NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Where does Trump’s campaign money go?

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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