Trump at a rally in Arizona
Trump at a rally in Arizona (Photo: Gage Skidmore, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

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.

Trump at a rally in Arizona
(Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Every­thing from his self-defeat­ing for­eign pol­i­cy to his increas­ing­ly repul­sive Supreme Court nom­i­nees proves this lesson.

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 has a long history of profiting from the Trump family
Brad Parscale has a long his­to­ry of prof­it­ing from the Trump fam­i­ly (Source: Web­fo­rum, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

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