Trump to accept inauguration funds from corporations and big donors

Nicholas Fandos

President-elect Donald J. Trump will allow corporations and wealthy individuals to make large donations to fund the activities surrounding his inauguration, complicating his promise to eliminate special interests from influencing his government.

Mr. Trump plans to ban money from registered lobbyists, whom he has purged from his transition team and barred from working for his administration. But the restrictions will be lighter on corporations and individuals — the groups that have traditionally provided a vast majority of funding for the festivities surrounding the transfer of power.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Trump International Golf Club on Nov. 19, 2016, in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The restrictions, which members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee cautioned have yet to be finalized, represent a continued march back from standards set in 2009, when President-elect Barack Obama banned gifts from lobbyists, political action committees and corporations, and put a cap of $50,000 on individuals.

Mr. Obama relaxed his own rules in 2012, after what was then the most expensive presidential campaign in history had depleted his donor base, lifting the ban on corporate gifts and restrictions on the size of those from individuals.

Mr. Trump, who like Mr. Obama campaigned on reducing the influence of money in politics, appears poised to relax them further.

Officials planning the inauguration said Mr. Trump would solicit corporate donations up to $1 million and allow money to be transferred from political action committees on a case-by-case basis. The inaugural committee has not reached a decision on where to cap gifts from individuals, if at all.

All told, Mr. Trump hopes to raise roughly $65 million to $75 million to fund the parade, balls and other festivities surrounding his swearing-in as president, according to several people involved in the planning efforts.

Such a fund-raising total, if it materializes, would easily surpass the $43 million Mr. Obama's team raised for his 2013 inauguration and the $53 million, a record, that it raised for his first inauguration in 2009.

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Thomas Barrack Jr., a private equity investor who is heading the committee responsible for planning the events surrounding Mr. Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, said the decision to limit donations from certain groups was "in line with the president-elect's thoughts on ethics reform."

But campaign finance experts said the restrictions left much to be desired, targeting groups that traditionally provide little funding for the occasion while seemingly letting bigger donors — including corporate interests that Mr. Trump took aim at on the campaign trail — off the hook.

"For the most part, they are illusory, because they are restricting money that doesn't really play any significant role in funding the inauguration," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of campaign finance overhaul, referring to the restrictions on lobbyists and foreign interests.

The corporate and individual money that does traditionally play a significant role, he added, would be allowed to flow more or less unabated, leaving the potential of undue influence in place.

"You can't have a more ideal opportunity to buy influence and ingratiate yourself with a new administration than by giving a huge contribution to pay for their inauguration," Mr. Wertheimer said.

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Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, was more forgiving toward Mr. Trump, but he said it would take a fundamental change in the way inaugurations were funded to meaningfully root out special interests.

"I don't find it fundamentally inconsistent with what he is saying," he said. "I just think the rhetoric and the reality are different."

Presidential transition committees, which coordinate and finance most of the festivities that surround the federally funded swearing-in ceremony, face few of the fund-raising restrictions campaigns do, and their practices vary from president to president.

President George W. Bush did not restrict who could support his inaugural festivities, but he put caps on gifts.

The committee is still in the early stages of assembling what will be an operation employing hundreds of people responsible for planning dozens of events. As of Wednesday morning, the fund-raising packages that are typically used to solicit donations were still being vetted by lawyers, and subcommittees were still taking shape to handle issues like security and entertainment.

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"It's like putting on the Olympics in 61 days," Mr. Barrack said, adding that the committee was racing to finalize plans by the end of the week.

Two people working with the committee said it planned to roll out tiered giving packages next week, most likely ranging from $25,000 to $1 million, that will reward donors with progressively more access to more intimate events with Mr. Trump and his team. The committee is planning to hold two official balls, according to two people involved in the planning. By comparison, Mr. Obama attended 10 official balls in 2009.

Mr. Trump is not expected to donate to the festivities himself, as he did to the campaign, according to members of the committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans that had not been finalized.

Sara Armstrong, a longtime Republican National Committee official who helped plan the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, has been appointed chief executive and is leading the team that Mr. Barrack said would eventually total 350 people out of an office building just off the National Mall. As of Wednesday, the committee had hired about 100 people, he said.

The committee includes generous donors to Mr. Trump's campaign, like Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets; Gail Icahn, the wife of the investor Carl Icahn; and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. Several stalwart backers of Republican causes, like Stephen A. Wynn and Lewis M. Eisenberg, are on the committee, as is Brian Ballard, Mr. Trump's longtime Florida lobbyist.

The overall cost of the inauguration and related festivities is likely to run to as much as $200 million. Most of that burden will fall on taxpayers, though, who fund everything from security to the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural luncheon organized by a joint committee of Congress.

Mr. Trump's team said it was expecting two million to three million people to flood Washington for the ceremony, a crowd that could surpass the 1.8 million estimated to have been on hand for Mr. Obama's first inauguration, which was a record. Planners are also expecting more protesters than usual around the event.

Mr. Barrack said Mr. Trump had instructed him to plan events tailored to the political moment.

US President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to update him on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Image

"It's one of the greatest opportunities that this president has to put his fingerprints on bridging the divide," Mr. Barrack said on Wednesday.

Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which controls the Mall and other public spaces where the inauguration will take place, said on Monday that the Park Service did not expect to meet with officials from the group until after Thanksgiving.

But across Washington, the physical preparations for Jan. 20 are well underway, even as the city's political establishment is struggling to come to terms with the election outcome.

Capitol architects have been hammering away since September on the more than 10,000-square-foot inaugural platform overlooking the Mall. And outside the White House, Park Service staff members are at work on the presidential reviewing stand where Mr. Trump will review his inaugural parade.