Donald Trump risks little of his fortune in his bid for president
Trump's campaign spent just $12.4 million in 2015, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission, millions less than any of his leading rivals for the Republican nomination. More than half of Trump's total spending was covered by checks from his supporters, who have thronged to his stump speeches and bought millions of dollars' worth of "Make America Great Again" hats and T-shirts.
About $2.7 million more was paid to at least seven companies that Trump owns or to people who work for his real estate and branding empire, repaying them for services provided to his campaign. That total included more than $2 million for flights on his own planes and helicopter, a quarter of a million dollars to his Fifth Avenue office tower, and even $66,000 to Keith Schiller, his bodyguard and the head of security at the Trump Organization.
While the convoluted accounting is required by law — so that Trump's companies do not make illegal corporate contributions directly to his campaign — it also means that Trump is in effect taking millions of dollars out of one pocket and depositing it into another.
What remains is a quintessentially Trumpian endeavor that blurs the line between campaigning and brand-building and complicates Trump's claims that he is funding his own White House campaign. About three-quarters of Trump's total campaign spending has either gone to reimburse his own businesses or has been covered by funds from grass-roots donors, according to an analysis by The New York Times of FEC reports. Virtually all of the money that Trump himself has put into the campaign was lent, rather than donated outright, meaning that he could potentially sell enough hats and T-shirts to pay himself back down the road.
"I think there's always been a case to be made that Donald Trump looked at this as a way to extend his brand to a new generation of people," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist who has done work for a group supporting Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. "I bet 'Art of the Deal' was in the remainder bin until this year."
Trump's advisers resist the idea that he is in the campaign to make money. They note that Trump's political stands have cost him money, too, as when Macy's, which has sold Trump-branded menswear, and NBC, which airs the reality show "The Celebrity Apprentice" that Trump hosted, cut ties with Trump over his comments about illegal immigration.
"It's not just the business Trump has lost but the business opportunities that are not coming to him because of the strong stands he has taken," said Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager. "I've personally been there in the room when he has been offered massive, massive business opportunities out of the country, and he says he does not want to do them because his sole focus is running for the president of the United States."
But Trump has been dubious in the past of wealthy businessmen, like Steve Forbes and Michael R Bloomberg, who actually spend their own money on campaigns for high office. During the 2000 election, according to Fortune magazine, when Trump flirted with an independent bid for president, he scheduled paid speeches in the same cities where he was holding political events.
"It's very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it," Trump said at the time.
Some of the costs for which Trump's companies are now charging his campaign would probably be incurred even if he were not running for president, such as salaries for borrowed Trump Organization personnel and some of his private plane flights. Excluding short hops around the New York City area, Trump's private aircraft logged 66 flights in July, August and September 2015, according to the most recent available federal flight records. During the same period in 2014, the aircraft made 51 flights.
Trump would hardly be the first person to find a financial upside to running for president. Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of the Republican race Monday, has used his campaign mailing lists to hawk miracle cures for cancer. A variety of failed Republican contenders have parlayed White House bids into lucrative careers on radio and television. And Hillary Clinton's six-figure speaking fees are due, in some measure, to her high profile as a former candidate and Cabinet secretary.
But a tour through campaign filings suggests that no one meshes business and political pursuits quite as seamlessly as the candidate whose campaign is built on his celebrity.
Trump spent $114,000 to stage an enormous rally in September in Dallas, even though Texas does not hold its primary until March. He spent about $2 million on hats, T-shirts and other merchandise, roughly half of it going to a Louisiana-based company, Ace Specialties, owned by a board member of Trump's son's charitable foundation. During the last half of 2015, Trump's campaign spent more on renting stages and audiovisual equipment ($1.4 million) than on voter lists, field offices and collecting signatures to get onto ballots ($1.2 million.)
It remains to be seen whether Trump's campaign operation is better at promoting the candidate's brand or at winning elections. He lost the Iowa caucuses by a few percentage points. On the other hand, Trump has sold 179,000 copies of his new book, "Crippled America," according to Nielsen BookScan, about $4 million worth of sales at the list price.
Trump himself can seem hazy on the distinction between his political and business pursuits. Virtually every Trump speech includes a reference to one of his hotels or casinos; recently he heaped praise on the Doral, the luxury golf resort outside Miami he acquired in 2012. He often suggests that the Obama administration should have read his book "The Art of the Deal" before negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement. (As Wilson suspected, sales of that 1987 best-seller have lately skyrocketed, from 3,000 copies in 2014 to 47,000 in 2015.)
At a campaign event in Exeter on Wednesday night, Trump promoted his soon-to-open Washington hotel, which will be in the renovated old post office building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"It's going to be a fantastic project," Trump promised. "We're going to try and have it open for a certain date," he told the crowd, adding, "sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Lewandowski, the campaign manager, said there was no confusion back at the campaign headquarters (a slice of the fifth floor of Trump Tower). Since the campaign is not allowed to take in-kind contributions from the company, Lewandowski said, every borrowed Trump employee and flight-hour has to be properly compensated out of the campaign account.
"We pay fair market value for all the items that we use," Lewandowski said. "We pay the Trump Corp. or the Trump entities such things as the rent for the headquarters."
Some critics remain unconvinced that all of the help Trump's companies are providing his campaign is being properly accounted for.
In December, Trump threatened legal action against a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, after the group ran ads suggesting Trump was not fit to be commander in chief. But the threat was delivered by Alan Garten, general counsel to the Trump Organization, rather than by Trump's campaign.
Reminded that candidates are forbidden to use corporate resources for campaign purposes, Trump's company argued that an attack on Trump anywhere was an attack on him everywhere.
"The Trump Organization has vigorously policed Mr. Trump's brand and business interests for many years," the company said in a statement. "Those rights are not forfeited by virtue of Mr. Trump's candidacy."
Right to Rise has filed an FEC complaint, charging that Trump is illegally using corporate resources to further his campaign.
There are signs that Trump has begun to invest significantly in a traditional political apparatus. His campaign's payments to companies not affiliated with the Trump Organization doubled between August and November. As of the end of December, Trump had spent almost as much on field staff ($2 million) as on promotional merchandise and marketing ($2.5 million).
And at the moment, Trump leads by double-digits in national polls and in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Tuesday.
One way or another, he suggested Wednesday, he will win.
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