President Donald Trump has headlined 29 fundraisers since he was sworn into office, raising at least $135 million — but unlike the five previous presidents, nearly half of the events benefited himself, instead of just his party or candidates, according to an analysis by McClatchy.
Trump is the first U.S. president since at least the 1970s to raise money for his own re-election campaign during the first two years of his term when the political world’s attention is usually focused on midterm elections for Congress. And Trump has held the fewest total fundraisers at this point in his term since Jimmy Carter, according to records of presidential fundraising compiled by Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
That’s a sign he’s more focused on himself and less tied to his party 18 months into presidency.
“While he has helped his re-election campaign and the RNC to raise record sums of money, his fundraising for other parts of his party has fallen short of his predecessors’ efforts, which could be due to President Trump’s lack of long-standing ties to the Republican Party,” Doherty said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Thirteen of the 29 fundraisers Trump has headlined through the end of July benefited the Trump Victory Fund or the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, joint fundraising committees that can collect six-figure checks and split the cash between Trump’s campaign as well as the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties.
But invitations from several fundraisers, obtained by McClatchy, show that the Trump campaign is taking the first cut of the donations. The first $2,700 collected — the maximum allowed by an individual — is designated for Trump’s primary race, if there is one, and the second $2,700 is earmarked for Trump’s general election.
The fundraisers have helped Trump’s 2020 campaign amass a sizable war chest. It has already raised more than $50 million for his re-election this cycle, more than half of which has come from those two joint fundraising committees, according to the campaign’s most recent fundraising report, which provides information through the end of June.
Trump filed for re-election Jan. 20, 2017, the day he was sworn in as president — earlier than any incumbent presidential candidate in decades. He began raising money immediately and held his first fundraiser for himself less than six months into office at the his hotel in Washington, where he raised an estimated $10 million behind closed doors.
Democrat Barack Obama, sworn into office in January 2009, didn’t file for re-election until April 4, 2011, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Republican George W. Bush, who was sworn in January 2001, announced his re-election bid on May 15, 2003, according to the FEC. Neither Obama nor Bush held fundraisers or collected any money for their campaigns until after they announced for re-election in their third year.
A former Democratic fundraiser involved in 2010 fundraising strategy said Obama was more focused in his first two years on policy and the midterms than his own re-election.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that you have to launch a re-election campaign in a few months, but that was never the primary goal of anything we were doing,” said the former fundraiser, who asked for anonymity to be candid.
George H. W. Bush, who became president in January 1989, headlined his first fundraiser for re-election on Oct. 31, 1991, near the end of his third year in office, according to Doherty’s 2012 book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign. Bill Clinton, who took office in January 1993, held his first fundraiser June 22, 1995, about 18 months before Election Day. George W. Bush held his first reelection fundraiser June 17, 2003. Obama launched his fundraising April 14, 2011.
“The RNC was solely focused on electing Republicans that year, not President Bush’s future election,” said a former staffer at the RNC during George W. Bush’s first term, who also insisted on anonymity.
That isn’t to say that Bush and Obama didn’t benefit from their fundraising efforts during the midterms. Beyond the political advantage of helping elect more members of the same party to Congress, any extra money raised by the political parties could ultimately help a president’s re-election bid two years later.
“If you have money and you raise money for the national party, that does benefit the president,” the Democratic fundraiser said.
Trump recently announced his presidential campaign would donate the maximum amount allowed by law to 101 Republicans running for Congress in November. A majority have already won primaries, though, so the most his campaign can contribute to those candidates is $2,000 per candidate.
That effort on behalf of congressional candidates is perhaps a sign that the GOP is worried it will lose its majorities in Congress. Yet Trump’s campaign hasn’t transferred any other money to candidates or to party committees, which can receive unlimited transfers from a candidate committee.
In comparison, by this point in his second year, Obama’s campaign already had transferred $8.5 million to the committee working to elect Democrats to the House and Senate, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and $4.1 million to the Democratic National Committee, according to the campaign’s fundraising reports.
“Historically the expectation is that the president is going to get out and use his name recognition — in an ideal scenario, his favorable reputation — to help out other candidates and shore up any races that are competitive and in danger of flipping,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive direct of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations.
Trump has held 19 political rallies since he became president, starting the second month he was in office through the end of July. In recent months, the rallies have been tied to candidates, including Senate hopefuls Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Luther Strange of Alabama, though he always spends most of the time talking about himself.
“They just came out with a new poll. Did you hear?” Trump told a raucous crowd in Tampa last week at a rally ostensibly for gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. “The most popular person in the history of the Republican Party is Trump. Can you believe this?”
The Trump campaign did not respond to questions for this story. But Michael Caputo, former top adviser to Trump during his first campaign, said it would be “campaign malpractice” for Trump not to begin raising money for his re-election because his opponent will likely have access to millions of dollars like his 2016 opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. But, he said, Trump understands his role too.
“The president has a really good handle on what his responsibilities are as the head of the party,” he said. “He always has.”
The RNC and other GOP party committees haven’t exactly been hurting this cycle. The RNC has so far taken in $213 million, nearly double the $109 million raised by the DNC.
The RNC’s haul far exceeds what it had raised by this point in the last two midterm cycles, even when adjusting for inflation, and outpaces the $208 million in inflation-adjusted dollars that the committee had raised by this point in 2006, the last midterm cycle with a Republican in the White House.
“Our donors, large and small, are enthusiastic about President Trump and the Republican agenda, and they want to see this great American comeback continue,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said.
That fundraising total has gotten a boost from changes to campaign finance rules that came into effect after the 2014 midterms that now allow party committees to collect six-figure checks from donors for convention, headquarters and legal accounts.
And some of the RNC’s record haul has been spent for Trump family members who have been caught up in the investigations by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Congress into whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
Trump usually holds his rallies in parts of the country that supported him in 2016, such as West Virginia, Montana and Michigan. But when it comes to raising money, Trump, who campaigned on “draining the swamp” of money in politics, has gone to the same states where previous presidents have raised money —New York, California, Florida and Texas. Six of his fundraisers were at Trump-branded resorts, golf courses or hotels in Washington, Florida and New Jersey.
By this point in their terms, most of the past five presidents had held more than 50 fundraisers for candidates or their party. Even George W. Bush, who dealt with the aftermath of 9/11 in his first year, held more fundraisers than Trump, according to Doherty’s records.
Obama routinely opened fundraisers to the media for his remarks while George W. Bush opened them if the fundraiser took place in a public place. But except for a few events, Trump has closed his fundraisers entirely despite requests by the media they be open, making it impossible to know exactly what the president is telling donors.
Trump’s 29 fundraisers have generated at least $135 million, according to organizers of 25 of them as well as published reports. Organizers of the remaining four events did not respond to requests to provide information.
Aside from Trump-raised money that went to the joint fundraising committees, most fundraisers were for party committees, though some benefited individual candidates, including Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey. A single fundraiser for America First Action, a super political action committee dedicated to electing federal candidates who support Trump’s agenda, collected $10 million.
“Donald Trump is a different kind of politician,” said Jonathan Felts, who served as White House political director for George W. Bush. “He may have walked away from politics for a little while to focus on governing but people around him convinced him to go back to it. He’s unorthodox...does not have a traditional approach to these things.”
Emma Dumain of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed.