Trump Makes Sweeping Promises to Donors on Audacious Fundraising Tour

Sara Stathas for The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wis., on May 1.

When Donald Trump met some of the country’s top donors at a luxurious New York hotel earlier this month, he told the group that a businessman had recently offered $1 million to his presidential effort and wanted to have lunch.

“I’m not having lunch,” Trump said he responded, according to donors who attended. “You’ve got to make it $25 million.”

Another businessman, he said, had traditionally given $2 million to $3 million to Republicans. Instead, he said he told the donor that he wanted a $25 million or $50 million contribution or he would not be “very happy.”

As he closed his pitch at the Pierre Hotel, Trump explained to the group why it was in their interest to cut large checks. If he was not put back in office, taxes would go up for them under President Biden, who vows to let Trump-era tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations expire at the end of 2025.

“The tax cuts all expire for wealthy and poor and middle-income and everything else, but they expire in another seven months and he’s not going to renew them, which means taxes are going to go up by four times,” Trump said, exaggerating the size of the cuts. “You’re going to have the biggest tax increase in history.”

Seconds after promising the tax cuts, Trump made his pitch explicit. “So whatever you guys can do, I appreciate it,” he said.

The remarks are just one example of a series of audacious requests by Trump for big-money contributions in recent months, according to 11 donors, advisers and others close to the former president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe his fundraising. The pleas for millions in donations come as the presumptive Republican nominee seeks to close a cash gap with Biden and to pay for costly legal bills in his four criminal indictments.

Trump sometimes makes requests higher than his team expects to receive, sometimes surprising his own advisers because he is asking for so much money. By frequently tying the fundraising requests within seconds of promises of tax cuts, oil project infrastructure approvals and other favorable policies and asking for sums more than his campaign and the GOP can legally accept from an individual, Trump is also testing the boundaries of federal campaign finance laws, according to legal experts.

In one recent meeting staged by his Save America super PAC, Trump asked oil industry executives to raise $1 billion for his campaign and said raising such a sum would be a “deal” given how much money they would save if he were reelected as president.

In recent meetings with donors, he has repeatedly suggested they should give millions of dollars without saying where it should go.

Larry Noble, a longtime campaign finance lawyer, said Trump was technically allowed to ask only for contributions of $3,300 or less for his campaign, according to federal laws. But he can appear at events for his super PAC where the price of admission is far higher – as long as he doesn’t ask for the money directly.

“He can’t say, ‘I want you to give me $1 million,’” Noble said.

And after a 2016 Supreme Court decision overturning a public-corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, it would require an explicit quid pro quo for a specific government action in direct exchange for a contribution to be viewed as illegal, Noble said.

Also, even if presented with evidence Trump might have gone over the line, multiple prominent campaign finance lawyers said, the Federal Election Commission, which is gridlocked with three Republicans and three Democrats, is unlikely to investigate any of Trump’s fundraising in an election year.

Trump is certainly not the first candidate to seek large checks from moneyed interests. Advisers say that Trump regularly makes the same policy promises on the campaign trail that he does behind closed doors with wealthy donors, and evidence has not emerged that Trump has directly linked a specific policy outcome to a specific donation.

Oftentimes, his comments at the events are about foreign policy and topics he discusses at rallies, such as inflation and immigration.

For example, at one event, he suggested that he would have bombed Moscow and Beijing if Russia invaded Ukraine or China invaded Taiwan, surprising some of the donors.

The Trump campaign did not respond to detailed questions about his fundraising requests but issued a statement in support of his efforts.

“As Joe Biden’s backers in Hollywood and Silicon Valley are withholding their support for Biden’s failing campaign, donors across the country are maximizing their efforts to reelect President Trump because they realize we cannot afford another four years of Joe Biden’s terrible policies,” Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement.

The former president was once reluctant to call donors and decried the role of big money in politics. He also often railed about having to take pictures – berating advisers for scheduling too many “clicks” – and sought to cast himself as an outsider who was not beholden to the traditional moneyed interests that shape Washington.

“He didn’t want to make fundraising calls,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign. On the 2020 campaign, he would reluctantly participate in fundraisers, advisers said, seeing them as an unpleasant necessity.

Part of his opposition to making calls was that he liked the perception that he was an outsider who was going to “drain the swamp.”

“I will say this – [the] people [who] control special interests, lobbyists, donors, they make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians,” Trump said during a 2016 debate. “And frankly, I know the system better than anybody else, and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system, because that system is wrong.”

This time, campaign advisers say, Trump needs the money and he is taking an active role in raising it. The Trump campaign and RNC reported that they jointly raised $76 million in April, about $25 million more than the Biden campaign said it raised across all its committees in the same month. But the Biden operation still had about $60 million more cash on hand than the Trump campaign.

Trump has met with an assortment of real estate, legal, finance, oil and other business executives in recent months, according to people familiar with invitation lists. He has often promised agenda items they would like passed as part of his broader fundraising pitch, and sometimes has asked allies to bundle millions or more, according to people close to the former president. Some of the meetings have included tours of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., and his New York apartment.

Trump, four people close to him say, is closely tracking who gives what amount to his campaign and associated efforts – and which allies are bundling large checks for him. He has often told allies how much money he expects them to raise.

In the days following the recent meeting with oil industry donors, executives discussed whether it would even be possible to meet Trump’s $1 billion request, according to four people in the oil industry familiar with the discussions.

But they are trying. Trump has repeatedly pressured oil magnate Harold Hamm to raise significant money for him, telling Hamm that he is “behind” and “needs the money,” according to a person familiar with the outreach. Hamm had an event for Trump in Texas on Wednesday, where the price of admission was about $250,000 for oil executives, according to people familiar with the matter.

The meeting stretched for many hours, attendees said, and included photos with the top donors. At the fundraiser, he promised to cut taxes on corporations and give oil executives an array of policies they wanted and said he was being outraised by the Democrats and the unions, asking the crowd to “be generous, please.”

“So give me some of your money,” he said, drawing laughs. “True. I’m begging for your money.”

At another event, Trump told the group that if they wanted a picture with him and did not have one, then they needed to give more.

He also held a fundraiser at the home of Kentucky coal baron Joe Craft earlier in May, according to a person with knowledge of the event.

Trump has regularly joked with donors and advisers that he doesn’t spend more than 10 minutes with someone if the person doesn’t give $10 million, according to people who have heard the comments. He also has complained about some of his billionaire friends not giving enough.

In Florida earlier this month, the crowd seemed stunned after Trump offered the stage to anyone who would cut a $1 million check, according to people present. He kept asking people to come forward, according to audio of the event. Then two people took him up on the offer. The limit to contributing to the RNC and the campaign – the entities hosting the event – was less than $1 million.

At a meeting with financial titans in Palm Beach earlier this year, he asked the group what regulations they viewed as the most onerous, according to a person who attended. He then remarked at a larger fundraiser that donors were telling him they cared more about regulations than taxes, according to a donor who attended.

At the New York fundraiser, Trump told the crowd that he wanted to hear what was on their minds and heard their thoughts about former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley – whose prospects as a potential vice-presidential pick he dismissed – and a range of issues related to Israel.

To end the roundtable, he told the room that it was time to go to another fundraiser, prompting laughter when he joked that the next crowd would be less wealthy than the current one.