Organizers have collected about $100 million to help underwrite President Trump’s inaugural celebration, aided by donors eager to back the real-estate developer once he secured the presidency, the inaugural committee’s top fundraiser said Friday.
Attracting inaugural donors “was much easier than the campaign because once he’s elected, everyone wants to jump on board,” Thomas Barrack, the chairman of the President Inaugural Committee, told USA TODAY as he left the traditional post-election luncheon attended by Trump, his family, congressional leaders and former presidents.
“We had low-hanging fruit,” Barrack said, citing inaugural contributions from “institutional donors” who had not supported Trump during 2016 contentious presidential race.
The record haul surpasses the $53 million collected by President Obama from private sources during his first inauguration in 2009. Trump’s inaugural committee has solicited donations as large as $1 million and offered big perks to contributors, such as tickets to a pre-inaugural “candlelight dinner” at Washington’s historic Union Station, attended by Trump and other dignitaries.
On Friday, shortly after Trump took the oath of office, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of his biggest financial backers and a member of the inaugural committee, joined Trump and other dignitaries Congress’ official inaugural luncheon in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. At Adelson’s table: Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and former House speaker John Boehner.
Asked about his presence at the luncheon, a rarity for a political donor, Adelson told USA TODAY: “I was invited by members of Congress.”
He declined to answer further questions. “Sorry, I can’t give an interview,” he said and directed his motorized scooter through the Capitol Rotunda.
Adelson is one of the Republican Party’s largest contributors.
Last year, the Las Vegas Sands CEO and his physician wife, Miriam, donated $35 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, which helped retain the GOP’s hold on the Senate, and ensure Republican control of Washington for the first time in a decade. Another $20 million went to a pro-Trump super PAC, Future45, half of which landed in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.
At a closed-door event Wednesday night honoring Vice President Pence, Trump ribbed Adelson for waiting so long to donate money to the outside groups backing his candidacy, according to remarks obtained by The New York Times.
Trump has touted a populist message during his campaign and inauguration, but luxury has reigned at the closed-door events celebrating his ascension to the White House.
A widely distributed brochure shows that contributors who gave $1 million were offered tickets to an array of exclusive gatherings, including four seats at Wednesday night’s “Vice President’s Dinner," honoring Pence and his wife, Karen, eight tickets to the black-tie Union Station gala and four to a celebratory luncheon Thursday, attended by Trump, incoming members of his administration and top lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The Thursday lunch was held at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, and it marked the second time in a week that the incoming president had stopped at the gilded downtown venue. He and his company lease the hotel from the federal government. “This is a gorgeous room,” Trump said during Thursday’s lunch gathering. “A total genius must have built this place.”
Modern presidents typically raise private funds to help underwrite the balls, parades and other festivities associated with their inaugurations. But the high price tag sets Trump’s inauguration apart, said Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21.
“You don’t need $1 million contributions to be inaugurated as president of the United States,” he said. “It’s excess run amok.”
For corporate interests, donating to an incoming president is “the ideal way to buy influence,” Wertheimer added. “There’s no risk-taking involved here. Unlike donating to a campaign or a major contribution to a super PAC, you’ve already got a winner.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins