Political News

In Trump Hotel’s Rarefied Realm, President Courts Donors as if It’s Business as Usual

Posted June 20, 2018 7:26 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — To anyone with even a cursory relationship to television or social media, a charged and emotional battle over the Trump administration’s approach to immigration seems to have seeped into every dimension of American life.

Just not quite the dimension containing the Trump International Hotel.

President Donald Trump zipped around the capital all day Tuesday, motorcade sirens blaring, as he forcefully defended a policy that includes separating families at the border. “These are laws that have been broken for many years,” he said as he departed Capitol Hill.

At the hotel, he spoke for an hour to 150 supporters — about half of whom were donors who paid $100,000 to $250,000 to attend a two-day summit organized by America First Action, the “super PAC” formed to support Trump and allied candidates.

Outside, the world was cloudy. Beyond the hotel’s walls, protesters blasted audio of children crying in detainment centers. Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, was heckled at a nearby Mexican restaurant. And the night before, an anti-Trump group had projected the words “Over 3,000 children taken from their parents” onto the hotel facade.

But inside, all was well.

“Does anybody here look stressed out?” conservative commentator Candace Owens asked as she surveyed the lobby.

She had a point. The event drew grinning Trump loyalists, including Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who recently agreed to serve as a spokesman and senior adviser to the America First Action political action committee. It drew Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, who had two Secret Service agents in tow. And it drew the occasional pop culture figure, like retired boxer Evander Holyfield.

Attendees shook hands and greeted each other as fellow “great American patriots.” Others posted photographs to social media with hashtags like #BlackLivesMAGA.

Upstairs in a restaurant, a boy blew out the candles on his birthday cake, pausing to bite the head off a miniature Trump made of frosting. TVs at the bar tuned to Fox News analysts who rehashed the Justice Department’s inspector general report.

The event was part of a heightened fundraising push by America First Action.

That group and an affiliated nonprofit, America First Policies, want to raise $100 million to advance Trump’s agenda and help congressional candidates allied with him before a midterm election season expected to be difficult for Republicans.

But through mid-May, America First Action had raised $11.3 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. (The total for America First Policies remains shielded by tax laws, but the group said it had raised about $25 million through the end of last year.) Trump has attended a handful of events this spring, including gatherings at two Washington residences and at a home in Virginia.

Sensitive to campaign finance rules barring federal officials from soliciting donations greater than $5,400, the White House has been careful to call these events gatherings with supporters, not fundraisers, although they have a similar effect. The event this week felt like a conference, with several panels geared toward foreign policy, “America First” messaging and a healthy disdain for the news media.

“You guys are genuinely out of touch,” said Owens, who also serves as a communications director for the conservative group Turning Point USA, after speaking on the media panel.

“I feel like I’m talking to someone who actually thinks everyone else is an idiot,” she said to this reporter.

Panelists, including Owens, did not pay to attend.

Beyond media criticism, what lessons could donors expect to glean?

It was a question put to Spicer, who was passing out business cards in the lobby and inviting people to his book release party — “July 24!” — in between panels. His answer: proximity to the president.

“You want it to be intimate,” Spicer said. “Not a cattle call.”

And besides, Spicer reasoned: They paid a “ton of money,” he said, using a phrase that contained an expletive.

Donors in attendance included Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm, investor and former Ambassador Ronald N. Weiser of Michigan, and investors Roy W. Bailey and Tom Hicks Jr. of Texas.

Hamm has donated $1 million to America First Action through personal and corporate accounts. Weiser, who has donated $200,000, said he suspected the event raised “a lot” of money. Yechezkel Moskowitz, 31, who attended on behalf of his grandmother, a donor, said that he felt as if he had gained a better understanding of the policies he should be supporting, including the administration’s approach to rolling back environmental regulations and its hard-line stance on immigration.

“We have to give the impression that our laws matter,” he said. “I think conservatism is the new counterculture.”

Hoping to spread the message, the America First groups have been hosting events for donors and prospective donors featuring appearances by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. And America First’s officials have told donors that the president will headline one such event next week in Wisconsin. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

In recent weeks, fundraisers for the groups began aggressively courting donors before the summit. Donors were told that, in addition to Trump, speakers would include the former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee and a host of Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Steve Daines of Montana, as well as Reps. Kevin Brady of Texas, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Greg Walden of Oregon.

Brady spoke Tuesday on a panel about “the great things already happening in the economy as a direct result” of the tax overhaul passed last year, said his spokeswoman, Allyson Manley.

“Part of it is,” Spicer said, “you buy into the philosophy.”

Bill White, a donor based in New York City also at the event, said that during his speech to the group, Trump had focused on drumming up support for his immigration policy and approach to foreign relations — at one point, he again complained about being slighted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada — among other issues.

“I’m confident that Donald Trump is going to solve that problem” of immigration, White said, “with the help of the American people. He hates the fact that children are being taken away from their loved ones.”

White said that he and his husband have been so persuaded by the president’s policies that they have pledged $100,000 to America First and are organizing a fundraiser this year.

But the finances of America First and America First Policies have been a source of disappointment to some of Trump’s close allies. They have complained that they are not raising as much as they should given the president’s support and have also grumbled about what they say are excessive payments to consultants, according to two people involved in the discussions. America First Action has made hefty payments to consultants with close ties to Trump, including $184,000 to the firm owned by Brad Parscale, who will have to distance himself from the group because he was tapped to run Trump’s re-election campaign. America First Action also paid $75,000 to the firm of Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and $60,000 to the company of Katrina Pierson, a former campaign spokeswoman, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

America First Action also paid more than $69,000 to a firm owned by David A. Clarke Jr., the former sheriff of Milwaukee County. On Tuesday, he roamed the hotel lobby, dressed in a white cowboy hat.

The filings also show that the group has spent more than $160,000 at Trump Organization properties, the vast majority of which — $154,000 — went to the Trump International Hotel for facility rentals and catering. Nearly $2,000 was spent at the hotel’s steakhouse, BLT Prime by David Burke, with another $864 going to the hotel’s bar, Benjamin Bar and Lounge.

White said he was comfortable with a large amount of money going toward the president’s hotel. He called it one of the greatest hotel properties in the world.