By Michelle Conlin
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Donald Trump's national finance team held its first official meeting on Thursday amid growing concerns about the Republican presidential candidate's lack of a campaign infrastructure, his attacks on a Mexican-American judge, and the realization that Trump's flame-throwing instincts have yet to be reined in.
The meeting at New York City's Four Seasons Hotel took place two years after such a gathering would normally occur in the traditional realm of U.S. politicking.
Presidential contenders typically organize their fundraising operations long before they declare their candidacies. Trump, a wealthy celebrity businessman, became the Republicans' presumptive nominee for the Nov. 8 presidential election last month after seeing off 16 rivals in a largely self-funded primary campaign.
His late start on fundraising is widely considered a steep structural handicap among top Republican donors, who question whether Trump can achieve his previously stated aim of raising $1 billion before November. On the Democratic side, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton's well-oiled operation is well ahead of schedule.
With Trump at the meeting were his chief strategist, Paul Manafort, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Republican fund-raisers Ray Washburne and Lew Eisenberg.
Already, top donors are saying Trump is unlikely to hit $1 billion.
Trump is also pulling back from his earlier statements on his fundraising goal. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told Reuters on Wednesday he sees no reason why Trump would have to raise that sum and that Trump may very well be able to continue his low-cost style of campaigning.
That includes garnering free media - which is estimated to reach a value of $5 billion by November, according to media analytics firm mediaQuant. That is more than double the amount Clinton is likely to get, mediaQuant says.
Thursday's meeting kicked off the Trump Victory Fund - his joint fundraising operation with the Republican National Committee that aims to raise money both for his candidacy and for candidates further down the ballot in the November election, whose efforts could be impaired by anemic fundraising by Trump.
CONCERNS ABOUT TRUMP'S STYLE
While Trump shot to the top of the Republican primary with freewheeling rhetoric, sprays of insults to rivals and promises to get tough on issues such as illegal immigration, even his biggest mega donors say they are discouraged by the candidate's attacks in recent weeks on a Mexican-American judge.
In comments that have been widely condemned, Trump has suggested that U.S. Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a case against Trump University, has an inherent bias because of his heritage.
"He needs to stop the campaign infighting, shut up and stop calling an American who was born in Indiana a Mexican," said Texas billionaire Doug Deason, who was invited to Thursday's meeting but who is not attending because he will be at Trump fundraisers in Texas next week. "It's asinine."
Added Minnesota media magnate Stanley Hubbard, "Sometimes people's egos are connected to their mouths and it bypasses their brains ... People say dumb things but I just can't believe he did."
Four people who were attending Thursday's gathering said beforehand that in addition to Trump's comments about Curiel, they are also concerned about the fundraising effort's late start.
"We are sort of going from zero to 60 in two seconds," said Texas fundraising co-chair Gaylord Hughey, one of the Republican Party's most prolific fundraisers.
"Normally, we would have been together for 24 months by now, putting our networks in place, organizing all our contacts. Now, we are starting from a standstill."
Also worrying donors is the threadbare nature of Trump’s campaign, which has been struggling lately to carry out even the most basic of campaign functions. There are virtually no pollsters, no data team, no policy-writing shop and no communications team. Strategists are also scarce. Trump has largely funded the $50-million affair himself.
By contrast, the Clinton campaign operation, which has already spent more than $200 million, has had a large, robust staff filled with seasoned operatives for the past year.
But Lewandowski calls Trump’s lean operation a virtue, not a handicap.
"The Hillary Clinton campaign has 732 paid staffers. Donald Trump has 70 and he won against a 17-person field. This is the mindset the American people need for someone as chief executive."
(Editing by Frances Kerry)