The next night, Trump made surprise stops at donor dinners that feted Vice President-elect Mike Pence and a group of cabinet nominees. On Thursday, the president-elect headlined a luncheon at his downtown hotel honoring GOP congressional leaders, where he singled out and thanked mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson for their support.
That evening, Trump took yet another turn on stage at a candlelight donor dinner at Union Station, where the black-tie crowd dined on grilled white and green asparagus, lemon thyme roasted branzino and vanilla meringue cake.
“He keeps popping up,” said Florida lobbyist and fundraiser Brian Ballard, who said the donor gatherings have been the best political events he has ever attended.
“They’ve been inclusive, they have been welcoming,” said Ballard, who added that the contributors from Florida he has been shepherding around Washington have felt “exhilarated” by the experience.
Wealthy contributors may have served as punching bags for Trump on the campaign trail, but they are enjoying VIP treatment in Washington this week. Top donors were welcomed with a traditional gift bag, stocked with gold White House cuff links, an inaugural blanket, a commemorative plate and other goodies. They had preferential booking at the Trump International Hotel, where rooms were priced at $2,000 a night. And they were invited to an array of exclusive receptions and meals, where they had access to Trump, Pence and other top administration officials – with the best events reserved for the top-tier donors who gave $1 million and more.
“They are blown away and their expectations have been surpassed, and I think the reason for that is no one expected or anticipated that the vice president-elect and president-elect would be attending all these events and be so involved with them,” said Roy Bailey, a Texas investor who co-chaired the inaugural fundraising effort.
“It just created this buzz that’s fantastic,” he said. “For all the donors and underwriters, it’s just a real treat.”
The inaugural committee raised a record $90 million in private financing to put on this week’s balls and other festivities. The identities of the individuals and corporations who funded the effort will not be disclosed for 90 days, when the committee must report its contributors to the Federal Election Commission.
“The money came just pouring in — to the point that some of the money couldn’t be accepted because the events were full,” said Houston-based fundraiser Mica Mosbacher. “We were beginning to turn away people.”
The Trump operation’s warm embrace of the party’s biggest donors and fundraisers stands in sharp contrast to the candidate’s rhetoric when he first launched his long-shot presidential bid. At the time, Trump eschewed the support of rich backers. He was funding his own campaign, the New York developer announced proudly — and he warned that his rivals were corrupted by the money they were taking.
“I’m not getting millions of dollars from all of these special interests and lobbyists and donors,” Trump said in February 2016.
Campaign finance watchdogs said the access that top contributors have been granted to the incoming president and other senior administration officials this week makes his pledge to “drain the swamp” appear hollow.
“The inaugural fundraising looks shockingly like pay-to-play,” said Nick Penniman, executive director of Issue One, a bipartisan group working to reduce the influence of wealthy interests on politics. “It’s the very stuff that he condemned on the campaign trail. This is not what the American people expected when they voted for Donald Trump.”
Trump allies rejected that, noting that he was also headlining events open to the general public, such as Thursday’s concert on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.
“He’s setting a tone from day one that this is about the people who elected him,” Mosbacher said, “not just about the donor class.”