Insiders: Trump Team Dangled Ambassadorships to Lure A-List Inauguration Singers (Exclusive)

“My first thought was, ‘Are you joking?’ But no, it was serious”

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President-elect Donald Trump’s team is struggling so hard to book A-list performers for his inaugural festivities that it offered ambassadorships to at least two talent bookers if they could deliver marquee names, the bookers told TheWrap.

The bookers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were approached by members of Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee in recent weeks with offers of cash or even plush diplomatic posts in exchange for locking in singers.

The first insider said he was “shocked” at the proposal: “Never in a million years have I heard something so crazy,” he said. “That was the moment I almost dropped the phone.”

Trump’s team has struggled to find talent outside of the low-wattage stars who endorsed him during the campaign. A meeting between Trump and Kanye West spurred speculation Tuesday that the the troubled rapper might perform. On Wednesday, news broke that Trump’s team had managed to enlist 16-year-old former “America’s Got Talent” star Jackie Evancho.

In a statement to TheWrap, Trump’s team denied offering any ambassadorships. “There is no truth to this insinuation,” said committee spokesman Boris Epshteyn. “First-class entertainers are eager to participate in the inaugural events. The inauguration as a whole will be an exciting and uniting celebration of freedom and democracy. We will be releasing further details at the appropriate time.”

But according to the insider, there was no ambiguity about the ambassadorship offer. “My first thought was, ‘Are you joking?’” he said. “But no, it was serious.”

The insider, who has secured talent with the star power Trump’s team is seeking for past inaugurations, said he “didn’t like what was going on” and politely declined the offer. The conversation lasted only a few minutes, so no additional specifics were discussed, he said.

A second insider said he was offered a government post, including an ambassadorship, if he could wrangle a top artist. The insider, a talent manager, said he knew at least two other people who have been offered similar deals, but who did not wish to speak to the news media.

Asked how the subject of a possible ambassadorship came up, the second recruiter said he was offered “access to the administration.”

“They said they were in the process of  ‘figuring out posts, ambassadorships and commissions’ if that was of any interest,” the manager said.

The manager said he declined the offer and did not ask which ambassadorships were on the table.

Both men who spoke to TheWrap about the ambassadorships asked not to be identified, and both, like most in left-leaning Hollywood, supported Hillary Clinton in the election.

TheWrap spoke previously to industry insiders who said the inauguration team has its sights set on top-tier talents like Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and Aretha Franklin, and were willing to pay steep fees for the performers. Perry sang at the Democratic National Convention in July, and Franklin sang at President Obama’s first inauguration.

Rewarding big campaign donors, fundraisers and other loyalists with ambassadorships is nothing new. According to the American Foreign Service Association, more than 40 percent of Obama’s ambassador nominees in his second term went to political rather than career diplomats. In recent past administrations the figure was about 30 percent, according to NPR.

But handing out government posts for talent bookers is outside the norm.

One veteran inaugural organizer told TheWrap it is unusual to compensate talent and recruiters for an inauguration performance, which is usually considered a high-profile, high-prestige, patriotic gig. And the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that advocates for open government and accountability, called the idea “alarming.”

“It’s bad policy to offer ambassadorships to unqualified, inexperienced individuals, no matter who is president,” spokeswoman Jenn Topper said. “The public deserves an opportunity to vet the people who will be at the forefront of our diplomatic relations, and this alleged backroom dealing is alarming.”

Ambassadors are nominated by the president, but must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Trump is expected to attend three inaugural galas on January 20 —  two official inaugural balls, as well as the Salute to Our Armed Services Ball, according to the committee planning the events. That’s far less than President Obama’s 10 inaugural balls in 2009. The Obamas held only two balls for the 2013 inauguration.

Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, or PIC, is having a hard time lining up the kind of high-caliber stars President Obama enjoyed during his inaugurations, including Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor and Franklin.

Asked by The Hill earlier this month if she would consider performing for Trump’s inauguration, Franklin replied, “That’s a very good question. … We’ll see.”

Among those seen as more likely performers are Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, both of whom backed Trump’s presidential run. Garth Brooks raised speculation he might perform when he told TMZ he would be open to the idea, if asked, but on Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the situation scuttled the idea.

The New York Daily News reported on Wednesday that Evancho, a classical crossover vocalist, would sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Trump’s swearing-in ceremony. And earlier this week, the New York Post reported that Italian singer Andrea Bocelli has been personally approached by Trump to perform at the inauguration.

But Trump’s team isn’t just struggling to lure singers. Many marching bands have reportedly decided to sit out the festivities. And while the District of Columbia’s planners have not revised a pre-election estimate that up to 900,000 people may turn out for inaugural events, the Associated Press reports there’s little likelihood Trump will draw the 1.8 million who attended Obama’s first inaugural.

At least two Hollywood insiders believe another artist on the Trump team’s wish list is Gwen Stefani. Stefani is a judge on NBC’s “The Voice,” a show executive produced by Mark Burnett, who is not only the creator of Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” but is heavily involved in the inauguration planning.

“Nothing is off the table,” the first insider said. “It’s like an alternate universe.”