WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump took the stage in the ballroom of his luxury hotel in Washington on Saturday night, just days before an impeachment vote, to rail against his political rivals as a crowd of high-dollar Republican donors and party activists cheered.
In the weeks leading up to the invitation-only event, advertised rates for a standard room at the Trump International Hotel surged to as high as $6,719 — more than a dozen times the posted price for rooms on other weekends.
Even at the sky-high prices, the website for Trump's hotel indicated last week that all 263 guest rooms and suites were booked.
Ethics watchdogs have long pointed to Trump's landmark D.C. hotel, housed in a leased federal building just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, as emblematic of how the president mixes his elected office with his family's business interests.
The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment this week about whether hotel managers hiked room rates to profit from the president's appearance. Trump says he turned management of his business interests over to his two adult sons after he won election in 2016, but he has retained ownership of the company and rebuffed calls to place his assets in a blind trust, as past presidents have.
Last weekend's winter retreat for Trump Victory, the joint fundraising committee for the president's reelection campaign and Republican National Committee, attracted more than 600 attendees from across the country.
In addition to Trump's speech, guests were treated to a luncheon with Vice President Mike Pence and remarks from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Attendees were also offered tickets for holiday tours of the White House and provided a copy of Donald Trump Jr.'s recently released book, “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us." The book by the president's eldest son briefly occupied the coveted top spot on the New York Times Bestseller List last month, propelled in part by bulk purchases. RNC spokesman Steve Guest told AP last month it had been offering the book as a fundraising incentive, a common practice for political books.
Both the White House and the RNC said Saturday's event was a fundraiser, though the RNC declined to say how much money was raised. Several donors who were in attendance said it was primarily a celebration for those who had already given major sums.
“If you’re a major donor to the party and the RNC’s Trump Victory campaign fund, then you get invited,” said Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and GOP donor, who along with his father, Darwin, has spent at least $2.2 million supporting Trump.
Since Trump’s 2016 win, committees tied to his reelection campaign have spent a minimum of $4 million at his hotels and restaurants on lodging, meals, events, catering and other expenses, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
His Washington hotel has taken in the most, reaping a minimum of $1.7 million during that period. While the events last weekend have not been reported to the FEC yet, over $320,000 has been spent by those committees at the property so far this year, the analysis shows.
The totals include spending by the RNC and other entities officially connected to his reelection effort, as well as spending by America First Action, the Trump’s campaign's sanctioned super PAC.
Virginia Canter, a lawyer for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said there appears to be little separation between the president's political machine and his business empire.
“The Trump presidency and campaign have served almost as another arm of the Trump Organization,” said Canter, the chief ethics counsel for CREW. “When Trump's D.C. hotel fills up for political events, the president is benefitting twice — money is going to both support his reelection and support his bottom line."
While some rooms at the hotel were advertised at more than $6,000 in the lead-up to the Trump Victory retreat, Deason said a block of rooms set aside for some attendees were available at preferable rates.
“It was pretty well sold out. As long as they made the block, it was as low as $375 a night,” said Deason. Still he acknowledged that the hotel has charged high rates in the past, including during Trump’s inauguration.
“The hotel got a premium then,” he said.
Alabama donor William McFarland said he didn’t hear anyone complaining about the cost of rooms.
“In order to be invited you have to be obviously a major donor to the RNC. But there was no hard sell — it’s just an annual dinner they have,” said McFarland.
That said, he found a cheaper place to stay elsewhere.
“If I was going to pay that kind of money for any hotel room, I’d rather just give it to the RNC,” McFarland said.
An RNC official declined to comment specifically on the cost of rooms at the Trump Hotel, how much money was raised through the weekend’s events or to give details on any perks offered to donors.
The official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal campaign matters, said many donors prefer to stay at the Trump Hotel. But the person added that other factors like security and convenience were part of the decision to hold the event at Trump’s Washington hotel.
Those attending the Trump Victory retreat said they were discouraged from posting about it on social media and those at the Saturday night gala had their phones locked in individual bags by security personnel to prevent them from taking photos or making recordings.
An Associated Press reporter saw tight security for the event, with a long line of police cars and vans parked in front of the hotel along Pennsylvania Avenue. Uniformed Secret Service officers guarded the approaches to the ballroom where the president was speaking, with only the sharply dressed GOP donors wearing special credentials dangling from neck lanyards allowed to pass.
Inside the gilded ballroom, the well-heeled guests sipped Trump-branded wines and were feted with a main course of pan-seared sea scallops and filet mignon, according to a menu reviewed by AP.
Bridget Melson, a Texas psychologist who attended the gala, said she didn't see anything wrong with the president's reelection effort hosting an event at his family's business.
“I would definitely want to have a dinner at my hotel, if I had one," she said. “It just makes sense."
Follow Associated Press Investigative Reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck , Money and Politics Reporter Brian Slodysko at http://twitter/brianslodysko and staff writer Ashraf Khalil at http://twitter.com/ashrafkhalil
Contact AP's global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.