A peek inside Trump’s opulent fundraiser in Newport Beach

President Trump arrived in Orange County on Sunday to raise money for his cash-strapped campaign even as he is running behind 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. “So people are pretty excited. This is a high-stakes election.”

President Trump greets supporters after he arrives on Air Force One at John Wayne Airport on Sunday.

President Trump greeted supporters on Sunday after Air Force One landed at John Wayne Airport.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

More than 1,000 people lined the roads from the entry to Lido Isle waiting for the president's motorcade to pass by Sunday.

More than 1,000 people lined the roads from the entry to Lido Isle down to Pacific Coast Highway as the president’s motorcade passed by shortly after noon Sunday.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

More than 1,000 people lined the roads from the entry to Lido Isle down to Pacific Coast Highway as the president’s motorcade passed by shortly after noon, jumping, screaming and FaceTiming their friends. Earlier, supporters of Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden clashed.

Trump backers, some with flags, signs, megaphones and speakers playing “God Bless America,” outnumbered those in favor of Biden.

The scene unfolded in one of the wealthiest communities in Orange County, a longtime conservative citadel that nurtured Ronald Reagan’s conservatism, 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 — which will feature a live performance by the Beach Boys — start at $2,800 per person, up to $150,000 per couple for co-chair status. Trump will appear alongside Richard Grenell, his former ambassador to Germany and former acting director of national intelligence, at a lunchtime roundtable and reception.

The Beach Boys rehearse Saturday at the site of the Newport Beach fundraiser.

The Beach Boys rehearse Saturday at the site of the Newport Beach fundraiser.

(Mark Chervinsky / For The Times)

“I want to see his energy. I just want to see him,” said Tina Zubia, 60. The Azusa resident and psychic medium who used to appear on the Rick Dees radio show planned to attend the fundraiser with her sister Stephanie Urbach, who lives down the road from the Lido Isle mansion where Trump will appear. “I feel like he really has our best interests as heart. He’s creating jobs in America, and putting us as Americans first. And he doesn’t take anything from anybody.”

Urbach, 55, added, “He does what he says.”

Not every Lido Isle resident was on board. Tisha, Urbach’s neighbor who did not want her last name publicized, put up flags for the Democratic ticket of Biden and Kamala Harris in her frontyard on Friday — rare among the Trump flags and lawn signs at many of the community’s homes.

“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. “In a sea of Trump supporters, it’s really important we distinguish ourselves as not for him, not for what he stands for, even though all of our neighbors do.”

A pro-Trump banner thanks the Trump family "for sharing your Dad and Melania with The American People."

A pro-Trump banner hangs in Newport Beach on Saturday.

(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

The fundraiser is taking place at the home of Palmer Luckey, a 28-year-old tech mogul who is believed to be the inspiration for the Keenan Feldspar character on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

The Long Beach native sold his virtual reality company to Facebook for $3 billion at the age of 21 and remained an executive at the company. He later claimed to have been forced out because of his conservative views; Facebook executives have denied that his politics played a role in their decision to part ways with Luckey. He is currently working on a defense start-up whose projects include using technology to detect immigrants crossing illegally over the border.

Luckey is among California’s top GOP donors. He has 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 Trump Victory and $392,900 to the Republican National Committee.

Luckey’s mansion overlooks Newport Bay 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. One narrow road loops around the island; parking was forbidden on the road on Saturday as workers erected metal security fence along the sidewalks.

A temporary dock was added to the bayside front of Luckey’s house by security forces. Newport Beach police would not discuss road closures for security reasons; the Federal Aviation Administration is restricting airspace over John Wayne International Airport and surrounding areas from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

On an empty lot next to Luckey’s house, red, white and blue fabric had been draped to create a large 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. Luckey, barefoot and wearing a trademark Hawaiian shirt, watched on Saturday as large chandeliers were brought into the space and the final touches were put on a professional musical stage.

Palmer Luckey (barefoot and wearing Hawaiian shirt) greets people on the empty lot next to his house on Saturday.

Palmer Luckey, center, greets people on an empty lot next to his Newport Beach home Saturday as preparations are underway for a fundraiser.

(Seema Mehta/Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t talk to reporters,” he said, when approached about the event.

As the sun turned pink Saturday evening, the Beach Boys rehearsed their set, including “California Girls” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (The touring edition of the band, led by cofounder Mike Love, performed. Cofounder Brian Wilson has spoken out against the band for playing at Trump-related events and was not present). Neighbors gathered on the street outside for an impromptu block party, sipping cocktails and snapping selfies, few masks in evidence. Golf carts festooned with enormous Trump flags circled.

The fundraiser and one in Beverly Hills were initially scheduled to take place Oct. 6 but were canceled after the president contracted COVID-19.

Trump‘s appearance at a fundraiser 16 days before election day is indicative of his financial position in the race against Biden.

Although the president had banked an enormous sum of money, his campaign spent lavishly earlier in the year, and Biden became a fundraising powerhouse in recent months, putting Trump at a disadvantage. In the third quarter, which 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 signaled 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.”

Supporters and opponents used the president’s appearance Sunday as an opportunity to voice their views.

Catrina Magana, a 34-year-old construction company estimator from Fullerton, said she noticed her paycheck increase as a result of Trump’s tax cut bill and she approved of what he’s done for legal immigrants. Her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. legally from Mexico.

“I feel like he’s the best choice,” she said. “Most people who are not Trump supporters — they see me and they’re like, ‘Why are you voting for Trump?’”

Amber Lewis Rigsby, a 32-year-old activist from Costa Mesa who supports Biden, said she felt it was her duty to stand up against hate and fascism. She said her group had been harassed, called names and physically confronted by Trump supporters.

“There’s a lot of vitriol,” she said. “We are not here to hate anybody. We are not here to create any kinds of problems. We just want to peacefully let our voices be heard.”

The earliest protesters on the scene were Armenian Americans who sought to highlight the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and urge Trump to intervene and sanction Turkey.

The president’s appearance in California — a state Trump lost by 30 points to Hillary Clinton in 2016 — is taking place amid a Southwestern swing through battleground states.

Before he landed in California on Sunday, 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. After the Lido fundraiser, Trump will return to Nevada for a rally in Carson City, and on Monday is scheduled to headline two rallies, in Tucson and Prescott, Ariz.

Biden attended Mass on Sunday in Delaware and visited his son Beau’s grave afterward, as he often does, then traveled to Durham, N.C., for a drive-in rally. With the exception of President Obama winning the state by less than 0.5% in 2008, North Carolina has been solidly Republican for four decades, but polling shows it is competitive this year.

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