Where’d Trump’s Record Inauguration Spending Go? 'It’s Inexplicable'
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ILYA MARRITZ: Greg Jenkins used to work for George W. Bush as an advance man. He did logistics and planning for presidential visits around the globe. And later, when Bush was reelected, he asked Greg Jenkins to lead the committee planning his second inauguration. Jenkins says running an inaugural committee is like nothing else — a multimillion dollar pop-up nonprofit corporation with one goal only.
GREG JENKINS: Your job is to produce four days of events, to raise enough money to get that done and pay people to do it, and have a little bit leftover to cover any anticipated costs.
MARRITZ: Jenkins says President Bush was frugal when it came to his inauguration — if that's a word you can use for a party that costs tens of millions of dollars. He didn't want to raise more than was needed. And he set a cap on how much individual donors could give. The law sets no limit.
JENKINS: The President did not want the spigots opened full steam. It just made life a little trickier for me. [LAUGHS] It's harder to do a three point landing on an aircraft carrier with those sorts of guidelines.
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MARRITZ: Jenkins says when they hit their target, they stopped asking people for money. Remember, frugal. Bush's second inaugural went well, and when it was Barack Obama's turn four years later, the Obama people called Jenkins and asked his advice. Eight years after that, when Donald Trump had been elected, Jenkins heard from the Trump people. He says they really wanted to know what the media was going to care about.
JENKINS: And I said, “Well, you know, the election's over. President Obama is on his way out. So really the only thing the press are going to care about with regard to the inaugural is: What are the events? You know, and the money — how much money are you raising and what's it paying for?
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MARRITZ: Watching inaugural spending is something reporters do every four years because each inauguration presents a unique opportunity to make a donation and get noticed by the most powerful person on earth. All of the balls and dinners and concerts — basically everything except the swearing in itself — it’s all paid for by private donations. Most presidents take care to appear clean and transparent because they know there's something inherently icky about this.
Jenkins watched Donald Trump's swearing-in on TV from his home in California. He didn't get the sense Trump's party was over-the-top in any way: no major celebrities, just three balls. Bush had nine, along with Andrea Bocelli, singing at a “Celebration of Freedom” at the Ellipse. So when he found out later just how much money the Trump people had raised and spent, he nearly choked. Before I give you that number, I want to give you a yardstick.
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MARRITZ: President Bush’s 2005 inaugural cost $42 million. President Obama's in 2009 — remember those huge crowds standing out in the cold on the mall? — it costs $55 million, which raised eyebrows. President Trump's inauguration? It costs $104 million.
JENKINS: So they had a third of the staff and a quarter of them events and they raised — what? — at least twice as much as we did. So there's the obvious question: Where did it go? I don't know.
MARRITZ: No ideas?
JENKINS: No ideas.
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MARRITZ: This is Trump, Inc., an open investigation into Trump and business from WNYC and ProPublica. I'm Ilya Maritz from WNYC. We're going to do some basic watchdogging now on the inauguration. Why did it cost so much? Where did the money come from? How did they spend $104 million? Why is it that several of the key people involved in this inauguration have had legal and ethical problems? Did the donors expect things in return for the money they gave? And then there's this one donation. A million-dollar check from a dark money group. We don't know who ultimately gave it.
ANNOUNCER: [OVER MUSIC AND APPLAUSE] And now the president and first lady of the United States will take their first dance.
MARRITZ: That dark money gift helped pay for this Bright Lights party.
[A LIVE COVER OF “MY WAY” BY FRANK SINATRA PLAYS, THEN PLAYS UNDER]
MARRITZ: President Trump and his wife, Melania, swayed on a stage at the Washington Convention Center. They were joined later by Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, and then the whole Trump family. The most expensive inaugural ever — managed in part by people with interesting backstories. And who knows where all the money went. Like the song he chose, Donald Trump did this inauguration his way.
[THE COVER PLAYS UP AND CONTINUES AS A DUET AS THE MUSIC SWELLS, THEN FADES OUT SLOWLY]
RHONDA SHEAR: Think of the most incredible ball — like, the Cinderella ball. And — and that’s what it's like.
MARRITZ: This is one of the invited inauguration guests. Her name is Rhonda Shear. And she's talking about her favorite event that week: a soiree at union station called the Candlelight Dinner.
SHEAR: There are actual candles, and there's actual flowers, and there's actual — it's just beautiful. [KEEPS TALKING UNDER MARRITZ]
MARRITZ: We wanted to understand what a $104 million party feels like from someone who went to the parties, saved the invitations and the menus. So, a little bit about Rhonda Shear: She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She once appeared in Happy Days and on Married with Children. And today she owns a shapewear company known for —
SHEAR: — the number-one selling bra of all time. It’s called the [AS IF SIGHING] “Ahh Bra.”
MARRITZ: During the 2016 campaign, Shear felt drawn to Trump. She liked the wall. She wanted lower taxes. She hadn't felt this way about a candidate before. So she started raising money for Trump.
SHEAR: I started doing what's called bundling, which — I didn't even know what that was. I mean, I — I thought it was like bundling a baby. But bundling is when you bundle amounts of money to get a candidate, you know, in.
MARRITZ: — basically by gathering donations from other people. Rhonda Shear and her husband brought in about $250,000.
SHEAR: When you bundle a certain amount of money, you're invited to go to the inauguration.
MARRITZ: It was Shear’s first time as a guest at a presidential inauguration. She says there were so many amazing moments, like the Cabinet Dinner, where she got a glimpse of General Michael Flynn.
SHEAR: Trump ended up speaking on our floor, which was great. So I got to see him, which was really great. And a lot of newscasters from FOX. And that's when I had my picture taken with Jon Voight, which was pretty cool.
MARRITZ: Shear knows the inaugural was really expensive. She doesn't think it's a big deal. Still, she humored me and read from the menus as I tried to figure out if that's where the money went.
SHEAR: Okay. So this is what — this is exactly the menu: grilled white and green asparagus with truffle goat cheese and — wait, excuse me. I'm reading and it's kind of dark in here. So, the wine was Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Russian River, 2014.
And the red, a pinot noir, also from 2014. I looked it up later — these wines retail for about $25 and $35 a bottle, respectively. So I don't think we found the answer there.
MARRITZ: Do you have any idea how the money was spent? Can you figure that out?
SHEAR: I don't think it's that hard to spend that much money. It felt luxurious, but it didn't feel obnoxious. Like, you weren't there going, “Ew, this is so tacky. This is so over-the-top.” But this looks like, you know, perhaps some of the things we've seen in Trump Tower. It was actually very elegant.
MARRITZ: I asked Greg Jenkins to look back at his own inaugural budget from 2005. Could he turn a $42 million party into a $104 million party? Like, is that even possible?
JENKINS: Well, I suppose I could have paid people a lot more money. I don't think very many of them would have said no to that. I could have paid the vendors more.
MARRITZ: I feel like you're still far, far short of $104 million, Greg.
JENKINS: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I mean, again, you know, I — I simply, it's inexplicable to me. I literally don't know.
MARRITZ: We do know some things about where that $104 million went from a recently released tax filing. We know the inaugural committee employed 208 people. We know the biggest contractor was WIS Media Partners. It was founded by Stephanie Winston-Wolkoff, a friend of Melania Trump, and took in $26 million.
NEWS ANCHOR: … took in nearly $26 million for event-planning for Mr. Trump's inauguration.
MARRITZ: WIS partners says most of that money went to subcontractors. The New York Times reported one of them was Mark Burnett, co-creator of The Apprentice. But even if you add up the top five contracts, that still leaves about $40 million, which the law does not require the committee to account for. It's close to the cost of George W. Bush’s entire second inauguration.
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MARRITZ: There’s one more thing that is hard to explain. We don't know quite how it fits into this story, but it's so unusual, we felt we had to mention it. We noticed that at least three people involved with inauguration planning have been on the wrong side of the law — or came close.
Person number one: the treasurer, Doug Ammerman, was considered by federal prosecutors to be an unindicted co-conspirator in a tax shelter fraud in the early 2000s, according to a Wall Street Journal story written at the time. He’s also among the executives accused in an ongoing shareholder lawsuit at El Pollo Loco, a grilled chicken chain where he was on the board. They're accused of pumping up the value of stock in the company, and then selling it before the share price slumped.
Person number two: Elliott Broidy. He was a finance vice chair for the inaugural committee. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to paying bribes to get investments from the New York state pension fund. His felony conviction was later downgraded to a misdemeanor. Separately, news broke this month that Broidy is being investigated in Ukraine for lobby work he did on behalf of a Russian bank.
And then there's person number three:
MSNBC NEWS HOST: Rick Gates, under pressure from Robert Mueller — the special counsel — has pled guilty to two counts, uh, one for conspiracy … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: — senior advisor to the inauguration. He was paid $100,000 for four months of work planning the party. A year later, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States, part of a vast money-laundering scheme involving cash from a Ukrainian politician. At the time he worked the inaugural, Gates hadn't been indicted. Still, his work in Ukraine was widely known.
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MARRITZ: Ammerman, Broidy, and Gates did not respond to our requests for comments. The Inaugural Committee also did not provide comment, and the White House did not respond to a lengthy list of questions about the inauguration and the role these three men played. Greg Jenkins told me even the appearance of impropriety would have been enough to get you fired from the inaugural he planned.
JENKINS: If something of that nature had emerged later, I would have been very surprised.
MARRITZ: And, perhaps, embarrassed?
JENKINS: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
MARRITZ: Up next, we'll take a road trip looking for where the money came from.
ROBERT MAGUIRE: I doubt they get many people driving out of DC to come ask for documents.
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
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BRET BAIER: We welcome you to the Republican Primary Debate Night on FOX — the first debates of the 2016 presidential campaign. [CHEERING, WHICH FADES UNDER AS MARRITZ SPEAKS]
MARRITZ: Let’s go back to the year 2015. Donald Trump was one candidate in a crowded field for publicans.
BAIER: And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
DONALD TRUMP: You better believe it.
MARRITZ: This was in one of the primary debates. The moderator, Bret Baier, asked candidate Trump why he had given money to Democrats as well as Republicans. Trump shrugged it off.
TRUMP: I’ll tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people — before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman.
MARRITZ: And then, he bragged about his political giving. According to groups that track political spending, over the years, Trump has given close to $2 million to all kinds of candidates at the state and federal level.
TRUMP: I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later — three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.
BAIER: So what’d you get? So what'd you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?
TRUMP: Well, I'll tell you what. With Hillary Clinton, I said, “Be at my wedding!”, and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice, because I gave. I gave her … [FADES UNDER, END OF CLIP FROM THE DEBATE]
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: I think Trump has been pretty clear that he views politics as a transactional business.
MARRITZ: This is Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics. It's a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending at the federal level, through their website, Open Secrets.
KRUMHOLZ: That’s how he played politics all these many years is, he made a donation and he expected something in return.
ROBERT MAGUIRE: And this administration has opened those sorts of doors.
MARRITZ: And this is Robert Maguire, Open Secrets investigator. He says, because Trump owns hotels and golf courses, a person with money to spend can get noticed again and again.
MAGUIRE: So they — they raise this massive amount of money, but then also, afterwards, you can hold your next trade association event at Trump's hotel, you know? You can put money directly into the pocket of the President and his family.
MARRITZ: Open Secrets ran an analysis of donations to Trump's big party, as they do with every inauguration. So, we pull up one of the charts on a laptop. We are now looking at the industries that gave the most.
KRUMHOLZ: So securities and investment coughed up $14.7 million.
MARRITZ: Which is not surprising. Banks always give, but look more closely, and this colossal sum of money is not so typical.
KRUMHOLZ: That comes from 58 donations, which is in striking contrast to the 257 donations that made up the $4.5 million that they delivered to Obama in 2009.
MARRITZ: So, uh, far fewer donors, far more money.
KRUMHOLZ: Far fewer donors giving a lot more money.
MARRITZ: The other top donor industries to Trump? Real estate, sports team owners, casinos, oil and gas, and mining. Sheila Krumholz says you have to consider the spirit in which companies make contributions.
KRUMHOLZ: They’re not altruistic beings. They have a fiduciary duty to return a profit to their shareholders. So how is this money that they are investing in this event going to allow them a return, to show that return?
MARRITZ: There were 47 $1 million donations, and one $5 million donation from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Of course, the bigger the gift, the harder it is to ignore.
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MARRITZ: Here’s how some of Trump's inaugural donations line up with things the White House did later.
MAGUIRE: I mean, just weeks after being inaugurated, President Trump went to the EPA with his new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, brought coal miners up onto the stage, and [APPLAUSE] had Bob Murray — the head of one of the largest coal companies in the country — sitting front and center, for Trump to announce his administration's intent to do away with the Clean Power Plan.
MARRITZ: Murray Energy, a coal company which would benefit from a rollback of that plan, contributed $300 grand to the Inaugural Committee.
MAGUIRE: That is an incredible return on investment from someone like Bob Murray.
MARRITZ: Murray Energy says there's no connection. The previous month, Trump signed an order allowing oil and gas companies to conceal payments to foreign governments. Those industries gave Trump a combined $10 million.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And this is H.J.Resolution.41, disapproving the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rule on disclosure of payments by resource extraction issuers. It’s a big deal.
MARRITZ: In June, chemical companies got a break when the EPA backed off a plan to regulate a pesticide — the chemicals can interfere with brain development in children.
MAGUIRE: Dow Chemical gave — I believe — $500,000. Within a short time, the administration was talking about doing a way with certain pesticide regulations that were very important to Dow.
MARRITZ: Now says it follows the law and meets high ethical standards. Private prison companies and big banks got things from their wish lists, too. So did Sheldon Adelson, Trump's $5 million donor. Israel is the cause dear to his heart. In December, Trump said he'll move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Adelson offered to pay for the new building. His proposal is now under review by the State Department.
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MARRITZ: Of course, just because someone gave doesn't mean that's the reason for a policy change. And many of these donors also gave to Trump's campaign. Still, Open Secrets’ Robert Maguire says it's really important that the public have the opportunity to look at each of the 1,518 contributors, what they gave, and what they might've wanted in return from the administration.
This is why he's become obsessed with one dark money donor, the BH Group, LLC. They appear to have no website and no permanent office.
MARRITZ: Who are they? What do we know?
MAGUIRE: We know that BH Group was formed only weeks before the Inaugural Committee was formed. We know that it gave a million dollars to the inauguration — so not at all an insubstantial amount of money.
MARRITZ: Maguire, who has a bushy red beard and a weakness for cat GIFs, says BH Group is one of two dark money organizations that gave a million dollars each to the inauguration. It's the first time he's ever seen this happen. Now, dark money is just a term for political funds that are designed to be hard to trace.
MAGUIRE: The public doesn't know where this money came from, but the people involved — the President almost certainly knows where that money came from. And again — you're sensing a theme — this is a president that appreciates when people show him respect and loyalty.
MARRITZ: Maguire knows a little bit about one of the dark money organizations and he made it his mission to learn everything he can about the other one, the BH Group.
He found its State of Virginia articles of incorporation, listing a single name as the organizer: Donna Smith. This was exciting to Maguire, because it just happens there’s a Donna Smith working at a Virginia law firm which is known as the go-to place for conservative dark money groups, Holtzman Vogel. And then, last month, when President Trump’s committee filed its tax return, they listed their address as care of [PAUSE] Holtzman Vogel.
MARRITZ: Wait, what?
MAGUIRE: Right. So the — the same law firm that appears to have formed the BH Group — the shell company that gave a million dollars to the Inaugural Committee — is the same law firm in charge of compliance for the Inaugural Committee itself.
MARRITZ: [OVER THE SOUNDS OF SOMEONE GETTING OUT OF A CAR] So Robert McGuire and I took a trip in search of Donna Smith and the BH Group. Holtzman Vogel's main office is over an hour outside of D.C., past the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, beyond the Bull Run battlefield.
MAGUIRE: 45 North Hill Road, Warrenton, Virginia.
MARRITZ: Rob Maguire memorized this address a long time ago. Holtzman Vogel is the attorney for lots of groups he tracks.
MAGUIRE: I probably came across it the first time six years ago. Um, and for years after, you know, any time we find some major dark money group, it's — on the right — it almost always has some link to 45 North Hill Road. If this turn light will [LAUGHS] let us turn, we will be there in moments, uh, and [LAUGHS] I will finally know what this building looks like. [A MOMENT OF QUIET] So this is the place.
MARRITZ: We pull in, backside first, right in front of the tinted glass doorway —
MAGUIRE: I just want to make sure they get my license number.
MARRITZ: — of a two story red brick building.
MAGUIRE: It’s, like, kind of an office park kind of thing —
MARRITZ: — with a title company across the way, and a retinal center out back.
MAGUIRE: Let’s see what we get.
MARRITZ: Inside the Holtzman Vogel office, there’s no one around.
MARRITZ: [A BELL RINGS] A portrait of Abe Lincoln. Constitution [PAUSE] on sort of a display rack. [BELL RINGS AGAIN] This is really weird. [A LONG, LONG SILENCE] There doesn't seem to be anybody here, but all the doors are open.
MARRITZ: This is not the obstacle we expected. Finally, a receptionist appears.
MARRITZ: We introduce ourselves. We ask to see the inaugural committee's nonprofit tax return — which we already have a copy of, but the firm is supposed to show you the original if you show up and ask. This could be our ticket to hang out and learn something. [BRIEF PAUSE] The partner who keeps that document isn’t in.
MAGUIRE: But I did have another question. Is — is there a Donna Smith here?
MARRITZ: The receptionist knows the name, and she picks up the phone. She asks us to take a seat. A few minutes later, a man appears, wearing khakis and a casual shirt. He introduces himself as Michael Bays, a partner at the firm. We asked to talk to Donna Smith, Bays says no. We ask about BH Group Bays says, we do not comment on client matters. A long journey for a short conversation.
MAGUIRE: [AS THE CAR DOOR CLOSES] That went about as I would have planned.
MARRITZ: So, we learned there probably is a Donna Smith on staff, and she's not talking. We learned Holtzman Vogel's reception area is as homey as a dentist's office. We did not learn who gave the million dollars to the inauguration, or what they might've wanted from the new president in return.
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MAGUIRE: This is a — a firm that makes millions of dollars a year providing services to wealthy, often anonymous clients. One of those services is protecting the identity of those clients. And that's essentially what we saw today.
MARRITZ: We left messages later for Donna Smith. No response.
MARRITZ: The Inaugural Committee declined our request for an interview. We did manage to speak with someone who — as they insisted — has knowledge of the Inaugural Committee.
They told us employees of the Committee and donors were, quote, “vetted.” They didn't explain what they were vetted for, or by whom. This person said, Doug Ammerman, the treasurer, has a sterling reputation and noted that Elliott Broidy, the finance vice chair, is the national deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
[OVER THE INSTRUMENTAL OF “MY WAY” FROM BEFORE]
MARRITZ: In the meantime, the White House cut ties with Stephanie Winston Wolkoff after word got out that her firm was the inauguration's biggest contractor. Our source with knowledge asked us to keep an open mind about spending. One reason this event costs so much, they said? Other new presidents got a lot of stuff donated. Trump's inaugural paid market rate for everything, the source said. And even though they didn't have big names, they did pay the entertainers. Beyoncé sang for Obama for free.
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MARRITZ: Do you know something about the BH Group? Do you have information about how contractors and subcontractors spent that $104 million? Help us answer all the questions that Trump's Inaugural Committee won't. You can message us via Signal or WhatsApp, or call us at 347-244-2134, or head on over to our website, TrumpIncPodcast.org.
Next time on Trump, Inc.: India. The Trump Organization has deals there happening right now. It's also a hard place to do business without paying a bribe.
MODERATOR: Are some sections of Indian industry willing to bend rules when it suits them?
ERIC TRUMP: Well, listen, I think there's an entrepreneurial spirit here that is — [INTERRUPTED BY LAUGHTER]
MARRITZ: Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. Our associate producer is Alice Wilder. The pod was mixed by Wayne Schulmeister and Bill Moss. The editors are Charlie Herman and Eric Umanksy. Terry Parris, Jr. is ProPublica’s Deputy Editor of Engagement. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
A big thank-you this week to Katherine Sullivan, who helped report this episode, and to Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics. Thanks also to journalist Christina Wilkie, who created a terrific searchable index of inaugural donors. We’ve posted a link to that — and also to Open Secrets’ analysis of inaugural funding — on our website, TrumpIncPodcast.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.