President Donald Trump will reportedly dine Wednesday night with officials from the pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies, just one week after a group representative told CNBC that it maintains "very clear lines and high walls" intended to keep its work separate from the White House.
The president's dinner companions are to include oil billionaire Harold Hamm, who recently joined the board of America First Policies, and Brian O. Walsh, the group's executive director. The setting will be the cream-colored Georgetown mansion of Boyden Gray, a former official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. CNN first reported details of the dinner.
The dinner will take place less than a week after CNBC published an in-depth report on America First Policies, a secretive group built around a web of connections between the White House, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Founded by former Trump campaign staffers in early 2017, the group's stated purpose is to advance Trump's policies. But CNBC found that America First Policies is also conducting a large-scale polling operation that appears designed to benefit the president, a situation which raises a number of legal concerns, according to election law experts.
As a tax-exempt nonprofit group, America First Policies is permitted to keep its donors secret as long as it doesn't get too political, and it doesn't coordinate with candidates or campaigns.
Speaking to CNBC, Walsh, the executive director, denied that America First Policies coordinates its work with the White House or the Trump campaign. But campaign finance lawyers and polling experts told CNBC that the evidence of AFP's work suggests otherwise.
Following the publication of CNBC's report, the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice, both alleging that America First Policies had violated campaign finance laws that require groups to disclose any money they spend on elections or campaigns.
"There's ample reason to believe that President Trump and his outside groups are illegally coordinating their fundraising and other activities, including flagrant violations of the soft money rules," said Stephen Spaulding, a former FEC special counsel who is now with Common Cause.
"As the guest list for tonight's dinner makes clear, America First Policies' supposedly 'high walls and sharp lines' are an absurd defense," Spaulding said. "Any 'high walls' that exist between this group and the Trump campaign have gaping holes in them, which Trump is driving a truck through."
By attending a small, private dinner with key figures at American First Policies, "Trump is saying, in effect, that America First Policies has the White House's blessing," said Brendan Fischer, an election law expert at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. "It also sends a signal to deep-pocketed financial interests that they can buy influence with the administration through secret donations to the White House's preferred dark money group."
The dinner also presents an opportunity for America First Policies "to make sure that its political spending is of maximum value to the president, which in turn means that donations to the group can buy maximum influence with the president," Fischer said.
In recent weeks, the ties between the nonprofit group and the White House appear to have deepened, with Vice President Mike Pence holding a series of events around the country sponsored by America First Policies. Pence was at one of these events in Kentucky on Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Trump's dinner.
Officials at America First Policies did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNBC, and a White House spokesman did not reply to an inquiry from CNBC about the event.
The dinner party is also significant in that it represents a rare outing for the president to a private home in Washington. If Trump leaves the White House after dark, it's almost always to eat at the restaurant in his Trump International Hotel.
All of which leaves Campaign Legal Center's Fischer deeply concerned about the secrecy that America First Policies, as a nonprofit, is allowed to offer to potential donors.
"Are they taking money from foreign donors, or from lobbying groups that want something from the White House? We don't know!" Fischer exclaimed. "But if President Trump learns anything about America First Policies' funding sources over dinner tonight, I sure hope he lets the public know."