,” Trump Jr. said in a video from the event posted on social media. “I say this to you because if you are in this room you are our friends so we can say something a little bit more forward and a little bit more direct. That’s reality.”