At Private Dinners, Pence Quietly Courts Big Donors and Corporate Executives

New York Times – by Kenneth P Vogel

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence has been courting scores of the country’s most influential donors, corporate executives and conservative political leaders over the past several months in a series of private gatherings and one-on-one conversations.

The centerpiece of the effort is a string of dinners held every few weeks at the vice president’s official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington. Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, have presided over at least four such soirées, and more are in the works. Each has drawn roughly 30 to 40 guests, including a mix of wealthy donors such as the Chicago hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin and the brokerage firm founder Charles Schwab, as well as Republican fund-raisers and executives from companies like Dow Chemical and the military contractor United Technologies.

The guests and their families collectively donated or helped raise millions of dollars to support the Trump-Pence ticket in 2016, and some are viewed in Republican finance circles as likely supporters for two new groups created to promote President Trump, Mr. Pence, their legislative agenda and congressional allies. The dinner guest lists were curated in part by two of Mr. Pence’s closest advisers, who have also played important roles in starting the new political groups, America First Policies and America First Action. Mr. Pence has appeared at recent events outside his official residence with prospective donors to the groups.

The off-site events and dinners at Mr. Pence’s residence underscore the vice president’s outreach to donors for an administration led by a president who dislikes courting contributors, who often expect personal attention in exchange for their support. Mr. Pence’s activities have fueled speculation among Republican insiders that he is laying the foundation for his own political future, independent from Mr. Trump.

If nothing else, the assiduous donor maintenance by Mr. Pence and his team reflects his acceptance of a Washington reality that Mr. Trump sharply criticized during the campaign, when he assailed some of his party’s most generous donors as puppet masters who manipulated the political process to further their own interests at the expense of working people. Mr. Trump frequently said that because of his own real estate fortune, he didn’t need or want support from wealthy donors or the political groups known as “super PACs,” to which donors can give seven-figure donations and which Mr. Trump blasted as “very corrupt.”

Mr. Pence’s aides point out that he also has dinners at the residence for groups other than donors, including members of Congress, world leaders, military families, civic leaders and friends. They cast the donor dinners as an effort to build support for the administration’s agenda, not for Mr. Pence personally.

“Mike Pence is the ultimate team player and works every day to help the president succeed,” said Robert T. Grand, an Indianapolis lawyer who helped raise money for Mr. Pence’s campaigns in Indiana for Congress and for governor. Mr. Grand attended a dinner at the vice president’s residence in June. “There were a lot of folks who, if you were vice president, you would want to meet,’’ Mr. Grand said. “Corporate executives, other government leaders, people from past administrations, not just donors.”

He added that “any administration, past and present, has an interest in getting to know folks. If you’re an incumbent president and vice president, then that’s part of what you do.”

Mr. Pence’s office declined to release the lists of guests invited to the dinners, which have not appeared on schedules released by the vice president’s office to the news media. Marc Lotter, Mr. Pence’s press secretary, called the dinners “private” and said that the vice president had not held any political fund-raisers at his residence, which would be complicated by a law barring the solicitation of political contributions in government buildings.

But the dinners fit a long tradition of presidential administrations leveraging the grand trappings of the office to reward loyal supporters or to induce influential people to become supportive. President Bill Clinton drew ire for inviting major donors to his 1996 re-election campaign to stay overnight in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom, for instance, though his team drew an explicit link between the contributions and the rewards, one that Mr. Pence’s advisers have been careful to avoid. President Barack Obama also entertained donors at the White House, as did former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. when he lived at the Naval Observatory residence.

Mr. Pence typically kicks off his dinners with a cocktail hour at which he recounts the history of the taxpayer-funded residence, followed by a brief assessment of his administration’s legislative and foreign policy agendas and a question-and-answer session, according to guests. After people are seated for dinner at four or five separate tables, they said, Mr. Pence makes his way around the room, chatting for a few minutes with each guest.

Mr. Pence’s willingness to use his residence to host wealthy donors has been reassuring to Republican finance and political operatives, who worry that their congressional candidates could be severely hampered if they faced financial shortfalls during 2018 midterm elections, when Mr. Trump’s unpopularity is expected to create strong headwinds.

The dinners are “a smart way for Vice President Pence and his team to recognize major supporters of his and the president’s agenda, and build resources that are going to be necessary for the upcoming battles,” said Charles Spies, a leading Republican election lawyer.

Mr. Pence, who came to Mr. Trump’s ticket with a reputation as an enthusiastic cultivator of wealthy patrons, has worked to win over donors who clashed with Mr. Trump during the campaign, among them the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch. Mr. Pence spent nearly an hour last month with Mr. Koch in a private meeting at a Colorado Springs hotel, where the vice president praised Mr. Trump for his leadership in pushing to fulfill campaign promises and in selecting strong cabinet nominees, according to James Davis, an executive at a Koch-backed group who attended the meeting.

Mr. Pence also summoned about a dozen megadonors, including some who had not supported Mr. Trump during the campaign, for a legislative briefing in the White House’s Roosevelt Room on June 9. Mr. Trump stopped by the gathering briefly to greet the donors, according to an administration official and others briefed on the gathering.

Associates say Mr. Pence has discussed with the president the importance of encouraging major donors to support America First Policies. Mr. Pence signaled his own support for the group by appearing with his wife at a reception in Washington this spring for prospective donors to America First Policies that was hosted by a fund-raising consultant, Jeff Miller.

The group was founded soon after Mr. Trump’s inauguration by political operatives outside the administration, including two close advisers to Mr. Pence — Nick Ayers and Marty Obst — who helped arrange the Naval Observatory dinners and attended some of them.

In March Mr. Obst, who was a top fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s campaign and inauguration, told Politico that America First Policies had received $25 million in commitments and had collected more than half that money. In recent weeks, America First Policies has spent money on one advertising campaign questioning the national security bona fides of the Democratic nominee in a special election for a Georgia congressional seat, and another chastising Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, for his opposition to the Senate health care bill that would supplant the Affordable Care Act.

While Mr. Ayers has stepped away from America First Policies and related groups in recent days as he prepares to take a position as Mr. Pence’s new chief of staff, the team behind the political groups is ramping up its efforts.

In May, Mr. Obst and Mr. Ayers founded Great America Committee, a political action committee to fund Mr. Pence’s political operation — an unusual step for a sitting vice president. Typically, vice presidents rely on their respective party committees for such functions. This past Thursday Great America Committee held a reception for prospective donors at the Washington offices of the powerful lobbying firm BGR.

America First Policies, a nonprofit required to spend the majority of its money on costs unrelated to partisan political campaigns, has in the meantime spun off a super PAC called America First Action that will have more legal flexibility to directly advocate for the election of Mr. Trump’s allies and the defeat of his opponents. As a super PAC, America First Action is required to publicly disclose its donors but America First Policies is not.

Katie Walsh, a senior adviser to America First Policies who has attended some of Mr. Pence’s dinners, said the group did not use the gatherings to prospect for donations.

Although Ms. Walsh said that some attendees “happen to support” groups backing the administration, “a lot of those folks have never given to anything related to Trump or Pence, and are leaders of businesses and industries that have worked, and continue to work, with the administration to get things done.”

Some dinner guests — including Andrew N. Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, and Gregory J. Hayes, the chairman and chief executive of United Technologies — have donated either primarily to Democrats or to a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

Other guests — including the hedge fund manager Mr. Griffin and the investors Ronald Weiser of Michigan; Lewis Eisenberg of Florida and Doug Deason, Ray Washburne and Tom Hicks Jr., all of Texas — were significant donors or fund-raisers for Mr. Trump’s campaign and the committees supporting it. Mr. Trump has since nominated Mr. Washburne to head the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

New York Times

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