FOLLOW THE MONEY
Bad Football, Fake Springsteen, Real Probe: Inside New Jersey’s Investigation Into Trump’s Inaugural
The Garden State fundraising effort raised just a few hundred thousand dollars in donations out of a total $107 million, but curious details are beginning to emerge from its probe.
The owner of the New York Jets. A Bruce Springsteen cover band. And a firm that hired a pair of Donald Trump’s golf caddies. Those are just some of the characters featured in the local efforts in New Jersey to raise money for Donald Trump’s inaugural—efforts that are now under scrutiny by the state’s attorney general.
Little is known about the probe, other than it is examining how and where the inaugural solicited funds in the Garden State. Prosecutors in New Jersey are staying tight-lipped, and, unlike in the federal investigation launched across the Hudson River in New York, no specific individuals or corporations have been named in any subpoenas. No one has been publicly accused of wrongdoing.
But after speaking to more than a dozen individuals who had either donated to the inaugural committee or helped with fundraising activities in New Jersey, a fuzzy picture has begun to emerge. And it is just as eccentric as the Garden State itself.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last month received documents from the Presidential Inaugural Committee, two sources with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast.
Grewal’s investigators may have their work cut out for them. The Daily Beast’s sources painted a picture of a disjointed and confusing inaugural fundraising effort in the Garden State and one that resulted in only a few hundred thousand dollars in donations—barely a rounding error in the $107 million raised for the inauguration, and a far way off from the $19 million garnered in New York. Those who officially assumed the responsibility of leading financial efforts for the inaugural committee in New Jersey in 2016 told The Daily Beast that they had no real role in raising money but could not say who was in charge.
But several individuals with direct knowledge of the committee’s activities in New Jersey told The Daily Beast that Lewis Eisenberg—a financier, major GOP donor, and chairman of the Port Authority during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks—was one of the leaders of those efforts in the Garden State.
The other was Woody Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson consumer-goods empire and owner of the New York Jets. Johnson became somewhat infamous in the mid-2000s for avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, which he eventually paid back. Trump named him as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, one of the most prestigious offices in the foreign-service corps. Eisenberg was tapped by Trump as U.S. ambassador to Italy.
“Our ambassadors are proud to represent the United States of America to some of our most important partners across the globe as they carry out the goals of the Trump administration,” a State Department spokesman told The Daily Beast. “These ambassadors’ financial contributions have long been a matter of public record. They are honored the president bestowed this trust upon them and they hold their service in the highest regard.”
Several Republican politicos and donors in the Garden State, including those closely connected to the inaugural committee, told The Daily Beast they were not aware of Grewal’s efforts and that any effort to investigate potentially illegal conduct among solicitors, donors, fundraisers, and their events would be misguided. Others said the attorney general’s investigation was another example of “bias” against the Trump administration.
“That office often opens investigations that fall in line with whatever New York is doing,” one former GOP official told The Daily Beast.
Since Gov. Phil Murphy took office in 2018, New Jersey has joined multiple investigations with other states that challenge the Trump administration’s policies.
According to the Associated Press, Grewal subpoenaed the inaugural committee just weeks after federal prosecutors in Manhattan sent their subpoena. The subpoena asked for documents related to “solicitations” in New Jersey as well as fundraising events.
The Office of Consumer Protection in New Jersey is running the investigation. The office’s main responsibility is to enforce the Consumer Fraud Act, a state law that protects consumers from sales fraud, including deceptive practices by contractors.
“The [Presidential Inaugural Committee] was only active for a few months, and it ceased regular operations more than two years ago,” a spokesperson for the committee said. “As it finalizes its wind-down, the PIC has worked cooperatively to address all governmental inquiries.”
A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General in New Jersey did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Trump aide Tom Barrack planned and ran President Trump’s inaugural committee with the help of Rick Gates. Both Barrack and Gates cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
But two individuals directly involved in the inaugural committee’s activities said Eisenberg, of Rumson, New Jersey, and Johnson helped pinpoint potential large donors, both individuals and corporations, for contributions.
Eisenberg held the official role of the committee’s finance co-chair along with Roy Bailey, a Republican donor from Texas. Johnson, along with several others, was a finance vice chair.
One individual with direct knowledge of Trump’s involvement in the formation of the inaugural committee appointments said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who served on his transition team, had tried to persuade Trump to nominate Republican financiers whom he had worked with in the past into chairmanships. Trump, though, refused, keeping in place Eisenberg as a finance co-chair, the source said.
Corporations and individuals in New Jersey donated close to $550,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. Only three individuals gave donations that amounted to more than $25,000, the highest totaling $100,000. In comparison, the highest individual donation in New York was $1 million.
Most of the donors to the inaugural committee, some of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, donated $50, $100, and $200, and are well-known business leaders in New Jersey. Several were first-time donors.
The largest individual donor was Thomas Rapp, a principal at the wealth-management firm Eagle Rock, according to public records. Rapp donated $100,000. His company, according to LinkedIn, appears to have hired two individuals who worked as caddies at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster. The Daily Beast made several efforts to contact Rapp for comment. Calls and emails were not returned.
The second largest individual donor was Teresa Winslow, with an address in Summit, New Jersey. Winslow donated $25,000 to the inaugural and appears to be on the Advisory Council of Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization with ties to Trumpworld, according to its website. Winslow donated on Jan. 19, 2017, the day the inauguration ceremonies began.
Those who spoke to The Daily Beast said they donated to the committee in order to get access to the inaugural ball and to Trump himself. Others said they were told that if they donated, they would get a chance to meet Trump and take a picture. Some of those individuals had existing relationships with big-time GOP fundraisers. Two individuals said they donated the same day it was revealed that the B Street Band—a popular band that covers Bruce Springsteen songs—would play at the New Jersey State Society Gala during the inauguration.
The band ended up canceling its appearance at the gala after fans protested it playing at the Trump inauguration.
The New Jersey State Society is a politically neutral nonprofit based in Washington that organizes events for New Jerseyans and hosts a gala at each inauguration. The gala was not connected to Trump’s inaugural committee, but several of the individuals who donated to the committee from New Jersey also attended the gala and were involved in planning it.
The nonprofit did receive correspondence from Brian McDowell, a former Apprentice contestant and New Jersey Trump supporter, who suggested it reach out to the inaugural committee for help if it needed it, according to an individual with direct knowledge of that communication. McDowell said he did not donate to the inaugural committee but received an inaugural ticket from former Apprentice contestant Tana Goertz. Goertz was the liaison for the inaugural committee for governors and lieutenant governors.
Donors said they received emails with solicitations for the inaugural committee and were provided an access code to purchase the tickets with their credit cards. One individual made 21 $50 donations—a practice political financial experts say they saw occur across the country. People often purchased $50 inauguration tickets that they could then pass on to others, including family, friends, and others.
Washington lobbyist Sam Patten admitted to the Special Counsel’s Office that he illegally procured inauguration tickets for a Ukrainian oligarch. Patten told prosecutors that he funneled $50,000 through an American intermediary to purchase the tickets.
The inaugural committee racked up the majority of its donations in New Jersey—$350,000—from corporations based in the state. The largest donor was Samsung and a limited liability company called Annandale Falls LLC. Both donated $100,000. The owner of Annandale Falls LLC also owns a car dealership in Clinton Township.
Two individuals who were directly involved in the inaugural committee’s efforts in New Jersey said they did not believe that foreign individuals funneled cash through American intermediaries in New Jersey.
“Not in New Jersey,” one of those individuals said. “New Jersey was small-time stuff.”