Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and their joint fundraising committees have spent $58.9 million for internet ads and related costs between May 2018 through this March, while digital platforms in that period received approximately $47.4 million, according to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission filings and a database compiled by New York University.
How much of that gap represents salaries of digital ad makers and their expenses and how much is profit for the consultants who own the firms is unclear, thanks to the committees’ decision to run vast amounts of spending through private companies, rather than making direct payments to each of the recipient entities.
The RNC declined to comment, and the Trump campaign would not respond to HuffPost queries about the digital spending.
John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of John McCain and John Kasich, said he doubts Trump himself is bothered much by all the money going to consultants because his own family is also getting a piece of it.
“I’ve always believed Brad is grifting with the Trump family,” he said, referring to the $180,000 a year flowing to the wife of one of Trump’s adult sons and the girlfriend of the other through campaign manager Brad Parscale’s company.
American Made Media Consultants, which Republican officials have described as a front entity created specifically to buy ads, received $53.6 million in payments related to “digital” or “web” ads, while Parscale Strategy, LLC received $4.8 million. No other company is listed as receiving more than $200,000, according to HuffPost’s analysis.
The campaign’s largess toward consultants generally, and to Parscale in particular, has become fodder for the latest ad by Weaver and others behind the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC whose previous work has drawn extended, angry rants from Trump.
The 30-second spot, scheduled to air on Fox News in Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening, features Parscale’s spending spree over the past two years as detailed in a recent HuffPost report, which includes a $2.4 million waterfront house, a $400,000 boat, a pair of million-dollar condos, a Ferrari and a Land Rover.
Trump’s campaign and the RNC together have already spent $746 million of the $889 million they have raised since Trump took office. Much of that money has gone for higher-than-average salaries for Trump’s campaign employees — significantly higher than that of other presidential campaigns in recent cycles.
How much, precisely, has gone into Parscale’s pocket is unclear. He has been paid through the companies he owns, rather than as an employee ― $38.9 million since January 2017.
Exactly how much Parscale kept for himself 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 OK’d.
Parscale did not respond to HuffPost’s specific queries on this point.
The Trump campaign is obfuscating its spending thanks to a loophole that the FEC has failed to close. Unlike payments to credit card companies, which must be itemized by individual vendor, payments to consultants who then outsource the work do not have to be broken out, said Paul Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with Common Cause.
“The lack of transparency to the public is a problem,” he said.
HuffPost’s analysis starts in May 2018 to match up with the database created by Laura Edelson, one of the researchers behind the Online Political Ads Transparency Project at New York University. According to her data, Facebook and Instagram reported a total of $37.9 million in ads from Trump campaign committees from May 2018 through March 31 of this year — with much of that going to engage or raise money from existing supporters, rather than reach out to new ones.
She said that her group originally also tracked spending on Google, including YouTube, and Snapchat, but decided the effort was not worth it. “We used to track the other platforms too, but they were just so small. Facebook just blew everything else out of the water,” she said.
She estimated that approximately 80% all of the Trump committees’ digital spending was on Facebook and Instagram — meaning the $37.9 million on those two platforms translates to a total digital spending of approximately $47.4 million.