In early December, Donald Trump boarded the private jet of a scrap-metal magnate and crypto-miner for a short flight across Florida, touching down at an airport in Naples. There, a red carpet marked the pathway into a hangar filled with Trump supporters who had paid $10,000 to $30,000 to be there.
The event had all the trappings of a typical high-end fundraiser: a giant American flag, a band and an open bar.
But the money raised did not go to Trump’s political operation. Instead, Trump’s share of the evening’s proceeds went straight into his pocket, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.
Multiple attendees said they bought their tickets from a private company, Whip Fundraising, whose founder, Brad Keltner, has asserted that “the lion’s share” went to charity. But the website advertising the event listed no charitable cause. And Keltner, reached by phone, declined to discuss how money was distributed.
In the year since Trump has left the White House, he has undertaken a wide-ranging set of moneymaking ventures, trading repeatedly on his political fame and fan base in pursuit of profit. Much as he did while in the White House, Trump has thoroughly blurred the lines between his political ambitions and his business interests.
His wife, Melania, has gotten into the act, too, auctioning off online collectibles and scheduling her own big-ticket event in Naples this April, with VIP packages reaching $50,000 and an undisclosed portion going to charity.
For Trump, the monetization of his post-presidency represents a return to his roots. He expertly leveraged his celebrity as the host of “The Apprentice” and his image as a decisive businessman to build credibility when he first entered politics. Now, he is executing the same playbook, only in reverse: converting a political following that provided hundreds of millions of dollars in small campaign contributions into a base of consumers for all things branded Trump.
Other past presidents have cashed in financially after leaving the White House. But no former president has been more determined to meld business interests with a continuing political operation and capitalize on that for personal gain.
Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for Trump, noted that Trump had been wealthy before seeking public office. “After sacrificing considerably to lead our nation, there continues to be unprecedented demand for President Trump, his thoughts and his products, unlike anything politics has ever seen,” Budowich said.
Blurred lines between profit and politics
Any division between Trump’s business and his political operation can be hard to discern.
At his first campaign-style rallies of 2022, giant television screens paid for by Trump’s PAC advertised his $75 picture book. His political operation has also promoted the book in emails to his supporters, as has his official post-presidential office, which also issued a recent statement promoting a Trump property in Miami.
Lawrence Noble, former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said that the combination of ways that Trump had monetized his life after the White House, while remaining intimately involved in Republican politics and a possible future candidate himself, had created ethical questions unlike any post-presidency in modern times.
“The thing that is different about Trump is the making-money part seems to have permeated everything,” Noble said. “There is this appearance, at least, that he is always thinking: How can I make a profit off of this?”
Out of office, Trump faces few formal limits on his business dealings, though if he were to run again in 2024, some of his financial activity would be revealed on future disclosures. His political action committees have even fewer constraints than his reelection campaign account did.
In 2021, Trump’s political committees spent more than $600,000 on Trump properties for rent, meals, meeting expenses and hotel stays, records show. His PAC continued to make monthly $37,541.67 rent payments to Trump Tower Commercial LLC.
The roughly $375,000 the PAC paid in Trump Tower rent was more than the total of $350,000 that Trump’s group donated to the scores of federal and state-level political candidates he endorsed in 2021.
Many of those candidates, in turn, redirected funds back to Trump, holding lavish events at his properties. Herschel Walker, the former football player whom Trump recruited to run for Senate in Georgia, spent more than $135,000 at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private Florida club.
Marketing MAGA to the masses
After years of slapping his name, for a price, on everything from steaks to water bottles to golf courses, Trump has found a big new market for lower-priced goods like hats, T-shirts and books.
The new push to capitalize on Trump’s name and brand echoes what he has done for decades with his real estate company, whose holdings now include six hotels in the United States and more than a dozen golf clubs.
The real estate business has, for the most part, been shrinking, with the Trump family selling off, terminating or being pushed out of hotel contracts in Washington, Toronto, New York City, Vancouver and Panama in recent years.
But the golf business has benefited from a surge in play during the pandemic, with revenues even at the Trump golf course near Los Angeles, a Democratic stronghold, jumping by 50% since 2019, according to tax records.
On a far bigger scale, the Trump Media & Technology Group, which is behind the new social media company, has raised more than $1 billion. Bankers for the company dangled an unusual perk: Invest at least $100 million, get a phone call from the former president. Later, the price of such a call came down to $50 million.
But for the most part, since Trump left office, his business has focused on appealing to Middle America.
His four-stop tour with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sought to fill arenas at $100 a ticket. On sale at the events was Trump’s coffee-table book, which the former president has said is nearing 250,000 copies sold. His multimillion-dollar advance from the publishing company, first reported by The Washington Post, was confirmed by a person familiar with the arrangement.
The book’s sales are scarcely spectacular: The tell-all from his niece, Mary Trump, had sold 950,000 copies by the day it went on sale. But Trump’s book is priced far higher. Signed copies went for $229.99 and quickly sold out.
Collectibles and ‘high tea’
Melania Trump, too, has found ways to monetize her ties to her husband, including through a series of online sales. In January, she put up for auction a digital portrait of her by a French artist, a print of the portrait and a white hat she once wore at the White House while meeting the president of France.
On Wednesday, Parler announced a deal with Melania Trump whose financial terms were not disclosed. In a statement, she said she would provide the site exclusive content “to inspire others” and promote a series of future online auctions of “collectibles.”
She is now selling tickets to the April “high tea,” with organizers saying that some of the profits will benefit an initiative of her “Be Best” endeavor called “Fostering the Future,” meant to provide computer-science scholarships to young people who have been in foster care.
There was no indication of how much of the proceeds Melania Trump herself intended to pocket. Florida requires any organization that raises charitable contributions in the state to register. No charity with the name “Fostering the Future” or “Be Best” is registered in Florida.
Asked about the solicitation, officials at the Florida agency that oversees charitable fundraising said they also could not find evidence of the required state registration and had opened an inquiry as a result.
The company behind the “high tea” event, Whip Fundraising, also organized Donald Trump’s holiday party in Naples, Florida, in December.
Keltner said that events like the one in Naples raised large sums for charity but declined to discuss the specifics of any events with Trump.
It was Keltner who arranged the flight for Trump to Naples, on the plane of Adam Weitsman, a crypto-mining investor who also owns a scrap-metal company in New York. Weitsman said he flew Trump and the former first lady as a “favor” to Keltner.
He said he did not have to pay for the privilege.