WASHINGTON ― The bad news for President Donald Trump: He may well lose reelection later this year.
The good news for his top campaign staff: They will wind up really rich either way.
Brad Parscale, whom Trump named to run his 2020 effort in early 2018, has already collected $38.9 million through his companies from Trump’s various reelection committees between January 2017 and the end of March, according to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
Gerrit Lansing’s payment processing company, which he started while a staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee and continued to run while he worked at the Republican National Committee, has taken in $1.7 million. Katie Walsh, briefly a Trump White House aide and a former RNC chief of staff, has received $877,424 through her firms. And Richard Walters, who at age 30 is the current chief of staff, makes $244,943 a year in salary but last year was paid an additional $135,000 through his own consulting firm. Since the Trump presidency began, he has been paid a total of $755,324.
For Parscale, who just a few years ago was designing websites in San Antonio for Trump’s properties, among other clients, the sudden wealth has afforded him a $2.4 million waterfront house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a pair of million-dollar condos, a brand new $400,000 boat, and another half-million dollars in luxury cars, including a Range Rover and a Ferrari.
“This thing has been a large criminal enterprise. It’s like that scene in the ‘Goodfellas’ after the heist,” said Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, a veteran of the George W. Bush and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns. “Dishing out furs to mob bosses’ girlfriends and wives.”
Lansing, Walsh and Walters did not respond to queries from HuffPost, although RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel responded on Walters’ behalf and said he was “doing a fantastic job” and was “underpaid for his position.”
Parscale asked that detailed questions be emailed to him. HuffPost did so, but he did not respond.
Glenn McCall, an RNC member from South Carolina and chairman of the party’s budget committee, referred questions back to RNC staff. He acknowledged that his panel is technically responsible for the party’s spending but said he had no details. “We just approve a budget as a whole,” he said.
More broadly, the Trump reelection effort’s lavish spending highlights a singular irony: Better funded and having spent more money than any previous presidential campaign to this point in the election cycle, it has nevertheless been unable to improve Trump’s polling numbers with the election now just six months away.
“All organizations reflect the person at the top. That person’s values. And that’s the problem for the Trump campaign. Everything reflects off their sun god,” said John Weaver, a Republican consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of John McCain and John Kasich.
“All organizations reflect the person at the top. That person’s values. And that’s the problem for the Trump campaign. Everything reflects off their sun god.”
The Trump campaign and the RNC have, since he took office, raised a combined $889 million and spent $746 million. Despite this, Trump remains as unpopular as he ever was.
Indeed, at the time Parscale took charge in February 2018, Trump’s approval rating stood at 42%. In late January, before the severity of the coronavirus outbreak became clear to most Americans, it stood at 44% ― dangerous territory for a president seeking reelection.
“That is exactly the nut of the issue. They’ve exhausted vast amounts of donor resources,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida Republican consultant and a prominent Trump critic. “Their advocacy effort is so bad because his record is so bad. They’re having to spend just to stay in place.”
Hiding the money
When campaign senior adviser and presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump discussed a possible salary for just-departed White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in December 2017, she told the former contestant on Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” reality show: “The only thing that we have to consider, where we’re talking about salary as far as the campaign is concerned, is that, as you know, everything is public,” Lara Trump said, according to a recording Manigault Newman made and later shared with NBC. “And all the money that we raise that pays salaries is directly from donors, small-dollar donors for the most part.”
Manigault Newman wound up not taking a campaign job and instead wrote a tell-all book about her time in the White House. And, as it turned out, what Lara Trump claimed regarding at least some of the campaign salaries was false.
Lara Trump, wife of Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., are both receiving $15,000 a month of campaign money that is routed through Parscale’s companies. Parscale defended the practice to HuffPost last month ― “I can pay them however I want to pay them” ― but he declined to elaborate.
“I think the general public would be interested to know what members of Trump’s extended family are being paid by campaign donors,” said Paul Ryan, a campaign finance legal expert at the watchdog group Common Cause.
How many others are paid in a similarly secret manner is not publicly knowable. For example, Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told HuffPost at a February campaign rally that he had rejoined the campaign last year as a senior adviser ― the same title held by both Lara Trump and Guilfoyle. But he also does not appear in FEC records, and neither he nor the campaign would respond to HuffPost queries about the matter.
Of course, if he, like Lara Trump and Guilfoyle, is making money off the Trump reelection with no public disclosure, he is certainly not alone. Many tens of millions of dollars in payments have gone to consulting firms that in turn purchase internet ads, television spots and mass mailings ― but also keep undisclosed percentages for their principals.
A total of $50.5 million, for example, has been paid to direct-mail firm Communications Corp. of America. FLS Connect, run by former RNC staffers, has been paid $19.1 million for telemarketing and “data services.” Nearly $7.7 million has gone to Opn Sesame, owned by Parscale friend Gary Coby, for fundraising via text messages.
Many of the companies provide legitimate services that campaigns need, Wilson said, and there is strategic value to creating cutout firms to purchase ads to make it harder for other campaigns to discern strategy.
But in the case of the Trump campaign and the RNC, he said, the more important purpose is to hide from Trump’s donors how much is being kept as overhead by the various players.
And with the households of both of Trump’s adult sons profiting from the campaign ― the RNC even purchased tens of thousands of copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s book last year, helping drive it onto bestseller lists ― Wilson said he suspects the obfuscation, in this case, is being done with Trump’s complicity.
“There’s definitely something sluicing over onto the Trump side of the fence,” he said.
“It’s either done to hide it from the candidate or it’s done to hide it with the candidate,” agreed Weaver. “It certainly hides it from the donors and the FEC and the public.”
The single biggest beneficiary of Trump’s campaign, though, appears to be his campaign manager, Parscale. Up until last year, when media reports of how much money was flowing through his companies angered Trump and the RNC set up a separate shell company to route advertising dollars, Parscale’s businesses were receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars per month from the various reelection committees. It was a similar arrangement to what he had in 2016, when his firm received $93.9 million for internet ads, fundraising and web design.
Exactly how much Parscale kept for himself in that election or is keeping for himself now is impossible to know using public records. He told The Washington Post in October that he had made only $400,000 up to that point in the reelection effort. The New York Times in March reported that he was keeping $700,000 to $800,000, an amount Trump had OKd.
Parscale did not respond to HuffPost’s specific queries on this point, but either figure seems low given the spending spree he has embarked upon over the past three years.
Annual real estate taxes on his canal-front house with 95 feet of dockage located just two miles from the Port Everglades inlet into the open Atlantic, for example, run $43,986, nearly 50% more than the per-capita income in Florida. The 32-foot Sea Ray outboard he got last year (Parscale wrote on Instagram last June: “Love boating through Fort Lauderdale. Amazing place.”) guzzles $150 an hour in gasoline at cruising speed, totaling upwards of $1,000 for a day on the water.
“There’s a lot of well-intentioned people who are giving five and 10 dollars a month, and it goes to someone like Parscale,” said Stevens. “It’s just obscene.”
$750 million in spending later, Trump still unpopular
Even if Parscale’s compensation to date has totaled in the low millions of dollars, it would still be many times more than what was earned by other presidential campaign managers.
In 2012, former President Barack Obama’s reelection chief Jim Messina was paid $123,908, while GOP counterpart Matt Rhoades on Mitt Romney’s campaign was paid $178,750.
Four years later, Jeb Bush’s campaign manager, Danny Diaz, was making $137,739 a year, while Hillary Clinton’s chief, Robbie Mook, was making $134,069.
And this year, Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, was being paid $156,657 annually while presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s new chief, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, is making $138,423. The head of billionaire Mike Bloomberg’s campaign, known for its extravagant salaries, was making $198,547.
“Parscale would also be the best-paid campaign manager in the history of campaign managers,” Wilson said.
Though Parscale’s earnings likely shatter previous records many times over, he is not alone in finding the president’s 2020 campaign lucrative. The Trump campaign’s salaries generally have been significantly higher for upper- and mid-level positions than that of other campaigns.
Trump’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, is making $230,000 a year ― more than twice what his counterpart at the Biden campaign, Kate Bedingfield, is making. Murtaugh’s deputy, Erin Perrine, is paid $160,000 ― more than O’Malley Dillon or anyone else on the Biden campaign ― while Trump campaign “senior adviser” Katrina Pierson is paid $240,000 annually.
Stevens, who worked on the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004 and the Romney campaigns of 2008 and 2012, said consultants are accustomed to a culture of making less on a presidential run than they might working for several statewide races in a particular election year.
“A lot of people did it because they thought it was important,” he said. “The idea that you go to work as a political consultant on a presidential campaign and make more than you’ve ever made in your life ― it should be a tremendous warning sign.”
But if campaign staff and consultants are enriching themselves thanks to Trump donors, it is no different than what Trump himself has been doing since even before taking office: paying himself millions of dollars for use of his own properties.
A HuffPost analysis of FEC data shows that Trump’s campaign, the RNC and their related joint committees have spent $6.4 million at Trump hotels and resorts from January 2017 through March 31. That includes $37,542 per month in rent for space at Trump Tower in Manhattan, even though the campaign is based in a high-rise in Arlington, Virginia, and just a handful of staff use the New York office.
“The idea that you go to work as a political consultant on a presidential campaign and make more than you’ve ever made in your life ― it should be a tremendous warning sign.”
That practice of funneling donor money into his own pocket began in 2016, right after he became the presumptive Republican nominee and began raising large amounts of GOP cash. Trump immediately quintupled the rent he was charging his campaign at Trump Tower, from $35,458 per month to $169,758. He also began billing the campaign five- and six-figure sums for use of his hotels and golf courses for hosting fundraisers.
Yet for all the reelection campaign’s spending, there remains the question of what has been achieved. Trump opened his reelection campaign literally the day he took office ― more than two years earlier than his recent predecessors began their reelection efforts.
Trump’s approval ratings, while slightly higher than they were at the lowest points of his presidency, have remained stuck in the low 40s. While they edged upward a few points after the coronavirus pandemic struck in a classic “rally ’round the flag” effect, that disappeared quickly after Trump staged nightly two-hour briefings in which he repeatedly aired his numerous grievances and unusual medical theories.
And though his campaign frequently boasts of all the internet-based events they are hosting to recruit volunteers from among their database of rally-goers, critics like Weaver are dubious that merely getting his hard-core base to the polls will be enough to win a second term.
“What would a normal campaign that won after losing the popular vote have done? They would have done everything they could to expand their base and broaden their coalition,” he said.
But instead, in media interview after media interview, rally speech after rally speech, Trump appealed to his core supporters among white, rural Americans without college educations and managed to alienate everyone else, Weaver said.
“What have they gotten for their money? They have a narrowing Electoral College path. They decided to see if they can draw an inside straight two elections in a row,” he said. “It’s like trying to get an inside straight on a high wire in a high wind.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated Gerrit Lansing’s employment status when he founded his payment processing company. He worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee at the time, not the Republican National Committee.