San Diego developer Doug Manchester the subject of possible ‘pay-to-play’ in failed Trump nomination

Doug Manchester.
(San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego developer Doug Manchester is at the center of a possible “pay-to-play” solicitation from the Republican National Committee, which reportedly sought a $500,000 contribution from him as the U.S. Senate considered his ambassadorship.

Manchester told CBS News in a report broadcast Monday that national committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel asked him for the donation in September, long after President Trump’s nomination of him to become the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas was stalled in the Senate. He was never confirmed.

In an email obtained by CBS News, McDaniel asked Manchester for the six-figure donation days after Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas and Manchester made a high-profile visit to the island nation to offer help.

In a Sept. 7 tweet, Trump thanked Manchester “for the incredible amount of time, money and passion he has spent on helping bring safety to the Bahamas.”

Three days later, McDaniel emailed Manchester to ask whether he would donate to the Republican National Committee, according to the email obtained by CBS News.


“Would you consider putting together $500,000 worth of contributions from your family to ensure we hit our ambitious fundraising goal,” McDaniel wrote.

In a return email — which Manchester also copied to the aides of two senators who controlled the fate of his nomination — Manchester implied that he would make additional contributions after he was confirmed by the Senate.

“As you know, I’m not supposed to do any [political donations during the confirmation process] but my wife is sending a contribution for $100,000,” Manchester replied, CBS News reported.

“Assuming I get voted out of FRC (Foreign Relations Committee) on Wednesday to the floor we need you to have the majority leader bring it to a majority vote,” he wrote. “Once confirmed, our family will respond.”

Manchester, who hosted Trump in a 2016 campaign visit to San Diego and later donated $1 million to his inauguration, told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Monday that his comment was being misconstrued.

“I was just saying we will respond,” he said in a telephone interview. “We could respond, ‘We don’t want to do anything more, period.’ It wasn’t what everyone is trying to make of it. They are trying to make it a pay-for-play, which it is not.

“I never in fact guaranteed to do anything,” he said.

Manchester said he withdrew from consideration for the Bahamas post in October after threats against himself and his family. He specifically cited an April incident in which a man attempted to set fire to his La Jolla home.

“I resigned solely due to the fact that a person who was a Trump hater and a defense contractor hater came out to my house at 1 o’clock in the morning and tried to kill my wife, myself and my three infant children,” Manchester said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego issued a news release Nov. 5 announcing that Daniel Hector Mackinnon had been sentenced to seven years in prison for politically motivated attacks against Manchester and a Raytheon building.

“Mackinnon’s arsons not only caused damage to a building, but also endangered the lives of small children who were asleep in their homes,” U.S. Atty. Robert Brewer said in the statement.

The Republican National Committee denied that it sought a pay-to-play deal with Manchester. In a statement to CBS News, the committee said McDaniel “did not suggest to Mr. Manchester in any way that it would more quickly advance his confirmation if members of his family made a political contribution.”

The committee said, “Mr. Manchester’s decision to link future contributions to an official action was totally inappropriate.”

CBS News reported that the party cut ties with Manchester and returned the money his family donated.

Manchester, a real estate magnate who owned the Union-Tribune from 2011 to 2015, is not the only prominent Trump donor to be nominated for an ambassadorship.

Hotelier Gordon Sondland, who is now a key witness in the House impeachment investigation, was confirmed as the European Union ambassador after donating $1 million to the Trump inauguration.

Robin Bernstein was named ambassador of the Dominican Republic and Lana Marks was confirmed as ambassador to South Africa after Trump was elected president. Both are members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, which charges $200,000 for a membership, CBS News said.

The CBS News report also quoted former Sen. Bob Corker as a reason Manchester’s nomination, first suggested in January 2017, was delayed so long.

“We had concerns about judgment, about demeanor, about just the whole reason for taking the job,” said Corker, who until his retirement last January served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The two-term senator from Tennessee also criticized Manchester for emailing copies of his response to McDaniel to aides for Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim Risch of Idaho, who are both on the committee.

“I can only tell you that if I received an email like that, there would have been a five-bell alarm that went off,” Corker told CBS News.

U.S. presidents on both sides of the political aisle for decades have handed out ambassadorships as a way to thank prominent donors. But Trump appears to have escalated the frequency of such appointments.

According to the nonprofit the Conversation, which publishes news and analysis from university researchers around the globe, U.S. presidents historically recruit about 70% of their ambassadors from the foreign service and 30% from political donors.

But 45% of Trump’s ambassadors have been political supporters, the Conversation reported Monday. The report also noted that the number of political appointments versus career foreign service ambassadors is typically higher early in presidential terms.