Funeral directors from across the country have flocked to Washington for their annual advocacy summit — an event that includes a visit to Capitol Hill, a trip to Arlington National Cemetery and lobbying on issues related to burials.
But this year’s gathering came with a new, high-profile ticket: an evening at the Trump International Hotel alongside one of President Trump’s most steadfast allies, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
A happy-hour reception, a formal dinner and a keynote address by Gingrich were on the agenda for the gathering Thursday. Two tiers of tickets were sold: $99 for the reception or $200 for the entire event. Proceeds benefited the political action committee of the National Funeral Directors Association.
The invitation, titled “An Evening with Newt Gingrich,” promoted the Trump International Hotel as a place where “history meets luxury” that has been restored beyond its “original grandeur.”
“Explore the magnificent space and experience an exclusive evening with the Honorable Newt Gingrich for an inside perspective of politics in Washington, D.C.,” the invitation said.
During the conference this week, the funeral directors aim to lobby lawmakers for passage of the Burial Rights for America’s Veterans’ Efforts Act of 2017, which would increase the financial benefits related to burials and funerals of veterans.
In booking the president’s luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks away from the White House, the funeral directors joined a growing list of special-interest groups bringing their business to Trump properties.
Ethics experts have said that the trend raises concerns about efforts to lobby the Trump administration commingled with potentially lucrative business transactions with Trump’s company.
During the first 100 days of his term, Trump has stopped by his hotel several times for dinner. Last weekend, he dined there with his wife, Melania; previously, he had eaten there with his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also been spotted at the hotel restaurant, and Trump aide Omarosa Manigault held her wedding at the hotel this month.
The National Confectioners Association — made up of candymaker titans such as Jelly Belly, Hershey and Mars — has held events at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami and the Trump hotel in Washington. The candymakers, who are seeking cost-saving changes involving the U.S. sugar industry, will return to Trump’s D.C. hotel in September for their annual lobbying conference.
A spokesman for the candy group said the venues were booked before Trump won the presidency.
In March, a railroad contractors’ association held a dinner at the D.C. hotel in advance of “Railroad Day.” One of the attendees, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), shared on Instagram a photo of the menu, which featured selections of Trump coffee and Trump wines.
The Industrial Truck Association is set to hold its annual “National Forklift Safety” day at the same hotel in June. And in the fall, a newly formed PAC of college athletic directors, which is seeking to prevent college athletes from being paid, will bring its congressional gala to the hotel.
A spokeswoman from the National Funeral Directors Association did not provide the specific date that the group booked the Trump property. The association’s website and social media channels only recently began to promote the Gingrich event.
Although Gingrich has no official role in the White House, he has earned a reputation as a Trump confidant who can provide direct access to the president’s inner circle. Such knowledge appears to be lucrative. It has been reported that Gingrich’s speaking fees surged in the aftermath of Trump’s election.
“NFDA selected the Trump hotel because of its historic appeal and because we knew it would be a venue of interest to our members,” said Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the group. “Former speaker of the House Mr. Gingrich, similarly, is a historic figure in our country’s recent political history; NFDA felt he may be able to offer a unique perspective on how the political challenges he faced during his time in office compare with recent events and what we might expect in the future.”
Koth said that the funeral directors plan to meet with members of Congress to encourage them to pass the veterans burial act.
“For many years, the National Funeral Directors Association has worked with Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that veterans can be buried or interred with honor and dignity befitting their sacrifice,” she said. “NFDA works on a bipartisan basis to create positive legislative and regulatory changes that benefit the profession and the families it serves. That’s the focus of our work in D.C. and why we gather every year for the Advocacy Summit.”
The PAC of the National Funeral Directors Association has contributed to primarily Republican candidates, including Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.); former congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), who now heads the Interior Department; and the Team Ryan PAC of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), according to Federal Election Commission filings.
An iteration of the veterans burial act introduced by Hunter in 2015 failed to pass, largely because of its estimated cost of nearly $1 billion over a 10-year period, according to documents posted on the funeral directors’ website.
Hunter appears on YouTube in a promotional video for the funeral directors’ Washington summit. His spokesman, however, said he was unaware of the Trump hotel event and had no plans to attend.
It’s not the first time Gingrich has made a high-profile appearance at the luxury Trump hotel. In late October, Gingrich and his wife, Callista, attended the ribbon-cutting event for the property. He even earned a shout-out from Trump, who commented on a Gingrich interview with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Gingrich had accused Kelly of being “fascinated with sex” during her reporting on sexual harassment claims against Trump.
“Congratulations, Newt. On last night, that was an amazing interview,” Trump said on Oct. 26 in front of a crowd at the hotel. “We don’t play games, Newt, right?”
Gingrich’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment for this article. The spokeswoman for the funeral directors’ association said that Gingrich’s speech on Thursday was strictly off-limits to the media, as stipulated by a clause in Gingrich’s contract.
Last summer, when Gingrich was floated as a possible running mate for Trump, the former speaker quipped that he would not take the gig if it involved a certain ceremonial duty — attending funerals.
“I have a very simple test question: If it’s about funerals, I’m not interested,” he said in July.
If you know of an interest group event or business conference being held at a Trump property, email Amy Brittain at firstname.lastname@example.org.