While Donald Trump stews over the many legal issues facing him and his administration, the president still has not answered lingering questions about the $107 million collected from corporations and wealthy donors to pay for his inauguration festivities on January 20, 2017.
Suspicions remain high in part because of the record-shattering amount of cash and how it might have been spent, but also because the Trump inauguration committee engaged in securing “dark money,” which does not require disclosure of the contributors.
In addition, two members of the committee have been convicted of financial crimes in recent years, and a third was an unindicted co-conspirator in an accounting fraud case.
Greg Jenkins, who led George W. Bush’s second inaugural committee in 2005, said they raised and spent $42 million (the equivalent of $53 million in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars). Asked by the ProPublica news site how Trump’s team managed to spend so much more, Jenkins responded:
“It’s inexplicable to me. I literally don’t know. They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise(d) at least twice as much as we did. So, there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”
Steve Kerrigan, who oversaw both of Barack Obama’s inaugural committees, had a similar reaction to the Trump cash collection. “There was no need for that amount of money,” he said. “We literally did two inaugurations for less than the cost of that.”
$15 million from Wall Street
Presidential inaugurations are financed through donations, though federal law requires that donors who exceeded a $200 contribution must be publicly disclosed by the committee, which carries a nonprofit status.
For the 2017 celebration, the largest single donation, $5 million, was provided to Trump by a fellow billionaire, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. According to USA Today, other big-money donors to the president’s record-setting committee included the Bank of America, AT&T, Dow Chemical, Boeing and Quicken Loans, which is run by Detroit developer Dan Gilbert. Wall Street firms pitched in $15 million.
Some of those contributors do business with the government or are seeking federal contracts, others want to influence legislation and business regulations.
In a tax filing last year, the Trump committee offered only a basic outline of how the money was spent and did not explain where most of a leftover sum of nearly $3 million went.
Watchdog groups have raised eyebrows by uncovering details that suggest cronyism and the tapping of shell corporations by the committee.
$50 million paid to two vendors
The tax documents showed that more than half of the money went to four event planning companies, including a $26 million payment to a firm started just weeks before the inaugural by a friend of First Lady Melania Trump. According to the New York Times, the friend paid the co-creator of “The Apprentice” TV show, Mark Burnett, to help with the festivities.
Watchdogs and investigative journalists have teamed up to scrutinize the committee’s finances and they found two vendors who, combined, were paid more than $50 million.
What’s more, OpenSecrets.org reported last month that the Trump inaugural committee was the first ever to accept cash from dark money groups that don’t report their donors. One of the largest such contributions, a $1 million check, was provided by a nonprofit with close ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, American Action Network, which spent nearly $6 million in 2016 to help elect congressional Republicans.
Another $1 million payment to the committee came from a shadowy shell company, BH Group, that was described as a “black hole” by the watchdogs. Formed just a few months before the inauguration, BH Group uses an address in Virginia, though there is no evidence that the firm engages in business activities.
Then, in late 2016 BH Group received $750,000 from another mysterious dark money group known as the Wellspring Committee. Documents show that Wellspring’s payment was for “public relations,” but public records indicate that the organization has never engaged in PR or any openly public operations.
Photo: CBS News screenshot