With six months still to go before voters decide (either at the polls or at home) between which party’s slate of electors will participate in the 2020 meeting of the Electoral College, the race for the White House has unfolded in a totally unexpected and unprecedented manner. The onslaught of COVID-19 has upended the traditional dynamics of political campaigning, forcing both Trump and Biden to eschew in-person meetings and rallies with their followers.
Instead of feuding over character and policy, both men are having to deal with the pandemic’s gigantic and still growing impacts.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is how important money is.
Especially since the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United (or, as we like to say, Corporations United) ruling, presidential campaigns have been influenced as much by the influence of money as by any other factor, and in every election cycle the prevalence of money in campaigns has increased.
In 2016 Donald Trump’s election campaign was constantly plagued by the haphazard and incompetent nature of its candidate, its strategy and its employees, from their bungling of the Iowa caucuses to Trump’s campaign manager assaulting a Breitbart reporter – and of course there are the numerous suspicious connections between members of the Trump campaign team and the Russian government.
Naturally, this hurt the campaign’s finances, and Trump has been dogged throughout his time in office by revelations about the dodgy dealings and outright crimes perpetrated on his behalf by his operatives.
One of the most notable financial scandals involved “hush money” payments by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen to women who allegedly had sex with the candidate, and ultimately resulted in a jail sentence for Cohen.
The rot went even deeper, with the campaign team even stooping so low as to spend donors’ money on thousands of copies of Trump’s own book, ‘Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again’ – an unsophisticated way of funneling money straight into Trump’s pockets.
If we have learned anything from the Trump years, it is that Donald is incapable of learning from his mistakes (or crimes) and only ever escalates them.
The Michael Cohen “hush money” scandal offers a clue as to the kind of financial skulduggery the Trump campaign may well get up to in the next six months (or indeed, has already been up to under the radar).
According to data from the Center for Responsive politics, three of the top recipients of Trump campaign money are law firms.
In total, the Trump team has paid over $11 million already for their services, with six months still to go in the election campaign. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s entire 2016 campaign spent less than half of that on legal advice, while Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign spent less than $4 million on similar services.
Tellingly, these three firms are at the center of a dizzying array of Trump scandals.
The international law firm Jones Day has provided over a dozen lawyers to both the Trump campaign and White House, the most prominent of whom is Don McGahn. McGahn (who was Trump’s campaign counsel in 2016 and later served as White House counsel) has been embroiled in Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
He has extensive business links to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and helped the President obstruct the Special Counsel Investigation at numerous points.
McGahn eventually became a fall guy for the regime, resigning in October 2018, but has continued to aid Trump by refusing to obey congressional subpoenas. Jones Day has proved itself to be an amoral actor in other cases; it was heavily implicated in German car manufacturers’ cheating of emissions regulations.
The other two law firms hired by the Trump campaign are involved in the various unfolding stages of the Stormy Daniels “hush money” saga. Larocca, Hornick, Rosen, Greenburg & Blaha are a New Jersey-based firm that helped represent Michael Cohen after news of the payments came out. Ironically, the firm’s involvement in the case only undermined Cohen’s argument that he was acting independently of Trump, as they have worked for the Trump organization for years.
Charles Harder – owner of Harder LLP, which has received almost $3 million from the Trump campaign – is an expert in defamation lawsuits with experience from dozens of high profile cases, most notably representing Hulk Hogan in the lawsuit that brought down Gawker. He has represented both Donald Trump and numerous members of his family in an array of different legal cases.
Of course, Harder is also involved in the Stormy Daniels case; he represented Trump in a defamation case brought by the adult film actress in 2018.
His success in that case, along with his experience of representing truly repulsive figures such as Harvey Weinstein, guaranteed Harder lucrative contracts from the Trump campaign, and he continues to represent the Trumps.
Investigating these three law firms’ activities will be key to uncovering shady or downright illegal conduct that Trump’s re-election campaign, but it will be difficult.
All three firms have enormous experience at keeping their clients’ secrets buried, and it will be a challenge for journalists to uncover the truth.
What will make the job of journalists investigating the Trump campaign’s finances even more difficult is that Trump has taken a leaf from the famously opaque Mitt Romney campaign of 2012. Political campaigns are required to submit a lot of their financial information to government agencies such as the IRS and then FEC. Romney’s team got around that by creating an in-house production company called American Rambler Productions (ARP).
ARP was ostensibly intended to streamline the campaign’s financial outlay, but it seemed custom designed to make the flow of cash impossible to follow.
It was incorporated in Delaware, whose state laws allow for almost ridiculous levels of corporate secrecy, and little is known about where the $260 million that the Romney campaign pushed through ARP ended up.
The Trump campaign has copied the model of ARP with American Made Media Consultants (AMMC), a political consultancy established in 2018.
It claims to be an independent company, so it doesn’t have to reveal the kind of financial information that Trump’s political campaign does, but these claims stretch the truth to the point of incredulity.
AMMC only caters to one client, the Trump campaign, and was actually incorporated by Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale. So far, the campaign has funneled over $40 million though this obvious shell company. Two other similar companies founded by Mr. Parscale – Parscale Strategy and Parscale Digital – have together received about $10 million in Trump campaign funds.
It is unclear what these shell corporations are doing with the over $50 million entrusted to them, but what information we do have is disturbing.
In December, The Intercept reported that AMMC has hired a technology company that specializes in the mass harvesting of smartphone data, essentially allowing the Trump team to track millions of voter for political targeting. AMMC is also connected through Mr. Parscale to Data Propria, a digital political consultancy that was founded by former employees of the disgraced firm Cambridge Analytica.
However, the opaqueness of AMMC’s finances is not all to Donald Trump’s benefit.
Brad Parscale, the head of Trump’s re-election campaign and founder of AMMC, has a storied financial past. He first came to the Trump family’s attention in 2012, when he designed a website for the Trump organization.
An expert at flattering and manipulating the Trumps (his own family dynamic bears remarkable similarities to Trump clan), Parscale was able to parlay a good relationship with Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Junior into a career of mutual back-scratching between Parscale’s businesses and the Trump Organization.
Along the way, he accumulated a huge fortune. The relationship between Brad Parscale and the Trump family is best summed up by Parscale himself: “I’m here because I love this family and I wouldn’t have the life I have without [them].”
Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to run for President in 2015 saw Parscale perfectly positioned to benefit. With his background in digital media and his close relationship with the Trump family, he secured a position as Trump’s digital campaign director. His unconventional (and often immoral) approach to the role earned him a reputation as an “election guru,” but it also earned him something else: according to Cory Lewandowski, Trump’s 2016 campaign director, Parscale’s company was paid an eye-watering $94 million by the Trump team.
Parscale is in an even better position to benefit financially from Trump now than he was in 2016. As campaign director, he has far greater control of the campaign’s resources than he had before, and also has far more ways to funnel money to himself. Alongside AMMC, Parscale has founded or invested in literally dozens of companies that orbit around the Trump campaign, and every time Trump’s team pays one of these firms, you can expect Parscale to take a cut.
Perhaps anticipating this, Donald Trump has reportedly warned Parscale to restrain his profiteering from the 2020 campaign to a mere $800,000.
Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Trump’s demand (Parscale’s companies currently give massive salaries to Lara Trump and Donald Junior’s girlfriend Kimberley Guilfoyle as “advisors”), it is difficult to see how Trump would even know if Parscale had exceeded the limit, such is the complexity of the corporate labyrinth that the campaign director has erected.
Thanks to the unprecedented army of unscrupulous lawyers and the maze of shell corporations which handle the campaign’s money, it is impossible to know exactly how the campaign is spending its donors’ money in real time.
Only snippets of financial information escape black boxes like AMMC, and what those snippets show is disturbing.
The United States desperately needs campaign finance reform – but with the Republicans (and the many Democrats who also benefit from corporate dark money) in charge, it’s unlikely that we’ll see much reform at the federal level any time soon. Thank goodness we have champions for openness and transparency at the state level like Mike Pelliccotti, a state representative now running for Treasurer who refuses to accept corporate money in his campaigns.