If you need to raise $70 million fast, who you gonna call? Billionaires and multimillionaires, of course.
To drum up the funds for his inauguration next month, President-elect Donald Trump has asked 25 longtime friends and supporters to lead his Presidential Inaugural Committee. This group plans most of the official events for the inauguration — lunches, dinners, a parade and the official balls — and will pay for it with private donations. Because the timeline for fundraising is only eight weeks, Trump has turned to CEOs, casino magnates and financiers who can pull it all off by Jan. 20.
Leading the effort is multimillionaire Thomas J. Barrack Jr., one of Trump’s oldest friends and a longtime business partner. Barrack raised $32 million to support Trump, appeared frequently on television to speak for him and was given a prominent role at the GOP convention.
His vision for the inauguration? A celebration of the peaceful, nonpartisan transition of power that proves that the American system works.
“An inauguration is a tribute to the people and democracy, not a person,” he says. “This inauguration, in particular, is intended to honor the democratic process and our country, which embraces debate, various points of view and independence in a united manner.”
This will be Trump’s first chance as president to share his “worldly perspective, inclusive attitude and conciliatory personality” to a global audience, he says, and it is Barrack’s job to make sure that it happens exactly the way the 45th president envisions. The 69-year-old Barrack, chief executive of the private-equity real estate firm Colony Capital, brings decades of business and management experience to the task — and, more important, a personal friendship of almost 40 years.
“I understand how he would like to portray the greatest democracy in the world to the whole universe of people watching around the globe,” he says. “It is a massive undertaking, similar to producing the Olympics within a 70-day period. Each detail needs to be strung together so that every element of a multiday process comes together as a seamless canvas of harmony, inclusion and democracy.”
Sounds ambitious, but the Los Angeles native has never shied from a challenge. In a September posting on his company website, Barrack wrote about the importance of taking risks and shared his daily mantra: “Fate whispers to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the tiger,’ and the warrior whispers back “I am the tiger.’ ”
That quote, he says, best describes his commitment and his singular focus: “Unlike many political jobs or functions, an inauguration has a beginning, a middle and an end. In order to achieve excellence in the end, the litany of horribles in the middle must be eliminated. This requires a tiger, not a kitty.”
The grandson of Lebanese immigrants and the son of a grocer, Barrack got a law degree from the University of Southern California and served as deputy undersecretary at the Interior Department during the Reagan administration. That led to a job with Texas billionaire Robert Bass, who owned the Plaza Hotel at the time. Barrack negotiated the sale of the property, which is when he first met Trump.
In 1990, he founded Colony Capital and began buying distressed properties here and abroad. The firm is now one of the largest of its kind in the world and manages $58 billion in assets.
Barrack is probably best known for his high-profile deals in Hollywood. In 2008, he saved Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch from foreclosure; the property is on the market for $100 million. He saved Annie Leibowitz from bankruptcy when the celebrity photographer was $24 million in debt. And along with other investors, he bought independent film distributor Miramax for $663 million and then flipped it this year for more than $1 billion.
He was slated to provide financing for Trump’s luxury hotel here in Washington, but the Trump family decided that they would pay for the entire project on their own. No harm to the friendship, it seems: Barrack formed the super PAC Rebuilding America Now, which raised $32 million, and hosted a glitzy fundraiser for Trump at his Santa Monica mansion.
Barrack wasn’t a big fan of Trump’s insults and bluster during the campaign and refused to say anything negative about Hillary Clinton at the GOP convention, where he spoke just before Ivanka Trump introduced her father. “I’m here because Donald Trump is one of my closest friends for 40 years,” he told the delegates.
He then shared a personal story about the night in 1999 when he and Trump spent some time alone together at the funeral home after the death of Trump’s father, Fred.
“So we sat there just kibbitzing, musing, and I said, ‘How do you feel?’ He said, ‘I’m thankful that I have my dad’s strength and my mom’s sensitivity. And all I want to do is leave the legacy of the Trump name that they built brick by brick a little bit better than I found it.’”
Barrack looked at the convention delegates. “He’s done it,” he said.
The two men share a certain bravado and showmanship, which could make this inauguration different from previous celebrations. For fun, Barrack plays polo and surfs and recently bought a vineyard that makes Bordeaux-style wine.
Of course, Barrack can’t pull the inauguration off alone, so Trump has also tapped a long list of very wealthy friends to help. The committee includes Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner of the Venetian and Palazzo casinos in Las Vegas, and his wife, Miriam. Adelson was the moneyman behind Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential run and has given millions to conservative candidates — although he was a late and somewhat modest supporter of Trump’s campaign.
Billionaire casino magnates Steve Wynn and Phil Ruffin are also on the list. Wynn, like Adelson, was not an early supporter of Trump’s campaign. But Ruffin, who co-owns the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Las Vegas, was tapped to speak at the GOP convention and told the crowd that Trump “can do it all. I know him like a brother. I love the man. He will make this country great again. Go, Donald! See you in Washington.”
From the corporate world, the committee includes billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks, billionaire coal baron Joe Craft, and Gail Icahn, wife of billionaire investor Carl Icahn. And from sports: the always colorful New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, who hosted an August fundraiser for Trump at his Hamptons estate and ticked off the neighbors. The committee’s finance co-chairs are Roy Bailey and Lew Eisenberg, veteran Republican fundraisers.
Running the day-to-day operations is Sara Armstrong, the former Republican National Committee executive who spent the past year living in Cleveland as vice president of the committee planning the 2016 GOP convention. A marketing specialist, Armstrong has risen steadily in the Republican ranks, first working in the White House as special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy chief of staff for Laura Bush, then moving to the RNC, where she became chief operating officer. She’ll oversee a staff based in Washington, with headquarters near L’Enfant Plaza, although Trump’s transition team will be based in New York.
As chairman, Barrack says his role is “consistently to set the vision, reset the vision and set the vision once again.”
As with previous inaugurations, most of the planning is still in the early stages. The committee has not announced a specific fundraising goal, although the New York Times reports that the amount is $65 million $75 million. That’s in line with Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, which raised $53 million in private donations.
Any money raised above the amount needed to fund the inaugural events will be donated to charity, said inaugural committee spokesman Boris Epshteyn, and no donations will be accepted from state or federal registered lobbyists.
The committee has not officially released any specifics about the events being planned, but the Center for Public Integrity and The Washington Post obtained copies of a fundraising brochure detailing the underwriting packages offered to top donors.
Inaugural packages range from $25,000 to $1 million. The top VIPs — those giving $1 million or more — will get tickets to the following: a candlelit dinner with the president- and vice president-elect and their wives, lunch with Cabinet appointees and congressional leaders, a separate dinner with Mike and Karen Pence, a concert on the Mall, the swearing-in and the inaugural balls. (The committee has not yet announced the number of official balls; there were two for President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 and 10 for his first in 2009.) They will also get booking at an unnamed “premier inaugural hotel.”
It’s unclear how much each of Trump’s committee members will personally contribute for the inauguration. But we’ll know exactly how generous they were next year — all donations of $200 and more must be listed with the Federal Election Commission.