The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump touted a contest for small-dollar donors to dine with him in New Orleans. But no winner met him.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 26 in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Former president Donald Trump’s political group sent at least 15 emails in recent weeks offering small-dollar donors the chance to win a coveted prize if they gave money: dinner with Trump in New Orleans last Saturday.

“We booked you a plane ticket,” one of the pitches said, complete with a photo of Trump superimposed in the French Quarter, beneath the dangling trademark ferns. “Contribute ANY AMOUNT RIGHT NOW to be automatically entered to have dinner with President Trump in New Orleans.”

Another pitch promised a full suite of perks. “We’ll cover your flight. We’ll cover your very nice hotel. We’ll cover your dinner,” the email promised, along with a picture with Trump. “All you have to do is enter.

A third pitch said: “He REALLY wants to meet you, Friend, which is why he’s holding (1) spot on the entry list for YOU only.” Some of the emails came from an account labeled “Dinner with Trump” that was set up by the former president’s leadership PAC, Save America.

But no such winner was flown to New Orleans last weekend, according to four people familiar with the matter. No flight or “very nice” hotel was booked. Trump had no individual meeting with a small-dollar donor, instead only privately greeting a handful of Republican Party donors who gave large checks, taking pictures with some of the party’s most well-heeled members and speaking to a larger group of donors who each gave tens of thousands of dollars.

The email pitches probably raised a sizable sum for Save America. Some similar contests to meet Trump have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to people involved.

“President Trump has awarded more than 100 prizes to contest winners across America, but due to an administrative error in this individual circumstance, the contest winner was not properly notified for last weekend’s event in New Orleans. Consistent with the rules of the sweepstakes, a substitute prize will be awarded to the winner,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said Friday, when asked why no winner was chosen.

He did not say what the substitute prize was, but the fine print of the contest rules say the organization can substitute a prize of “greater or equal value.”

The Washington Post asked Save America to provide winners for other contests it has held, which included meeting the president at a rally in South Carolina this weekend, meeting Trump at his palatial Florida club last year, playing golf with Trump and Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker in Palm Beach, or receiving commemorative memorabilia — such as a football signed by Trump and Walker, a College Football Hall of Famer.

The PAC declined to comment, but said it had selected “more than 100” winners in the past, and some Trump advisers say they have met winners at previous events. Some winners have been publicly identified in news stories.

“We protect the privacy of participants, given the hostility and intimidation tactics often used against supporters of President Trump,” Budowich said. The PAC did not answer a question about how much money the New Orleans contest raised — or how winners are chosen and usually notified.

At the event in New Orleans, the Republican Party held a separate contest for its small-dollar donors to meet Trump. The prize went to a couple from Mississippi, an official from the organization said, who were flown to New Orleans to “meet the president and see his speech.” The couple, who asked to only be identified by their first names, Sylvia and James, issued a statement through the RNC saying that winning was “a dream come true.”

“Our grass-roots and small-dollar contests are very popular and are a great way to give supporters the opportunity to meet with Republican leaders, like the former president,” RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said.

One former Republican Party official said the contests are often time-consuming, because winners have to be vetted and logistics can be challenging. But there were RNC winners for every contest, this person said, even if officials have to go through multiple participants to find one who could make it and pass the vetting. Several other officials said the contests were worth the trouble because of the amount of donor information they collect and the money they raise.

The contests are popular for attracting small-dollar donors, who have fueled Trump’s political rise, with the donors often giving $5 or $10 hoping to win a trip. It is unclear how many people gave because of the New Orleans contest, with the PAC not reporting new contributions until later this year — and the PAC does not specify whether donations came from contests.

The rules of the PAC’s New Orleans contest said that a winner would receive a round trip coach ticket to the event, one night of accommodations at a hotel, one meal and attendance to the event with Trump, along with a photo. The total retail value, according to the PAC, is about $3,000. The rules said a winner would be chosen by Feb. 28, a few days ahead of the New Orleans event.

Legal experts and former prosecutors said the question is whether the author of the fundraising solicitations knew there would never be a dinner with Trump. If so, the solicitations could be legally questionable, said Peter R. Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor in D.C. and now a partner at ArentFox Schiff. “If, on the other hand, they had planned a dinner but it fell through, then that’s definitely not a crime.”

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago now at Thompson Coburn, said a donor could sue over a prize not being awarded, but that would be unlikely. People motivated to donate to Trump may be unlikely to sue by arguing they were defrauded by the former president’s tactics, he said.

“The obstacles help you understand why so many of these campaign tactics that seem obviously misleading have few consequences,” Mariotti said.

Meanwhile, the body responsible for enforcing federal campaign finance law has not been inclined to exact consequences. The former president has faced no penalties in more than 40 cases involving him or at least one of his political committees brought before the Federal Election Commission, according to a review of public outcomes in such cases. Some of the complaints against Trump were dismissed unanimously.

But his undefeated record before the commission owes in part to the fact that the body’s three Republicans have reliably voted in his favor. That pattern has caused the FEC to deadlock on numerous cases, since the body is set up such that no party can control more than three seats — and since four votes are required for any official commission action.

Save America has raised more than $120 million from Trump supporters and sometimes sends 10 or more emails a day, touting contests, merchandise, events of the day and other misleading pitches, such as saying contributions will be matched six times, or that Trump himself is being briefed on the list of donors in an hour. One recent pitch came with the subject line “SHIPMENT ORDER” but was not in reference to any shipment.

A recent pitch asked donors if they wanted to see Trump’s new “TRUMP FORCE ONE” — the former president’s private plane — and to say yes, they had to contribute. Others give shirts and Trump coins for large contributions, while some of the pitches come from surrogates.

The pitches often include Trump, with a beaming smile, and buttons for small-dollar donors. When the button is clicked, donors can give $5, $10 or more. There is also a check mark that automatically signs donors up for repeated contributions unless it is unchecked by the donor — a mechanism that has led some to demand refunds.

Many of the donors attracted by email pitches, Trump advisers and Republican operatives say, are lower- or middle-class supporters who are die-hard fans of the former president.

Trump’s fundraising for the PAC has annoyed some Republicans, who say he is cannibalizing small-dollar fundraising but not using the money to benefit the party or other candidates. According to the PAC’s most recent filings in January, it started the year with $122 million and had distributed roughly $350,000 among 69 candidates and committees.

The former president’s PAC has more cash on hand than any Republican committee or candidate, and Trump has stockpiled an overwhelming majority of the money. He cannot use it for a presidential bid, but there are few limits on how he can spend it.

But Trump advisers say that many of the Republican committees and candidates mimic their language hoping to do as well as Trump — and that he has brought new donors to the party that never gave before.