The perks of donating big to Trump's inaugural committee
How much is lunch with members of Donald Trump's cabinet and House and Senate leadership worth? According to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a cool $1 million.
In addition to four tickets to what's billed as an exclusive "leadership luncheon" for anyone who can part with that kind of cash in support of Trump's inaugural festivities, those donors will also enjoy the perks available to other levels of sponsorship, according to a document detailing the "58th Presidential Inaugural Committee Underwriter Benefits." Those perks include a luncheon with "the ladies of the first families," an "intimate dinner" with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, and a "candlelight dinner" with "special appearances" by Trump and incoming First Lady Melania Trump as well as the Pences.
The cheapest benefit package starts at $25,000, and comes with a pair of tickets to the welcome reception, the inaugural concert, the parade, and the inaugural black-tie ball attended by the president and vice president-elect and their spouses.
NBC News confirmed the authenticity of the document, which was first published by the Center for Public Integrity, with the inaugural committee. Committee officials said that the details of the package are subject to change, but did not respond to numerous requests in recent days as to what, if any, changes might occur.
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It is not unusual for incoming presidents to raise funds for the inaugural festivities. Though President Barack Obama's first inauguration barred corporate donations and individual donations of more than $50,000, his second inauguration allowed unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. The 2013 ceremony asked for as high as $250,000 from individuals and $1 million from corporations.
Those gifts furnished donors with tickets to the inaugural ball, the parade, a children's concert, a candlelight celebration for VIPs, and the potential to meet with the president's financial team.
Experts who reviewed Trump's underwriter benefits said that the high-dollar requests and the specific amount of access those donations would provide are unusual.
"They certainly were not explicitly naming the events and who would be at them," said Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, about past inaugurations.
"It drives up the value when you know the person you'll have access to," he added.
Richard Painter, George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer, agreed. He said the contents of this menu of items are rather bold.
"They used to be less in your face about it because people were worried about bribery charges," Painter said, though he noted the Trump team has changed this vastly.
The price tags for these types of events, he said, used to have a lower threshold.
"The quid pro quo of access for money is much more blatant here," he said.
According to Painter, corporations would be the most likely buyers of these packages.
"It's money, money, money with them," he said about Trump and his incoming administration. "Be a big donor and you'll get special access to the president and we'll be in your face about it."
The underwriter benefit events began Tuesday, and continue through Saturday. The contributions to Trump's inauguration are not tax deductible and the Federal Election Commission requires that the committee report the name, address and contribution amounts from donors who gave more than $200 90 days after the ceremony. Trump's official inauguration committee put no limits of financial donations and is accepting donations from corporations, as well as individuals.
Critics have noted that the pricey sponsorship levels contradict Trump's promise to "drain the swamp," as it only provides access to the very wealthy. Nevertheless, the inaugural committee's messaging has highlighted that the inauguration is for the everyday American, and registered federal lobbyists were banned from contributing to the PIC.
"Our movement has always been about you, the American people," Trump said in a Jan. 14 video released by the inauguration committee's official Twitter account. "Nothing more important to me."
The PIC notes the donations go to defray the cost of the entire ceremony.
"The Presidential Inaugural Committee is a 501(c)4 organization that is non-political, offering an opportunity for every American to participate in the democratic process of our country," Committee Communications Director Boris Epshteyn said in a statement. "The Inaugural events are, to a large extent, privately funded so as to not use taxpayer dollars. For the 58th Presidential Inaugural, any and all funds raised above amounts needed to fund the Inaugural events will be donated to charitable organizations."
According to the Associated Press, Trump's inaugural committee has raised a "record $90 million-plus in private donations," more than any other president in history, though a Washington Post report notes that no matter the president, taxpayers always foot part of the inaugural bill due to security, transportation, clean up costs, and more. According the Post, Obama raised $53 million and $44 million in private dollars for his first and second inaugurations, respectively, while George W. Bush raised $40 million for his 2001 ceremony and $42 million for 2005. Bill Clinton raised $33 million for his 1993 swearing-in, and $30 million for his second ceremony in 1997.
Despite Trump's record inaugural haul, Tom Barrack, the committee chairman, has said the event will be purposefully more subdued than in year's past.
"So what we've done instead of trying to surround him with what people consider A-listers is we are going to surround him with the soft sensuality of the place," Barrack told reporters at Trump Tower last week, responding to a question about the number of performers.
"It's a much more poetic cadence than having a circus-like celebration that's a coronation," he added.
Ali Pardo, the press secretary for Trump's inauguration, did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding details surrounding the underwriter events.
Questions of pay-for-play have swirled around Trump and his team since the election. Most recently, a nonprofit named Opening Day that boasted Eric Trump and Don Trump, Jr., Trump's adult sons, as its directors offered access to them via a hunting trip, and said it would provide a photo-op with the president-elect for contributions of $1,000,000.
"The Opening Day event and details that have been reported are merely initial concepts that have not been approved or pursued by the Trump family," said Trump Press Secretary Hope Hicks said in a statement at the time.
A few days prior, Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, had found herself caught in the middle of a similar controversy when her brother Eric attempted to auction off a coffee meeting with her to benefit his own foundation. Bidding reached as high as $70,000, but after the New York Times wrote about it, the auction was cancelled.
Meanwhile, legal and ethics experts remain concerned about the president-elect's potential conflicts of interest days before he takes the oath of office. Though Trump gave a press conference — his first in months — last week, those experts' fears were not assuaged by the plan he outlined to avoid conflicts of interest or prevent himself from running afoul of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.