WASHINGTON — It was a lavish birthday party for Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. The setting was Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The guest list included dozens of Trump family members and friends.
But when it came to picking up the tab, hands went out to other attendees. Among them were at least four whose families are financial supporters of the president’s reelection campaign, for which Guilfoyle helps lead the fundraising. They ended up pitching in tens of thousands of dollars, passed along to Mar-a-Lago, to help pay for what two people familiar with the planning said was a $50,000 celebration of Guilfoyle’s 51st birthday.
The hourslong bash on the evening of March 7 has since emerged as a snapshot of the cavalier way Trump and his team initially handled the coronavirus outbreak. At least one attendee — a Brazilian government official who stopped by the party briefly — has tested positive for the virus, while another — Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — self-quarantined, though he later announced he had tested negative for the virus.
But the funding provided for the party by Trump’s supporters, which has not been previously reported, also underscored other characteristics that have defined his political career: His reliance on other people’s money rather than his own fortune, and the overlap between the president’s private and public roles.
Brendan Fischer, an official at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, called the party “an illustration of the blurred lines between Trump’s presidency, his campaign, and his family’s personal and financial interests.”
At the very least, he said, the party created the appearance of supporters of the president currying favor with his family by steering money into his private business, which he continues to profit from.
“This may not be illegal, but it is incredibly unethical,” he said.
Even some in Trump’s orbit worried that it would look unsavory to accept money from political donors for the celebration at a time when coronavirus fears were spreading, according to people familiar with the concerns.
The party was organized with the assistance of Caroline Wren, a veteran Republican fundraiser who sent out invitations and gave a speech at the party thanking attendees who chipped in, according to people familiar with the planning.
Wren is a finance consultant to an arm of Trump’s reelection apparatus called Trump Victory, for which Guilfoyle is the chairwoman of the finance committee. Trump Victory is a joint fundraising committee formed by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, and is Trump’s primary means of raising six-figure campaign donations.
The committee was hosting major donors at a spring retreat in Palm Beach the same weekend as the party, drawing many of Trump’s top financial backers to the area for events, including some at Mar-a-Lago. Guilfoyle’s birthday party became a coveted ticket for donors.
Wren said in a statement that she had been friends with Guilfoyle for several years and “volunteered to assist Kimberly during her birthday party celebrations.”
“This was not a campaign event, nor an RNC event,” she continued, “and anything I assisted with was in my private and personal capacity.”
Michael Ahrens, a spokesman for the RNC, said that the party committee and Trump Victory “were not involved in the organization or financing” of Guilfoyle’s party.
The White House declined to comment on the party, and why the president did not pay for it himself.
The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, who spent time at Mar-a-Lago during the retreat but did not attend the birthday party, fell ill after the weekend, as did a fundraiser who works with Guilfoyle. Both are awaiting results of tests for the coronavirus.
The birthday party had the feel of a Trump campaign event, according to attendees. The invitees included a panoply of administration officials, campaign figures, political allies and major donors to Trump Victory, many of them both personal and professional friends to Guilfoyle.
Ivanka Trump thanked Guilfoyle for working “so, so hard for the president,” a video of the event showed. After the president joined the crowd in singing happy birthday to Guilfoyle, she chanted, “Four more years!”
And Donald Trump Jr. reportedly joked that Guilfoyle would be soliciting contributions for his father’s reelection from party attendees.
“You are in this room for a reason,” he said, according to The Washington Examiner. “You guys have been the warriors, the fighters, the people who have been there every time we have made a call, every time we made a request.”
The money given to pay for the party went to Mar-a-Lago, though it is unclear if each donor individually paid the club, or if the money was pooled and paid to the club by a member, who could put the expenses on an account. Donald Trump Jr. and another attendee, John Giordano, a lawyer and Republican donor, are members of the club. People involved in the planning said the attendees were not solicited as part of an organized fundraising effort.
Guilfoyle declined to answer detailed questions about the party, including who facilitated the contributions. In an email, a spokeswoman for Guilfoyle said: “All of the people who offered to support this evening have been longtime friends of Kimberly’s. None of them have to donate to see her.”
But one of the donors, Madhavan Padmakumar, an information technology executive from New York, said he had never met Guilfoyle. Padmakumar traveled to Palm Beach as part of a delegation of Indian Americans attending the Republican Party donor retreat.
Padmakumar said he attended Guilfoyle’s party with a leader of the Indian American delegation, Al Mason, a real estate investor and Trump fundraiser who is friendly with Guilfoyle. Padmakumar agreed to pay $10,000 to help fund the celebration because “I was keen to have my name promoted,” he said in the text message. He noted that he was “announced” as one of the “sponsors of the party.”
He also said he donated to Trump’s campaign at the retreat.
Padmakumar, who had never visited Mar-a-Lago, said he “always wanted to go and see” it, and recalled seeing the president and his family “all cut the cake.”
Others who contributed funds for the party were longer-term supporters of Trump’s campaign.
They included New York supermarket billionaire John Catsimatidis, who chipped in $10,000, according to people familiar with the arrangement. His daughter Andrea Catsimatidis, a longtime friend of Guilfoyle’s, attended the party.
In a statement, Catsimatidis described his donation as strictly motivated by a two-decade friendship with Guilfoyle. “I am always happy to support my friends,” he said.
Another contributor to the festivities was Catharine O’Neill, whose father is a major Trump donor. She worked as a staff assistant in the State Department after Trump took office and became a fixture in Washington’s pro-Trump social scene.
Also helping to finance the celebration was Giordano, who had advised Trump’s campaign and transition and had been rumored to be in contention for a position in his administration as a U.S. attorney. He is a partner in the government-affairs division of Archer, a Philadelphia-area law firm with a substantial lobbying business.
The key question in determining whether the arrangement crossed legal lines, said Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center, could be whether the attendees who contributed to the party would have done so even if Trump were not the president running for reelection.
He said that if the donors gave only because Trump is a candidate, then “there could be an argument that they made contributions to Trump’s campaign,” which would need to be reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Another attendee who is friendly with Guilfoyle asked the head of a Miami marketing and advertising agency to provide liquor for an after-party. The marketing executive turned to a Florida tequila company, Don Sueños, which sent over two cases for Guilfoyle’s party.
It was “just to get our name out there,” said Tre Zimmerman, whose wife is the company’s owner. “I don’t know Kimberly.”
Not all the attendees were asked to contribute, said Doug Deason, a Dallas businessman and Trump donor. Deason was invited by Guilfoyle after they chatted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington a week earlier.
“I was not asked to sponsor her birthday party and I don’t know of anyone who was,” Deason said in a text message.
Deason said he and his wife were seated at a table “right behind the head table,” but left before “the dancing.”
A video shows partygoers forming a “Trump Train” conga line to the song “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” by Gloria Estefan.