The Trump campaign has held at least 15 contests since 2018 offering the chance to win breakfast, lunch, or dinner with President Trump. Supporters are enticed to donate to Trump's campaign with promises of free travel, accommodations, and an "epic" meal with Trump at various locations across the country. An investigation by Popular Information, however, did not uncover evidence that anyone has ever actually won.
Dangling a meal with the candidate to encourage small-dollar contributions is a common tactic in modern presidential politics. Campaigns are typically eager to publicize these meals because: 1. They show the candidate interacting with average Americans, and 2. They encourage more people to enter the next contest.
Elizabeth Warren's campaign, for example, had a contest in July to "Grab a Beer with Elizabeth." Warren posted several photos of her toasting with "Mike and his wife Linda, from Elma New York!"
In 2016, Jeb Bush held a contest to win "Dinner with Jeb." He posted a photo of his meal with the winners, "Lynne & Mary," and his son, Jeb Bush Jr.
The tactic was popularized by former President Obama. In 2012, the campaign ran a series of contests to win "Dinner with Barack." Each meal generated extensive media coverage, with detailed information about the attendees.
This was an Associated Press story about one of the meals in March 2012:
Obama's campaign staged its third "Dinner with Barack" event at Boundary Road, a restaurant along Washington's H Street, a once riot-scarred corridor that has undergone a massive redevelopment…
Obama's campaign said the dinner guests included: ReGina Newkirk, a nonprofit executive from Nashville, and her father, Robert Newkirk Sr., a professor at Tennessee State University; Cathleen Loringer, a former social worker from Wauwatosa, Wis., and her spouse, John Loringer, a Wauwatosa attorney; and Judy Glassman, a retired school administrator from Cambridge, Mass., and her spouse Mitch Glassman, a Cambridge artist.
Who won all of the meals that Trump was supposed to have with supporters? No one will say.
The search for a winner in the Windy City
Last Monday, Trump was supposed to have lunch with a contest winner in Chicago. Numerous Facebook ads promised people who donated to his campaign a "VIP trip" and an "epic" meal.
The contest was also heavily promoted over email. "I just saw the most recent list of Patriots who have contributed to win a trip to meet me in Chicago on October 28th, and I noticed you STILL haven’t entered," Trump "wrote" in an October 22 email. "We’d hate for you to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have lunch with President Trump himself at his FAVORITE hotel in Chicago," the campaign said in another message sent on October 23.
On Monday, October 28, the day that Trump was traveling to Chicago, I contacted Anne Gearan, the Washington Post reporter who was traveling with Trump on behalf of the press. (This role is known informally as the "pooler" or "pool.") I asked Gearan if she had heard anything about a contest winner having lunch with Trump.
She had not, but she put in a request for information with the Trump campaign and the White House. She included her request in the pool report.
Note: pool asked but has not received info from either the campaign or the White House about results of a contest for lunch with the president at this event. Will pass along anything I get.
Gearan never passed along any information, and I confirmed with her that she never received any information about the Chicago contest winner.
Where are the 15 winners?
The winner of the Chicago lunch and 14 other completed contests for meals with Trump remain shrouded in mystery. These contests were promoted heavily via email and Facebook. The Trump campaign has sent at least 86 emails over the last two years about the meals.
But neither Trump nor the campaign ever publicly disclosed the winners. This is perplexing because even something as simple as releasing a photo of the meal is an easy way to generate positive news coverage and increase interest in the next contest.
The following data was collected with assistance from the Twitter account @TrumpEmail, which archives emails from the Trump campaign:
Last week, Popular Information contacted Matt Wolking, Deputy Director of Communications for the Trump campaign, and requested the names of the contest winners and/or photos of the meals. Wolking did not respond.
The Trump campaign did send out a text message about a new contest to have lunch with him in Atlanta.
Trump is scheduled to visit Atlanta for a fundraiser on November 8. The tight turnaround raises questions about whether such a meal is realistically possible. As of Sunday, November 3, entries to the contest are still open. Even if the contest ended Sunday, this leaves the Trump campaign just four days to select a winner, arrange logistics, and presumably vet the winner for security and public relations purposes.
The mysterious meal in March
Most contests run by the Trump campaign follow a pattern — messages over email and Facebook, promoting a meal with Trump at a location that Trump will be visiting soon.
But for several weeks in August and September of 2018, the Trump campaign bought hundreds of Facebook ads about a contest for a dinner with Trump with no designated location. This contest, unlike the others, does not appear to be promoted over email.
But like all the other contests, there was no announced winner.
Is it a scam?
Are these contests, which promise a meal with Trump, a scam? Is the Trump campaign swindling its own supporters? We don't know.
In one respect, failing to go through with the meals makes little sense. The estimated value of each meal, including transportation and accommodations, is $3,000. For a campaign that is raising tens of millions of dollars every quarter, this is a pittance.
But this is a campaign that has been willing to scam its supporters before. As Popular Information documented in May, the Trump campaign held a campaign to give away "the 1 millionth MAGA hat," signed by Trump. On May 23, the Trump campaign ran a Facebook ad claiming that the deadline to enter was midnight.
It ran that same ad, claiming a midnight deadline, for 12 days: May 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, June 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Here, the Trump campaign is telling an obvious lie to its supporters about a midnight deadline to gain a small advantage. Falsely claiming a deadline was midnight likely encouraged people to enter at a higher rate.
Is the Trump campaign failing to follow through on its meal contests to save a few thousand dollars and Trump some time? I need your help to find out.
If you have information about who won these contests — or know someone who does — please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can use my secure email: email@example.com.
UPDATE (11/5, 9AM): After the publication of this article, the Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh responded, claiming that “people win the contests each time.” Murtaugh offered no proof to support his claim.
Thanks for reading!