Donald Trump has charged his own reelection campaign $1.3 million (UShs4.8 billion) for rent, food, lodging and other expenses since taking office, according to a Forbes analysis of the latest campaign filings. And although outsiders have contributed more than $50 million to the campaign, the billionaire president hasn’t handed over any of his own cash. The net effect: $1.3 million of donor money has turned into $1.3 million of Trump money.
In December, Forbes reported on the first $1.1 million that President Trump moved from his campaign into his business. Since then, his campaign filed additional documentation showing that it spent another $180,000 at Trump-owned properties in the final three months of 2018.
None of this seemed likely when Donald Trump first got into politics. “I don’t need anybody’s money,” he announced on the day he launched his 2016 campaign, standing inside the marble atrium at Trump Tower. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
At first, he acted like it, spending $50 million of his own money from April 2015 to June 2016. But the following month, when he was officially named the Republican nominee for president, his financing model changed. From July to November of 2016, outsiders contributed $234 million while Trump put up just $16 million.
Once he became president, Trump had a chance to get some money back. The campaign put more than $800,000 into Trump Tower Commercial LLC, the holding company through which Trump owns his interest in the original Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower Commercial LLC took in an additional $225,000 in rent from the Republican National Committee, which coordinated those payments with the campaign. That means that, since the inauguration, Trump’s reelection effort has had a hand in funneling more than $1 million into the president’s most famous property.
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In addition, the campaign has paid $54,000 to Trump Plaza LLC, which controls a property that includes two brownstone apartment buildings in New York City. The reason for those payments, which are listed as “rent,” remains unclear. Forbes staked out the property for 14 hours on a November day but still could not pin down what exactly the campaign was renting. A person working behind the front desk couldn’t make sense of it either. “If there was any kind of office rented out for campaigning or whatever, I would know about it.” Six residents also said they had never seen any indication of the campaign in the buildings. A 2016 campaign staffer, however, said people sometimes crashed at an apartment there when they were in town.
It is also unclear what exactly the 2020 effort is renting from Trump Restaurants LLC, which has received $60,000 in campaign funds. Trump Restaurants LLC is another holding company tied to Trump Tower. The building’s website, which features a handful of Trump-branded eateries, includes a page of legal disclaimers for Trump Restaurants LLC.
Inside the building lie clues to the purpose of the payments. Near Trump Grill and Trump’s Ice Cream Parlor, there’s a kiosk where tourists can buy T-shirts, hats and other campaign memorabilia. The fine print at the bottom of a poster next to the stand says, “Paid for by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.”—the official name for the president’s 2020 campaign committee.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a list of questions, including whether the stand is in fact the basis for the payments and how many square feet it occupies. So a Forbes reporter paced out the space to take a rough measurement. It appears the entire stand is approximately 60 square feet. With monthly payments of $3,000, that implies that the campaign is paying $600 per square foot in annual rent. For comparison, Gucci rents prime space upstairs, along Fifth Avenue, for only $440 per square foot, according to ananalysis of a debt prospectus obtained by Forbes.
Real estate experts offered varying opinions on whether $3,000 a month represented an appropriate price. “That’s robbery,” said one person familiar with the New York market, surveying the kiosk from inside the building. Two others said it seemed like a fair deal, since smaller spaces often command higher rates on a per-square-foot basis. A Trump campaign official said the 2020 effort pays market rents.
It’s a key question because federal regulations allow candidates to put campaign money into their own businesses only if they pay going rates. Given the varying opinions on whether $3,000 a month constitutes a fair price, however, it seems unlikely that the payments will spark an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. “If something is really egregious, yeah, it’s there,” says Bradley Smith, a Republican who served as a commissioner of the FEC from 2000 to 2005. “But they’re just not going to try to pick apart things on a difference of a few percentage points and try to second-guess what should be paid.”
That means Trump should be free to continue shifting his supporters’ money into his business for the rest of the election cycle.