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Trump inaugural drew big $s from vested interests

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Apr 20 17 5:24 AM

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Trump Inaugural Drew Big Dollars From Donors With Vested Interests - The New York Times

The casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon G. Adelson wants some big things from the Trump administration: banning the online poker sites that compete with his luxury casinos, for example, and moving the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

And while President Trump was not Mr. Adelson’s first choice during the Republican primary season last year, he has been generous since: The billionaire donated $5 million to the committee organizing Mr. Trump’s inauguration festivities — the largest single contribution given to any president’s inaugural committee.

Some of the country’s wealthiest Republicans and its largest corporations had similar impulses. Documents released this week by Mr. Trump’s inaugural organizers provide a glimpse of the big-dollar frenzy of influence-seeking and peacemaking surrounding Mr. Trump’s swearing-in, which raised $107 million, twice as much money as any other inauguration.

The stream of money is a striking contrast to the way Mr. Trump funded his campaign, chiefly with small donations and his own fortune. While some big checks for the inauguration came from longtime Trump friends and associates, much of the money came from the industries that have traditionally excelled at wielding Washington influence: telecommunications, tobacco and pharmaceutical giants, which have bankrolled presidential inaugurations for Republicans and Democrats alike. And a generous amount came from people who had been hostile to his candidacy.

If the crowds at Mr. Trump’s swearing-in celebrations were relatively small, the checks paying for all the nonofficial festivities were not: Freed of many of the voluntary restrictions adopted by Mr. Trump’s predecessors, 48 people or corporations gave $1 million or more, according to the disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. Besides Mr. Adelson, they included a trust controlled by the coal industry billionaire Joseph W. Craft III; the parent company of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company; and Robert Mercer, the billionaire investor and close ally of Stephen K. Bannon, a White House adviser.

The donor rolls also included a host of blue-chip American companies, like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Intel, Google and Bank of America, which contribute significant sums regardless of the incoming president’s political party.

Many of the companies and donors have major interests at stake in Washington in the coming months. At least $10 million — about one out of every $10 raised — came from coal, oil, and gas companies or their executives. They are the chief beneficiaries of Mr. Trump’s aggressive efforts to weaken federal rules aimed at limiting pollution in streams and wetlands, cutting back on greenhouse gases and closing coal-burning power plants.

The inauguration received $500,000 from Citgo Petroleum, a Houston-based United States affiliate of Venezuela’s state oil company. The donation came in December as Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, grappled with food and medicine shortages and a cratering economy. The Trump administration has been critical of Mr. Maduro’s government.

“During the campaign, he attacked over and over again precisely these kinds of huge contributions,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of the watchdog group Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of tighter campaign finance rules. “He also said he knew from personal experience that you can buy influence with politicians by making these kinds of contributions. That didn’t seem to bother him in raising ridiculous amounts of money to pay for the inauguration.”

Boeing, the country’s biggest exporter, made a million-dollar contribution in January. This month, Boeing won a major victory when Mr. Trump abandoned his campaign pledge to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, which has provided billions in loan guarantees to help Boeing’s overseas customers finance plane purchases.

The country’s biggest cable and wireless companies, Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, donated more than $2 million combined. In the weeks since, Mr. Trump’s pick for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has moved quickly to nullify or curtail consumer protection measures, such as “net neutrality” rules, that were established under President Obama over the industry’s objections.

Central to the money-raising effort was Thomas Barrack Jr., a private equity investor who is one of Mr. Trump’s closest and oldest friends. It was Mr. Barrack who hosted one of Mr. Trump’s first major fund-raisers at his home in Santa Monica, Calif., last May, and who spoke in Cleveland the night Mr. Trump accepted the Republican nomination. As inaugural chairman, Mr. Barrack was one of Mr. Trump’s chief liaisons to those business executives who had kept him at arm’s length.

Contributions to the festivities were not intended to accrue favor with the new president, Mr. Barrack said in a text message, but were made “in support of the coming together of our country and its people to commemorate the cornerstone of our American democratic process.”

But the democratic process moves along more quickly for some than for others. While Mr. Trump promised during the campaign to giveMedicare and Medicaid the power to negotiate prices they pay for prescription drugs, two of the biggest drugmakers, Pfizer and Amgen, gave a combined $1.5 million in December.

Amgen’s chief executive was among the industry executives who attended a February meeting with Mr. Trump. After entering the meeting promising to do something “to get prices down,” Mr. Trump exited with a more industry-friendly line, saying he would oppose “price-fixing by the biggest dog in the market, Medicare.” (A White House spokesman later said Mr. Trump remained in favor of negotiating prices.)

Few industries have stood to gain as much under Mr. Trump as private prison operators, and they gave generously to his inauguration. Two of the largest such companies, the Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, and the GEO Group, each contributed $250,000.

Since then, the outlook for both companies has greatly improved. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era orderthat would have phased out the use of such prisons by the Justice Department. And Mr. Trump directed his administration to prioritize the detention and deportation of unauthorized immigrants, proposing hundreds of millions of dollars for a vast new network of detention facilities like the ones the companies already operate for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Neither company responded to requests for comment on Wednesday.

For many Washington interests and for large donors — particularly those who had not anticipated a Trump victory or had no relationship with his insurgent campaign, or had actively opposed him — Mr. Trump’s inaugural was an easy way to make inroads with the president-elect.

The Ansary family, prominent Iranian-Americans in Dallas who are longtime allies of the Bushes, gave $2 million to Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Paul Singer, the billionaire Republican investor who opposed Mr. Trump and once predicted that his policies were “close to a guarantee of a global depression,” donated $1 million on Dec. 6.

The two have mended fences recently. In February, Mr. Singer visited Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, and Mr. Trump declared afterward that “now he’s a very strong ally and I appreciate that.”

A $900,000 donation came in December from Avenue Ventures, a California-based boutique money management firm founded by the entrepreneur Imaad Zuberi. Mr. Zuberi was a top fund-raiser for President Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Zuberi was also paid millions of dollars to work in Washington on behalf of the scandal-plagued government of Sri Lanka and its central bank, work he did not initially disclose to the Justice Department as required by federal law, according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine.

Mr. Zuberi is now making inroads in Mr. Trump’s circle. After making the donation, he earned a coveted spot at the Chairman’s Global Dinner, a pre-inauguration, black-tie gathering intended to introduce the incoming president to the foreign diplomatic corps. A photo from the event shows Mr. Zuberi in conversation with Mr. Trump and other guests.

Mr. Zuberi did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Because inaugural committees face few of the regulations that limit campaign fund-raising, each administration sets its own restrictions.

George W. Bush, for example, capped gifts at $100,000 for his first inaugural and at $250,000 for his second. Mr. Obama accepted gifts up to only $50,000 in 2009, while banning all gifts from lobbyists and corporations altogether. He loosened those restrictions in 2013, accepting corporate gifts up to $1 million and individual gifts up to $250,000.

Mr. Trump set comparatively loose restrictions. He did not limit how much individuals could give, and his team said it would not solicit corporate donations over $1 million

Perhaps no donors were granted greater access than the Adelson family. Mr. Trump singled out Mr. Adelson and his wife to thank them for their support during a luncheon honoring congressional Republicans on inauguration eve. The next morning, the pair sat along the aisle just a few rows back from Mr. Trump on the inaugural platform as he took the oath of office. (Mr. Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, sat some rows farther back.) A representative of Mr. Adelson had no comment.

Just what other perks and souvenirs their donations helped pay for will probably remain a mystery. While donations must be reported, the Federal Election Commission does not require inaugural committees to account for what they spend or how much is left in their coffers when the revelers head home.

Mr. Trump’s committee said it was still identifying charities toward which it would direct leftover money.
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