Donald Trump’s advisers sent a “breaking” alert a few weeks before Christmas to his political supporters, informing them of a new opportunity to show their “loyalty” through a book of photographs.
Former first lady Melania Trump has sold digital images of a painting of her eyes for about $180 each, with payments that had to be submitted to her website in the form of a cryptocurrency called Solana. She has also offered for sale a hat she wore greeting the French president at the White House, a painting of her wearing the hat, and a digital image of the same, for a minimum bid she originally pegged at $250,000, though that amount fell precipitously in recent weeks as the value of Solana plunged.
Trump and his family have also been hitting the road, with both the former president and Trump Jr. taking part in a for-profit speaking event in Houston on Saturday, before a free political rally just outside the city. Tickets for the American Freedom Tour ranged from $9 for satellite room viewing and $25 for a general admission seat to $3,995 for a meeting and photo with the younger Trump and other perks.
The lines between political and for-profit efforts by the former president and his family have blurred for months as they have moved to reestablish and expand the branding empire they enjoyed before he entered the White House. Major Republican committees are promoting Trump’s private business interests, and Trump has repeatedly used his political action committee to promote his private products, in addition to building a political war chest of $122 million by the end of last year.
Years after shuttering businesses selling Trump steaks, Trump vodka and Trump mattresses, the Trumps have returned to unconventional direct-to-consumer appeals that trade on his continued popularity among a devoted base to the tune of millions of dollars in receipts. Even as some of his traditional businesses have struggled after a polarizing presidency, Trump and his family have been launching a whole set designed to target his die-hard followers.
The moves come as he continues to travel the country for political rallies while teasing a potential 2024 presidential campaign. He has also been fighting off multiple investigations into his business and political practices, much of which he has paid for with help from his political fundraising operation and his allies at the Republican National Committee.
“He has an incredibly solid base of people who think the election was stolen and their country is being stolen from them,” said former campaign manager Brad Parscale of Trump’s customers. Parscale’s company manages the digital operations for his enterprises, the full profits of which are unknown because they fall outside his political operation.
Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, said “unprecedented demand for President Trump, his thoughts, and his products continues to grow unlike anything politics has ever seen.” He added, “That demand will only expand further.”
Presidents have long monetized the office after leaving, if usually more quietly by giving largely private paid speeches and sometimes by sitting on corporate boards. But none has done it in Trump’s flashy fashion.
Michael Cohen, a former Trump political and business adviser, said the new Trump ventures follow the same strategies that Trump employed before his election, when Cohen was often involved in striking branding deals on behalf of his boss. Those projects included everything from Trump brand bottled water to Trump University, a real estate investment seminar that ended with Trump paying $25 million to former students who had sued him for misrepresenting the program.
“All of this was presented to him and accepted because they flashed some cash in front of his face,” said Cohen, who fell out with his former boss after the 2016 election and was sentenced to three years in prison for multiple charges including campaign finance violations in support of Trump, of the current Trump efforts. “They would sell ice to an Eskimo signed by Trump if they could.”
Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer, said Trump’s traditional hospitality businesses have been sideswiped by the coronavirus and fallout from his presidency at the same time he has debt coming due on some of his properties.
Trump faces more than $400 million in outstanding loans, including more than $290 million in debts to Deutsche Bank on his D.C. hotel and his Doral golf resort, both of which suffered from declining revenue during the pandemic. Much of that debt is personally guaranteed, putting his fortune at risk if he defaults. He has made recent moves to address the future of both properties, including a proposed sale of his D.C. hotel lease, for which he is expected to make a handsome profit.
O’Brien and others also noted that Trump saw throughout his presidency that supporters would give to him, even if they barely had the money, and gave more than $70 million to a fund intended to help him overturn the election.
“He learned he could monetize his political standing,” O’Brien said. “And if there is a pile of cash on a desk, Donald Trump is going to take it.”
The former president’s new ventures have supplemented a pension of over $200,000 and hundreds of thousands more taxpayer dollars for office rentals, travel, staff and supplies.
Trump pocketed between $3 million and $4 million on a recent four-stop speaking tour with conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, according to a person familiar with the deal. Tickets for the general public started at $100 each. Trump also used his political action committee to promote the event through a news release. Even though many of the arenas appeared somewhat empty, the evenings were lucrative.
Trump has also given private speeches in Texas and Florida, where he collected six-figure checks, and has done virtual events, allies say. He has signed thousands of the $230 photo books. “The boxes are everywhere,” one person in his orbit said.
Sometimes, the money comes to Trump. He has agreed to appear at fundraisers at his club for candidates who pay to use his facilities, and he regularly appears at five or six fundraisers a week, advisers say. Additionally, he routinely attends weddings at the club, where couples sometimes book hoping to see him. His team is also renting his lists of supporters to other candidates, in exchange for a large cut of the money.
“He always wants to be making money and sees everything as a branding exercise,” said a senior Trump adviser, who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect Trump’s private views.
For supporters accustomed to getting multiple pleas a day for money to support Trump, often by selling hats or shirts, the pitch to buy his new book of photographs in December did not appear exceptional.
But there was a difference. Unlike most of the money requests, sales of the book did not go to Trump’s political operation, Save America, which sent the email. Save America often sends supporters five or more emails a day offering contests, merchandise and other perks for those who donate, and sometimes gives misleading claims about their donations being matched or Trump asking about them in particular.
“The demand for President Donald Trump remains unmatched. No one generates more enthusiasm, more support and more excitement,” said Sergio Gor, the president of Winning Team Publishing, who worked on Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential effort of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “As his publisher, we never expected to sell over 200,000 copies in just a few weeks.”
Trump’s biggest for-profit effort is a new social network, called Truth Social, which has yet to be launched. Because of the structure of the company, which is being merged with another firm, the former president is poised to reap a large windfall from the effort if he can maintain or increase the company’s stock price. But regulators are probing the deal to create the company, and no such social network has emerged, frustrating Trump at times, according to advisers.
The social network’s ambitions have been aided by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee, which have been advertising it on Facebook, where Trump himself is banned from posting, to drum up interest in the new company.
“Do you want to join Donald Trump’s social media site?” asks an ad for the Senate committee. “Vote in the link below.”
The spots, which drive interest in the Trump effort, link to online polls and opportunities to contribute to the Republican causes. Facebook users who click on the ads are given a chance to donate and submit their contact information to the committees, which are independent from Trump’s new online effort.
Of all the family’s endeavors, Melania Trump’s new venture is perhaps the most unusual.
She has told others that she is keeping the proceeds from her sales separate from her husband’s operation, and she has promised to donate some of the proceeds to charity. Several of Trump’s top advisers have said they don’t understand why she requires payment in Solana. Solana Labs, which built the blockchain, released a statement last month saying her offerings were not part of a “Solana-led initiative.”
First ladies have not traditionally sold their worn items to make money for themselves but have occasionally given them to charities for auctions, said Anita McBride, a White House historian and former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. McBride said unlike her predecessors, Melania Trump seemed less interested in buttressing her husband’s legacy and participating in the types of charitable endeavors that first ladies traditionally have done to boost their own images.
“I’ve really not seen anything like this,” she said, of the cryptocurrency auctions.
Melania Trump’s former chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, said Trump, a former model, would like that the art is of herself and getting to control the images. Grisham said she had never heard Melania Trump speak about cryptocurrency before leaving the White House. “I think she’s just stockpiling money for herself right now,” she said.
A statement from Melania Trump’s office said her business efforts flow from a passion for technology and culture and a commitment to philanthropy.
“Today, Mrs. Trump has built a blueprint to support her philanthropic platform, which provides children with computer science skills required to secure an entry level job in the tech sector,” the statement said.
But her experimentation with cryptocurrency appeared to have backfired this month, when the value of Solana fell as part of a broader sell-off of digital coins. Bids on her hat reached as high as $275,000 at one point, before dropping to the equivalent of just over $150,000 before the auction ended. She has not announced the final sale price of the hat in either dollars or Solana.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has branched out on his own with the help of his personal email list, which he has built in part by warning his 5 million Facebook followers that he may soon be kicked off the platform.
He rented his email list at an unknown cost in December to HobbyTron.com, an online toy vendor that uses celebrities for marketing, telling his followers the company was an “American-owned small business, so your support matters.” In the email appeal, he included a photoshopped meme of President Biden standing amid empty store shelves with a photo of his son, Hunter Biden, in his underwear.
Donald Trump Jr., who calls himself a “general in the meme wars,” also operates his own merchandise shop which is focused on selling clothing with messages meant to upset liberals. In 2020, he founded an outdoor adventure brand, Field Ethos Journal, which has now published its first print magazine.
The book publishing project has been a major success, according to a person involved in its activities. The company, which has not disclosed its investors, claims to have projects by three other authors in the pipeline, including Donald Trump Jr., who is working on his third book. The company has had discussions with former president Trump about doing another book with the publisher, the person said, but nothing has yet been agreed.
At the Jan. 15 Trump rally in Arizona, the new company set up a small stand to sell the photo book directly to supporters.
Trump has also returned to work on his existing suite of golf and resort properties. He released a statement this month, using his taxpayer-funded post-presidential office, boasting of a recent investment in his Doral golf course in Miami and promising that thousands of homes would be built on the property.
“Check it out!” Trump said in the statement.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said Donald Trump would appear at a for-profit speaking event in Houston on Monday. The event is Saturday. The article also incorrectly said Melania Trump offered for sale a hat on a visit to France. She wore it when greeting the French president at the White House.
Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.