NEW YORK – Donald Trump holds his first presidential fundraisers this week.
The events directly benefit his campaign, but he doesn’t see it that way.
Trump insists that his about-face from self-funded candidate to one who relies on donors is happening only at the request of the Republican National Committee.
“The RNC really wanted to do it, and I want to show good spirit,” Trump said. “ ‘Cause I was very happy to continue to go along the way I was.”
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Trump’s self-funding has been a point of pride, a boast making its way into nearly every rally and interview. The billionaire businessman lent his campaign at least $43 million, enough to pay for most of his primary bid.
“By self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists. I am working only for the people of the U.S.!” he wrote on Twitter in September.
With this week’s fundraisers – a small gathering Tuesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a large $25,000-per-head dinner Wednesday in Los Angeles – Trump gains hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars but loses his ability to accurately assert that he is free from the shackles of outside donors.
Trump’s voters repeatedly have cited his independence from the influence of donors and special interests as a top reason they back him. It’s not clear how they will react now.
Perhaps to assuage those voter concerns, Trump is trying to promote his fundraising agreement as beneficial to other Republicans, not his own campaign.
The deal itself shows Trump comes first.
For every check he solicits – and donors can give almost $450,000 apiece – the first $5,400 goes to Trump’s primary and general election campaign accounts. The rest is spread among the RNC and 11 state parties.
The RNC can use its money to help Republican candidates for Senate and Congress. However, Trump’s team and Republican officials also have said the RNC plans to take the lead on major presidential campaign activities such as voter identification and turnout.
Asked by The AP if he sees a contradiction in asking for money after repeatedly saying he stood above the other candidates because he didn’t, Trump said, “No, because I’m raising money for the party.”
Trump also first denied to the AP that he is raising any money for the primary. Reminded of the terms of the fundraising agreement, he then said primary donations don’t really count because he already has defeated his GOP rivals.
He promised not to use any donor money to pay down his loans. That means he has until the Republican convention in late July to spend primary contributions on expenses such as staffing and summer advertising.
Despite Trump’s claim that he would have carried on self-funding if not for the RNC, in other media interviews he has expressed a reluctance to sell buildings or other assets to pay for a costly general election.
“It would be foolish for him to unilaterally disarm against Hillary Clinton,” said Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and informal political adviser about why Trump decided to take donations.
Trump’s likely opponent, the former secretary of state, aims to have $1 billion for her bid, through her campaign, the Democratic Party and outside groups.
The presumptive GOP nominee’s still-forming fundraising team, led by Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s national finance chairman, and Lew Eisenberg, the RNC’s national finance chairman, is rushing to schedule events.
Trump and the RNC on Tuesday announced new additions to the financial operation, including New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, roofing company owner Diane Hendricks and former Ambassador Mel Sembler, who helped raise major money for previous presidential candidates.
Johnson, who was national finance chairman for former rival Jeb Bush, drew Trump’s scorn earlier this year. At a New Hampshire campaign stop in February, Trump predicted Bush’s prescription drug policies would be influenced by Johnson, whose family founded the Johnson & Johnson medical and pharmaceutical company.
The event in Albuquerque, hosted by funeral services company owner Kevin Daniels, was first reported by The Washington Post. About two dozen attendees are expected, paying $10,000 apiece.
On Wednesday, donors will hobnob with Trump at a reception and dinner at the Los Angeles home of his friend and fellow real estate investor Tom Barrack, whose publicist said he is passionate about surfing and horses and is the “son of hard-working Lebanese parents.”
Price of admission – a minimum of $25,000 with the option of paying $50,000 – includes a photo with Trump.
Mnuchin has said he’s being inundated with offers of financial assistance. Eisenberg said the Trump fundraising agreement enables the party to “recover the interest and enthusiasm of major donors and raise the money needed to win a Republican presidency, Senate and House, as well as secure the Supreme Court.”
Two past presidential fundraisers who are hoping to join Trump’s finance team are convinced he'll raise the money needed to win.
For Trump, who has never sought out donors, “the low-hanging fruit is more abundant than it’s ever been for anyone at this point in a presidential cycle,” said Rick Hohlt, a Washington lobbyist. Donors, he said, are excited to meet Trump – many for the first time.
In Florida, Palm Beach real estate agent Teresa Dailey said, “People are anxiously waiting to help him, and they haven’t had the opportunity because of his self-funding.”