On the day Donald Trump became president of the United States, while inauguration festivities were still in full swing, he officially launched his 2020 re-election campaign. Donations poured in from more than 50,000 people across the country. But according to the latest federal filings, Trump still has not donated a penny of his own, while his businesses continued to charge the campaign for hotels, food, rent and legal consulting. That means the richest president in American history has turned $1.1 million from donors across the country into revenue for himself.
It wasn’t always this way. From April 2015 to June 2016, Trump put $50 million of his own money into his campaign, while running a famously frugal operation. When outsiders started paying the vast majority of his expenses in July 2016, he loosened the purse strings a bit, funneling more money to his own companies and stemming his personal losses. Now that he is apparently not donating anything to the 2020 effort, Trump seems to be getting a small payback on his investment.
Trump Tower Commercial LLC, an entity owned 100% by the president, has charged the re-election campaign $665,000 in rent, according to federal filings. The Republican National Committee also coordinated with the campaign to pay an additional $225,000 in rent. Campaign representatives did not respond to requests for comment, and an RNC official declined to answer questions about the payments, leaving it unclear exactly how much space they leased inside Trump Tower.
But it appears to be plenty. Leading up to the 2016 election, the president’s campaign paid an average of $2,700 in monthly Trump Tower rent for every person listed in campaign filings as receiving a “payroll” payment. The 2020 operation, by contrast, is shelling out an average of $6,300 in monthly rent for every such person.
Then there are the payments flowing into Trump Plaza LLC, a Trump-owned entity that has taken in $42,000 of campaign money since November 2017. Although federal filings list the purpose of those payments as “rent,” it is difficult to tell what the campaign is actually renting. Trump Plaza LLC controls a retail space, garage and two brownstones near Third Avenue in New York City. The retail space at Trump Plaza shows no signs of campaign activity, and a non-Trump company seems to sub-lease the garage from Trump Plaza LLC—leaving just the two brownstones. But they are not open to the public, making it difficult to see who the tenants are, and whether they include the president’s campaign.
So Forbes staked out the buildings, arriving at 7:15 a.m. one November morning and staying for the next 14 hours, with the exception of an 18-minute break around 3 p.m. By our count, seven people went in and out of the twin, four-story brownstones over the course of the day. One refused to talk, and six said they had not seen any sign of the campaign in the buildings. Nor had a man behind the front desk at Trump Plaza. “I’ve been here since the beginning,” he said. “If there was any kind of office rented out for campaigning or whatever, I would know about it.”
Is the Trump campaign simply funneling money into the president’s business and getting nothing in return? That seems unlikely. One person who worked on the 2016 campaign said staffers sometimes crashed at Trump Plaza when they were in town. If that’s the reason for the payments, it would be an unconventional arrangement. The campaign could of course pay for hotel rooms—although that would not guarantee a steady stream of rent for the president.
From November 2017 to August 2018, the Trump campaign paid Trump Plaza LLC an average of $4,200 per month. The real estate website StreetEasy lists recent rentals in the building for $3,700 to $3,850 per month. Candidates are only permitted to do business with their own companies if they pay fair-market prices.
There are other campaign payments that raise suspicions. One month after Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, the campaign paid the Trump Corporation, another one of the president’s companies, $90,000 in “legal consulting” expenses, according to federal records. It is not clear what legal services Trump’s company provided the campaign, or what rate it charged for the work. A spokesperson for the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s 2020 campaign also spent about $120,000 at the president’s hotel in Washington, D.C. And the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas got $15,000 of campaign money in February 2017.
“This is extremely unusual,” says Ann Ravel, a Democrat who left her post as a commissioner of the Federal Election Commission shortly after Trump’s inauguration. “There is always a concern when you’re looking at expenditures as to whether those expenditures are being used for personal use, for personal purposes, because that’s illegal. And there is, in my opinion, a fine line here with so much money being utilized for economic benefit for the candidate himself.”