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How Trump’s campaign squandered its billion-dollar cash advantage

Five months later, Trump’s financial supremacy has evaporated.

Of the $US1.1 billion his campaign and the party raised from the beginning of 2019 through July, more than $US800 million has been spent. Now some people inside the campaign are forecasting what was once unthinkable: a cash crunch with less than 60 days until the election, according to Republican officials briefed on the matter.

Brad Parscale, the former campaign manager, liked to call Trump’s reelection war machine an “unstoppable juggernaut.”

Attendees hold flags in support of Donald Trump ahead of a campaign rally at a airport hangar in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Attendees hold flags in support of Donald Trump ahead of a campaign rally at a airport hangar in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Credit:Bloomberg

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former campaign aides and Trump allies, and a review of thousands of items in federal campaign filings, show that the president’s campaign and the RNC developed some profligate habits as they burned through hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since Bill Stepien replaced Parscale in July, the campaign has imposed a series of belt-tightening measures that have reshaped initiatives, including hiring practices, travel and the advertising budget.

Under Parscale, more than $US350 million — almost half of the $US800 million spent — went to fundraising operations, as no expense was spared in finding new donors online.

The Trump family approved all expenditures, says Donald Trump's former digital guru Brad Parscale.

The Trump family approved all expenditures, says Donald Trump’s former digital guru Brad Parscale.Credit:Bloomberg

The campaign assembled a big and well-paid staff and housed the team at a cavernous, well-appointed office in the Virginia suburbs; outsize legal bills were treated as campaign costs; and more than $US100 million was spent on a television advertising blitz before the party convention, the point when most of the electorate historically begins to pay close attention to the race.

Among the splashiest and perhaps most questionable purchase was for Super Bowl ads that cost $US11 million — more than the campaign has spent on TV in some top battleground states — a vanity splurge that allowed Trump to match billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s buy for the big game.

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There was also a cascade of smaller choices that added up: The campaign hired a coterie of highly paid consultants (Trump’s former bodyguard and White House aide has been paid more than $US500,000 by the RNC since late 2017); spent $US156,000 for planes to pull aerial banners in recent months; and paid nearly $US110,000 to Yondr, a company that makes magnetic pouches used to store cellphones during fundraisers so that donors could not secretly record Trump and leak his remarks.

Some people familiar with the expenses noted that Parscale had a car and driver, an unusual expense for a campaign manager. Trump has told people gleefully that Stepien took a pay cut when the president gave him the job.

Critics of the campaign’s management say the lavish spending was ineffective: Trump enters the autumn trailing in most national and battleground state polls, and Biden has surpassed him as a fundraising powerhouse, after posting a record-setting haul of nearly $US365 million in August. The Trump campaign has not revealed its August fundraising figure.

“If you spend $US800 million and you’re 10 points behind, I think you’ve got to answer the question ‘What was the game plan?'” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who runs a small pro-Trump super PAC, and who accused Parscale of spending “like a drunken sailor.”

“I think a lot of money was spent when voters weren’t paying attention,” he added.

Parscale, who is still a senior adviser on the campaign, said in an interview that the Trump operation invested heavily in attracting donors to erase the large advantage that Democrats had built digitally after the Obama years. “We closed that gap,” he said, crediting early spending as “the only reason Republicans are even close” in terms of online fundraising.

Veteran GOP operative Bill Stepien replaced campaign manager Brad Parscale Stepien.

Veteran GOP operative Bill Stepien replaced campaign manager Brad Parscale Stepien.Credit:AP

“I ran the campaign the same way I did in 2016, which also included all of the marketing, strategy and expenses under the very close eye of the family,” said Parscale, who was the digital director, not the campaign manager, in 2016. “No decision was made without their approval.”

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has overseen the campaign from his position as a senior White House aide, had posed for a Fortune magazine cover as the person who ran the 2016 campaign soon after the election.

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“Any spending arrangements with the RNC since 2016 were in partnership with Ronna McDaniel,” Parscale said, referring to the party chairwoman, “who I consider a strategic partner and friend.”

Nicholas Everhart, a Republican strategist who owns a firm specialising in placing political ads, said the $US800 million spent so far shows the “peril of starting a reelection campaign just weeks after winning.”

“A presidential campaign costs a lot of money to run,” Everhart said. “In essence, the campaign has been spending nonstop for almost four years straight.”

At the top of the whiteboard in Stepien’s office are the latest numbers on the campaign budget, and Stepien has instituted a number of changes since he was promoted from deputy campaign manager. A proposal to spend $US50 million in costs related to coalitions groups was cast aside. An idea to spend $US3 million for a NASCAR car bearing Trump’s name was discarded.

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The number of staff members allowed to travel to events has been pared back to avoid what one senior campaign official described as “sponsoring vacations.”

Trips aboard Air Force One, popular because they enable aides to get face time with the president — but which have to be compensated by the campaign — have been slashed.

“The most important thing I do every day is pay attention to the budget,” Stepien said in a brief interview. He declined to discuss budget specifics but said the campaign had enough funds to win.

Most visibly, the Trump campaign slashed its television spending in August, mostly abandoning the airwaves during the party conventions. In the last two weeks of the month, Biden’s campaign spent $US35.9 million on television ads, compared with $US4.8 million for Trump, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

“We held on to cash to make sure that we’ll have the firepower that we need” for the fall, said Jason Miller, a senior strategist for Trump, who contended that airing ads during the conventions would prove a waste for Biden. “We want to make sure that we’re saving it for when it really matters, when it’s going to move the needle.”

Miller defended spending money on television ads earlier this spring and summer, calling it a “tough” decision necessary to keep Trump competitive as the nation suffered through a pandemic and what he described as a “temporary economic shutdown.””We had to claw our way back,” he said.

Sparing no expense, fireworks lit up the sky around the Washington Monument after President Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech at the White House to the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Sparing no expense, fireworks lit up the sky around the Washington Monument after President Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech at the White House to the 2020 Republican National Convention.Credit:AP

One of the reasons Biden was able to wipe away Trump’s early cash edge was that he sharply contained costs with a minimalistic campaign during the worst months of the pandemic. Trump officials derisively dismissed it as his “basement” strategy, but from that basement Biden fully embraced Zoom fundraisers, with top donors asked to give as much as $US720,000.

These virtual events typically took less than 90 minutes of the candidate’s time, could raise millions of dollars and cost almost nothing. Trump has almost entirely refused to hold such fundraisers. Aides say he does not like them.

The Trump campaign has undertaken its own financial review of spending under Parscale. Among the first changes implemented was shutting down an ad campaign that had used Parscale’s personal social media accounts to deliver pro-Trump ads. More than $US800,000 had been poured into boosting Parscale’s Facebook and Instagram pages; those ads ceased the day after he was removed as campaign manager.

Parscale said the Facebook page was “not my idea” and the “family’s direct approval” had been sought on the program.

“I built an unprecedented infrastructure with the Republican Party under this family’s leadership since 2016,” Parscale said in a statement. “I am proud of my achievements.”

Some campaign spending choices appear devised, at least in part, to satisfy Trump himself, including the Super Bowl ads, which were purchased as part of an advertising arms race with Bloomberg, who soon afterward dropped out of the Democratic primary.

The two ads cost more than the Trump campaign spent combined on local television through the end of July in four battleground states: Wisconsin ($US3.9 million), Michigan ($US3.6 million), Iowa ($US2 million) and Minnesota ($US1.3 million).

Another Trump-pleasing expense: more than $US1 million in ads aired in the Washington, DC, media market, a region that is not likely to be competitive in the fall but where the president, a famously voracious television consumer, resides.

Trump, who once joked he could be the first candidate to make money running for president, has steered, along with the Republican Party, about $US4 million into the Trump family businesses since 2019: hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s private club at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, lavish donor retreats at Trump hotels, office space in Trump Tower, and thousands of dollars at the steakhouse in Trump’s Washington, DC, hotel.

Many of the specifics of Trump’s spending are opaque; since 2017, the campaign and the RNC have routed $US227 million through a single limited liability company linked to Trump campaign officials. That firm, American Made Media Consultants, has been used to place television and digital ads and was the subject of a recent Federal Election Commission complaint arguing it was used to disguise the final destination of spending, which has included paycheques to Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partners of Trump’s two adult sons.

The New York Times

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