Trump groups raised millions, then paid it out to loyalists and a Trump hotel


Alex Wroblewski / The New York Times

Trump International Hotel in Washington, Aug. 1, 2017. Trump International Hotel has emerged as a go-to destination for donors and others seeking to rub elbows with Trump family members and insiders.

Thu, Jan 25, 2018 (2 a.m.)

WASHINGTON — A pair of groups supporting President Donald Trump say they raised $30 million last year, then spent tens of thousands of those dollars at the Trump International Hotel here and on payments to a few Trump loyalists like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former Milwaukee County sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., according to new campaign finance reports and news reports.

Of the millions raised, at least $1 million came from a coal company that has gained extraordinary access to the Trump administration to push for pro-coal policy changes.

The campaign finance reports shed light on a network of groups that were formed to support Trump, but have spent less than other groups bolstering his agenda, while steering money to the president’s businesses and his most ardent surrogates.

One of the groups — a super PAC called America First Action — spent nearly $33,000 at the Trump International Hotel, primarily on events for donors, and paid tens of thousands of dollars each to Lewandowski; Brad Parscale, a digital strategist for Trump’s campaign; and Katrina Pierson, a campaign spokeswoman. Those figures were revealed in a report filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission, which shows that the group raised $4 million last year.

An affiliated nonprofit group, America First Policies, raised $26 million last year, according to a report by Axios. That group is registered under a section of the tax code — 501(c)(4) — that allows it to shield most information about its finances, including the identity of its donors.

The America First groups have been viewed as something of an enigma in campaign finance circles. While many of the Republican Party’s traditional elite donors have publicly kept their distance from the groups, the organizations have the blessing of the administration and have projected confidence in their fundraising.

But Republican operatives have grumbled that the amount the groups say they have raised have dwarfed the amount they have spent to support Trump’s political and policy goals during his first year in office.

Reports filed with the election commission show that the groups combined to spend about $3.2 million — just over 10 percent of what they raised — supporting Republican candidates in special elections, including former Sen. Luther Strange and Roy S. Moore, who lost their bids for an Alabama Senate seat, and Karen Handel, who won her House campaign in Georgia.

Figures provided by a Republican ad buyer indicate that the groups spent an additional $2.8 million on television ads promoting efforts championed by Trump to overhaul the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act, though there were no records of television ad spending by the groups since the passage last month of the tax overhaul. Other Republican groups have been advertising heavily this year to bolster public approval of the tax overhaul, which is considered critical to the party’s midterm election prospects this year.

Brian O. Walsh, the president of America First Policies, said the group had paid for online ads “highlighting President Trump’s leadership on key issues.” Those ads can be harder to track, and Walsh declined to provide an “item-by-item breakdown at this time.”

A person close to the groups told Axios they had $14 million in the bank headed into this year, which could provide the basis for a major midterm election campaign.

But very few of the party’s elite donors were listed among the contributors to America First Action in the report filed Wednesday with the election commission.

By far the biggest donor was Los Angeles developer Geoffrey H. Palmer, who donated $2 million of the $3.7 million raised in the second half of the year by America First Action. Palmer donated generously in 2016, giving $3 million to a different super PAC, or political action committee, that supported Trump, and an additional $310,000 to a committee associated with Trump’s campaign.

An additional $1 million came from Murray Energy, a coal company based in Ohio that has assiduously courted Trump as it pressed the new administration to repeal President Barack Obama’s climate change policies intended to shut down old coal-burning power plants. The company had previously donated a combined $550,000 to help fund the Republican convention in Cleveland and Trump’s inauguration.

In the weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Murray’s chief executive officer, Robert E. Murray, wrote confidential memos to Vice President Mike Pence and the energy secretary, Rick Perry, laying out a wish list of environmental rollbacks, which he discussed in a meeting with Perry. The administration is on track to fulfill many of the items on Murray’s list.

Murray Energy’s donation to America First Action came about five months after Murray’s meeting with Perry. Asked whether there was any connection between the donation and the administration’s receptiveness to Murray, Gary M. Broadbent, a spokesman for Murray Energy, said that “President Trump and his administration have always supported the United States coal industry.”

America First Action has spent heavily to try to court other major donors, as well, paying consultants with significant fundraising experience, including Cara Mason, the former finance director of the Republican National Committee, and Marty Obst, a longtime aide and current policy adviser to Pence. Their respective firms were paid $60,000 each in the second half of last year by America First Action.

The super PAC hosted a Christmas party for donors at the Trump International Hotel, which has emerged as a go-to destination for donors and others seeking to rub elbows with Trump family members and insiders. The party was attended by Pence, as well as Trump family members and several members of Congress. In addition, America First Action spent more than $57,000 on gifts for donors at upscale jewelry stores, the White House Historical Association and 800-CEO-READ, a company that sells bulk orders of books about business, including many of Trump’s titles.

The super PAC also paid $55,000 to a firm owned by Lewandowski, $40,000 to one owned by Pierson and $137,000 to one owned by Parscale. He is in charge of digital outreach for America First Action and Trump’s campaign, and it is possible that his firm is using the money it received from the PAC to buy digital advertising. Clarke, who is a spokesman and senior adviser to America First, was paid $32,000 through his firm.

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