Trump Fussed Over Tablecloths and Rockettes for the Inauguration
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It was Christmas Day 2016, and President-elect Donald Trump had the Rockettes on his mind.
A few days earlier, James Dolan, chief executive officer of Madison Square Garden, had announced that the famous New York dance troupe would perform as part of Trump’s inaugural festivities. But some of the dancers were balking over Trump and his politics, a recurrent problem for those trying to lure top talent to play the inaugural. In a phone call with Tom Barrack, his longtime friend and chairman of his inaugural committee, Trump asked if the dance troupe was still locked down, according to two people familiar with the conversation. The Rockettes ultimately performed.
It was one of several instances in which Trump weighed in on his inauguration, put on by a committee of his allies that reported raising a record-breaking $107 million. Trump’s interest would be unremarkable except that White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has lately been emphatic that Trump had no involvement at all in his inaugural committee, which is now beset by federal and state investigations into its fundraising, spending, and relationships with donors.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady,” Sanders said in December in response to questions about the investigations. “The biggest thing the president did, his engagement in the inauguration, was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inauguration.”
But Trump registered his opinion on inaugural plans big and small, from allocation of broadcasting rights to procurement of tablecloths, according to three people familiar with the planning and the transition effort who requested anonymity to describe the decision-making process. When questions arose in planning meetings, Barrack would frequently call Trump so he could weigh in, the people said.
Barrack told staff that Trump wanted to know everything about the inauguration’s finances, an admonition to keep budgets in check, two of the people said. Trump’s interest in keeping tabs on spending was familiar to anyone who’d worked on the campaign, according to the two sources.
The investigations by federal prosecutors in New York and attorneys general in New Jersey and the District of Columbia into the inauguration have been a hard turn for Barrack, the founder and chairman of Colony Capital, a Los Angeles-based investment firm. The scrutiny is still expanding. On March 4, Democrat Jerry Nadler, who leads the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Barrack as part of a wide-ranging probe into Trump. A request that accompanied the letter asked for documents related to the inaugural committee’s work. It also sought documents from the campaign and transition about communications “regarding Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia.”
A White House spokesman referred questions to the inaugural committee. A spokesman for the committee didn’t comment on the details of this story, but said the organization is in contact with staff of the House Judiciary Committee. Representatives for Barrack have said that he’s cooperating with the Judiciary Committee’s requests.
Trump’s involvement in inaugural planning started early. He wanted to give exclusive broadcasting rights to Fox News, with on-air talent that was broadly supportive of his candidacy, according to three people familiar with his thinking. But in a late November phone call with Trump, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, argued it would be a mistake to broadcast only to his most loyal supporters, these sources said.
Afterward, Trump told Barrack they’d do deals with both Fox and CNN, two of the people said, but the idea was never executed.
Barrack planned much of the inauguration at Colony’s New York offices, and he was also a key player in the transition effort taking place just across the street at Trump Tower. His dual role allowed him to keep Trump apprised of the inaugural committee’s efforts, according to people familiar with their conversations.
Barrack’s deputy in the inaugural effort was Rick Gates, who previously reported to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman now awaiting sentencing for several crimes. In late November, Trump told Barrack to fire Gates, according to four people familiar with the request. Both Trump and Don McGahn, his campaign lawyer, had concerns about how more than $700,000 for a direct mail contract had been allocated several months earlier, while Manafort and Gates were overseeing plans for the Republican convention, and Trump was still seething about it, two of the people said.
But Gates was never fired, and remained through the inauguration. He later pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, admitting he committed crimes with Manafort when they worked as political consultants in Ukraine.
“There was no order to fire Gates and this issue involving Gates was not related to the inauguration,” said Tom Green, Gates’s lawyer at Sidley Austin LLP, in an email. “This whole story is very old.”
As the inaugural events drew near, several committee executives gathered in Trump Tower to make a presentation to Trump and the future first lady, Melania, according to three people familiar with the meeting. It was a full download of the plans for the week, the people said.
Occasionally, it could be hard to tell whether some decisions were made at Trump’s behest, or if they were made to preempt potential complaints. In the final days before the inauguration, a contractor called Don’s Johns began lining up portable toilets near event sites. Gates instructed staff to cover the company logo with tape, which prompted the chief operating officer of Don’s Johns to promise to rip it off, an episode that quickly became tabloid fodder.
During the week of the inauguration, Barrack hosted his own “chairman’s dinner,” a high-powered affair with an entertainment roster including Southern rock group Alabama and a Las Vegas dance troupe. The president-elect hadn’t planned to come to Washington for the dinner but flew down for a surprise appearance.
Trump loved Barrack’s dinner, where he was swarmed by foreign diplomats and Republican donors, according to two people who were there. But he found one thing lacking: a robust media presence. Trump wanted “tons” of journalists at his own candlelight dinner the night before he was sworn in, according to people familiar with the order.
In early 2017, Trump reviewed the table arrangements for his own dinner and was galled by what he saw, according to people familiar with his response. Photos showed retro white-leather tables punctuated with metal studs. Trump couldn’t imagine a black-tie dinner without tablecloths, the people said.
Barrack’s staff had already settled on the leather-sheathed tables, but he nonetheless relayed the president’s request.
Trump got his tablecloths.
--With assistance from Shannon Pettypiece, David Voreacos and Margaret Talev.
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