Political campaigns don’t tend to be moneymaking ventures for billionaires. Just ask Mike Bloomberg, who shelled out $1.1 billion on his unsuccessful presidential bid this year. Or Tom Steyer, who spent $342 million on his. Or Ross Perot, who blew about $75 million on two failed campaigns in the 1990s. Or even Donald Trump, who contributed $66 million to his 2016 run.
Once Trump arrived in Washington, however, he upended tradition. On the day of his inauguration, Trump filed paperwork for his reelection, allowing himself to continue raising money from supporters while he served. As other people filled his campaign coffers, Trump sat back and watched, never donating to the reelection effort. Instead, he did the opposite, taking money out of his campaign by charging for things like rent, food, lodging and legal expenses. In doing so, the president managed to shift $2.7 million from his supporters to his businesses between his first day in office in 2017 and Election Day in 2020, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
The $2.7 million represents a tiny sliver of the $785 million that the Trump campaign took in from January 2017 to November 2020. It remains a mystery why Trump, who is worth an estimated $2.5 billion, didn’t just cover the costs by making a donation.
The bulk of the money flowed through Trump Tower. About a month after Trump became president, his campaign paid $159,000 to Trump Tower Commercial LLC, the entity through which he retained his 100% stake in Trump Tower. The building had served as headquarters during the 2016 campaign, and even though the Trump team opened another headquarters in the D.C. area, the campaign continued to spend about $40,000 a month on the Trump Tower space through the 2020 election. The rent payments ultimately added up to $1.6 million.
Other entities also collected large sums. In May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel, authorizing him to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. The timing could be a coincidence, but the next month, the Trump campaign paid $90,000 for “legal consulting” to a company called the Trump Corp., also owned by the president. Trump’s financial disclosure reports describe that entity as a “management company.” It is unclear why a management company would be providing legal advice. Regardless, the Trump Corp. continued charging for legal work throughout the campaign and eventually expanded its offerings to include IT services. By Election Day, it had taken in $293,000 from the Trump campaign, according to the analysis of filings.
In November 2017, the reelection campaign began making mysterious payments to another one of the president’s companies, named Trump Plaza LLC. That entity controls property in New York City that includes a garage, retail space and two brownstone apartment buildings. Federal filings categorized the payments as “rent,” but it’s not clear exactly what the Trump campaign was renting. None of the storefronts served as campaign shops. A parking operator seemed to be leasing the garage. And residents of the brownstones said they had not seen any sign of the campaign. In August 2019, the reelection effort abruptly stopped paying rent to Trump Plaza LLC, after having already handed over $84,000.
An additional entity named Trump Restaurants LLC—also owned entirely by the president—charged rent to the campaign. That company appears to be connected to basement of Trump Tower, which includes several eateries. It seems likely that the payments to Trump Restaurants LLC covered the rent for a small souvenir stand, near Trump Grill and Trump’s Ice Cream Parlor. The money arrived month after month, usually $3,000, even after Covid slowed down foot traffic at brick-and-mortar shopping venues. By Election Day, Trump Restaurants LLC had scooped up $129,000 from the campaign.
Trump’s hotel empire also got paid, especially in the final days of the race. On August 28, the Trump Hotel Collection accepted a $55,000 payment from the campaign. A $15,000 check followed a week later. Another $51,000 came at the end of September. Then $97,000 dropped in early October. In all, Trump’s hospitality holdings collected $503,000 from his campaign—55% of which came in the three months before November 3, when Americans went to the polls.
The Trump campaign has previously insisted that its payments to Trump’s companies complied with the law, which allows some self-dealing, as long as it occurs at fair-market rates. It’s difficult to verify whether the campaign paid fair rates, because there is so much that’s not known about the transactions. How many square feet was the campaign leasing in Trump Tower? What type of legal and IT work was the Trump Corp. doing for the campaign? What did the reelection effort rent from Trump Plaza? And so on. With the campaign now over, those questions may never be answered. Asked about all of this on Wednesday, representatives for the Trump Organization and the campaign did not respond.