President Trump slipped into Orange County for less than three hours Sunday to raise money for his cash-strapped campaign. His high-dollar fundraiser on exclusive Lido Isle off Newport Beach took place just over two weeks before election day and as the president is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in polls.
“Everyone assumes he’s going to go to battleground states. No one really thinks about how Orange County, California, is an ATM machine,” said Jon Fleischman, a former state GOP official.
For the record:
2:17 AM, Oct. 19, 2020An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the cofounders of the Beach Boys. He is Brian Wilson, not Brian Love.
Trump told attendees that Republicans are going to win and take back the House, said former Rep. Darrell Issa.
Issa, a Republican who retired in 2018 from his seat in California’s 49th District, said after the event that Trump’s message, “which is hard to understand in California,” was that in the swing states, his “momentum is starting to take him into the positive.” Issa is now running for the 50th District seat held until this year by Republican Duncan Hunter, who will soon serve time at a West Texas prison camp for conspiring to misuse campaign funds.
Trump was at “the top of his game,” Issa said, and joked around with host Palmer Luckey at the 28-year-old multimillionaire tech savant’s Lido Isle mansion. The Mike Love-led incarnation of the Beach Boys performed (cofounders Brian Wilson and Al Jardine disavowed the appearance, in a statement to Variety), and former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers played guitar.
“It was a good party, lots of oldies,” Issa said.
Thousands lined the roads from Pacific Coast Highway to the entry to Lido Isle as the president’s motorcade passed by shortly after noon. Supporters of Trump and Biden had clashed earlier.
The scene unfolded in one of the wealthiest communities in Orange County — a longtime conservative citadel that shaped Ronald Reagan’s politics and is Richard Nixon’s resting place but voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election for the first time since the Great Depression. Last year, the number of registered Democrats outpaced the number of registered Republicans. But the county remains home to a cadre of deep-pocketed GOP donors.
Tickets to the Newport Beach fundraiser started at $2,800 per person and peaked at $150,000 per couple for co-chair status. Trump appeared alongside Richard Grenell, his former ambassador to Germany and former acting director of national intelligence, at a lunchtime roundtable and reception.
The event and one in Beverly Hills had been scheduled for Oct. 6 but were canceled after the president contracted COVID-19. Trump’s appearance at a fundraiser 16 days before election day highlights his campaign’s financial struggles; in the quarter that closed Sept. 30, Biden raised $383 million — $125 million more than Trump.
Veteran political strategist Dan Schnur said Trump’s appearance in the state this late in the cycle signals trouble.
“The only reason a presidential candidate should be in California in late October is if the GPS breaks or if he is so desperate for money that he has no choice,” said Schnur, who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley. “At this stage in the campaign, every hour is precious. The fact that the candidate himself has to raise money in person means their fundraising situation is way beyond dire.”
The event’s host, Luckey, is among California’s top GOP donors. The tech mogul, who is believed to be the inspiration for the Keenan Feldspar character on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” contributed $2.5 million to GOP candidates and causes between June 2017 and Sept. 30, according to fundraising disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. His top donations included $450,000 to Take Back the House 2020, $400,000 to the Trump Victory fund and $392,900 to the Republican National Committee.
Luckey declined to comment about the event when approached by a reporter on Saturday.
The Long Beach native sold his virtual reality company to Facebook for $3 billion at the age of 21 and later parted ways with the company. He claimed to have been forced out because of his conservative views, which Facebook executives have denied. He is currently working on a defense start-up whose projects include using technology to detect immigrants crossing illegally over the border.
Luckey’s mansion overlooks Newport Harbor and sits at the tip of the manmade island that is home to about 800 residences and connected to Newport Beach by a two-lane bridge. Next to Luckey’s home, on an empty bayfront lot he owns, donors mingled amid red, white and blue fabric that had been draped to create a rectangular gathering space and an overhead cover reminiscent of the American flag, allowing the sea breeze and soft light to filter through while blocking the direct sun.
Several guests said the president, looking healthy and alert, discussed the election and his accomplishments. Reporters, including the press pool that travels with the president everywhere he goes, were not allowed into the fundraiser.
“I think he did a great job. He was really down to earth; he didn’t go off the deep end,” said Rusty Brown, an Irvine businessman who works in health insurance. “He wasn’t a narcissist today. He gave a good speech about where he sees the future of our country going if we don’t win this election.”
The president participated in a roundtable with a small group of major donors — who received sandwiches, popcorn and red “MAGA” hats — before addressing the larger crowd of hundreds.
“I thought he looked better than most people in the crowd,” said Joe Risi, an investor who traveled to the fundraiser from Phoenix, adding that the president’s message was one of “great hope” for the country.
Risi said that during the roundtable, he asked the president about his comments after the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. The event ended with a counterprotester being run down and killed by an avowed neo-Nazi. Trump told Risi he was taken out of context and that the news media “takes a piece of a quote and tries to spin it in a way that makes him look racist,” the investor said.
Trump at the time said far-right groups and counterprotesters were both to blame for the violence. When neo-Nazis were mentioned at a news conference, he said: “And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Tina Zubia, 60, said she attended the fundraiser for Trump because she wanted “to see his energy.” The Azusa resident, a psychic medium who used to appear on the Rick Dees radio show, went out to watch the Beach Boys rehearse the night before seeing Trump. “I feel like he really has our best interests at heart,” she said.
She was accompanied by her sister Stephanie Urbach, who lives down the road from the nearly 7,000-square-foot Lido Isle manse where Trump appeared. “He does what he says,” said Urbach, 55.
Not every Lido Isle resident was on board. Urbach’s neighbor Tisha, who did not want her last name revealed, put up flags in her front yard for the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — a rare sight among the many Trump flags and lawn signs in the community.
“When we found out the event was happening on Lido just down the street, we wanted to be sure we were sending out a message that we stand for a candidate that is better for the people, who wants to dignify them rather than divide them, and that we’re voting with our hearts, not our pocketbooks, this election season,” said the 60-year-old, who manages a law office.
Supporters and opponents used the president’s appearance Sunday as an opportunity to voice their views. Trump backers, some with flags, signs, megaphones and speakers playing “God Bless America,” easily outnumbered those in favor of Biden on the motorcade route.
Catrina Magana, a 34-year-old construction estimator from Fullerton, said her paycheck increased because of Trump’s tax cuts, and she approved of what he has done for legal immigrants. Her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. legally from Mexico.
“I feel like he’s the best choice,” she said, adding that people assume that because she is Latino, she supports Biden. “Most people who are not Trump supporters, they see me, and they’re like, ‘Why are you voting for Trump?’”
Lizanne Witte, a 63-year old from Laguna Beach, joined a small group of Biden supporters. She carried a sign that said “Science Makes America Great.” A few Trump supporters chanted “Four more years” at the group, while others honked from their cars. Some shouted obscenities at Witte, a 32-year resident of Orange County.
“I’ve never seen this side of Orange County,” the community organizer said. “Even in protests about women’s rights and detained children, the reception had been respective differences in opinion. This is just nasty.”
The earliest demonstrators on the scene were hundreds of Armenian Americans who sought to highlight the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan but long ruled by an Armenia-backed separatist government. They demanded that Trump take action against Turkey, which has expressed support for Azerbaijan.
“Armenia needs Trump!” a protester, his shoulders draped in the orange, red and blue Armenian flag, yelled into a megaphone. “Save Christian Armenia!” Many of the Armenian American demonstrators were Trump supporters.
Melimeh Soukiasian, 36, of Los Angeles said she wasn’t sure who she would vote for in November but said Trump would get her support if he spoke out against Turkey.
“Our U.S. tax dollars are funding the weapons that are being used to target civilians and hospitals, sacred churches in Armenia,” she said.
The president’s appearance in California — a state Trump lost in 2016 by 30 points to Hillary Clinton — took place amid a Southwestern swing through battleground states. Before he landed Sunday in California, Trump visited a Las Vegas church, where evangelical leader Denise Goulet said she had a prophesy that God would give Trump “a second wind” for the rest of the campaign.
Times staff writers Laura Newberry and Stephanie Lai contributed to this story.