[THE SOUNDS OF A CROWD CHEERING]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: It’s August.
BRAD PARSCALE: Well, hello, New Hampshire! [CHEERING] Now, tell me, how much are we going to win this state in 2020?
BERNSTEIN: A tall guy with a Viking beard wearing an elegant gray suit walks out on a stage, carrying a stack of red “Make America Great Again” hats. He tosses them into the crowd with a flick of his giant-sized wrist: Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
PARSCALE: Let’s hear it! Four more years! [CHANTING] Four more years!
CROWD: [CHANTING] Four more years! Four more years! [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: At 6’8”, Parscale is so tall he looks like a high schooler standing at the elementary school podium. He curls his frame around it. He tells the crowd he heard they’re the biggest ever in this gym in Manchester. He heard it was bigger even than the crowd that came to see Elton John. [THE AUDIO UNDERNEATH NARRATION CONFIRMS THIS] Parscale tells them Trump will be on stage soon, and the strains of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” come up.
[AC/DC’s “THUNDERSTRUCK” PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: There’s more music. The lights go dark.
LEE GREENWOOD: [FROM THE SONG “GOD BLESS THE USA”] And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!”]
BERNSTEIN: Up comes Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA!” People are blowing kisses, their faces contorting like at a 1960s Beatles concert. Trump times it perfectly.
GREENWOOD: [FROM THE SONG “GOD BLESS THE USA”] God bless the USA!
[APPLAUSE FOR A LONG WHILE]
BERNSTEIN: The applause goes on and on.
[ANOTHER LONG, LONG, VERY LONG BEAT OF APPLAUSE]
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thanks everybody. Wow. I will never, ever let you down! [APPLAUSE] That I can tell you. Ever.
BERNSTEIN: Trump tells his story of the last two and a half years: more American plants hiring more American workers, foreign nations paying their respect, immigrants being kept where they belong — out. And then, he calls out his campaign manager.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Our campaign manager. He started off as a computer genius — remember when they used to say the Hillary Clinton campaign is highly sophisticated? Highly sophisticated! [THE CROWD CHANTS “LOCK HER UP!”]
BERNSTEIN: The crowd starts yelling, Lock her up!
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Ours was far more sophisticated. We had a man who did an incredible job, and his name is Brad Parscale, and he is incredible. It’s nice when you don’t have to look for anybody. You just look over, you see a guy who is twice as tall as everyone. Great job, Brad.
PARSCALE: Thank you!
PRESIDENT TRUMP: How we doing, Brad?
BERNSTEIN: From the side, Parscale yells, “Good!”
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Great, great polls.
BERNSTEIN: For Brad Parscale, campaign manager, things are indeed, very very good.
LARA TRUMP: Joining us today we are so lucky to have the campaign manager himself of the official Donald J. Trump re-election campaign, Brad Parscale. Brad, thank you.
PARSCALE: I always appreciate people who say my name right. I'm glad you finally got it right.
LARA TRUMP: We've known each other for a while.
BERNSTEIN: Brad Parscale, who much of America doesn’t know at all.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business of Trump. I’m Andrea Bernstein. Today on the show: Brad Parscale, one of the most powerful men in the country, running what is on track to be America’s first billion-dollar campaign.
PETER ELKIND: Brad Parscale is the most improbable presidential campaign manager that's ever held that role.
BERNSTEIN: This is Peter Elkind of ProPublica. For the past nine months, he’s been reporting on Parscale. Parscale wouldn’t speak on tape for this story.
ELKIND: He emerged from absolutely nowhere in 2016. He was designing Web sites in San Antonio, Texas. Had basically no political experience at all. The only campaign he ever worked in was doing a web site for a candidate for tax assessor collector in Bear County, San Antonio.
BERNSTEIN: Now, Brad Parscale is at the center of an operation that shows how big money has really taken over American politics. One Republican operative calls Trump’s campaign “The Death Star.”
ELKIND: He is raising huge amounts of money from big-dollar donors. He's continued a very large, expanded effort to get small-money donations and to tap into the sort of fervent Trump supporters. He's getting money from every place and he's also welcomed support from super PACs.
BERNSTEIN: It started the day Trump took office.
ELKIND: And Trump did something extraordinary, which is that you had the — his was the first nonstop presidential campaign. He announced for re-election — filed for re-election — the day that he took office, the day he was inaugurated. And Parscale filed a new company to do political work called Parscale Strategy just days after that and he parted ways with his partner in San Antonio, created this new business.
BERNSTEIN: Parscale embodies the current era of big-money politics. He’s both spending and making lots of it.
ELKIND: One other big reason why Brad Parscale is important is because he's sitting at a table with a billion dollars to spend, and doling out favors, hiring consultants, shaping what people see and think about the President of the United States. That's -- that's an awful lot of money, an awful lot of power.
BERNSTEIN: Parscale’s speeches and his regular Tweets give him an unusually prominent role as a campaign manager. He’s an avatar for Trump, tall and vigorous and mocking in the same way that Trump is. Peter got a tape of a speech Parscale made to the Miami Young Republicans this year.
PARSCALE: [AT THE CONVENTION] … and they literally just want the whole society to be open …
ELKIND: In the speech he [PAUSE] kind of hit all the bases. He bashed Democrats, accused them of wanting to kill babies in the third trimester —
PARSCALE: [AT THE CONVENTION] They also wanna slaughter infants out of the womb.
ELKIND: — getting rid of private health care.
PARSCALE: [AT THE CONVENTION] And you’re gonna wait. You’re gonna wait for that doctor who’s underpaid.
ELKIND: Implement the Green New Deal in a way that would eliminate airplanes —
PARSCALE: [AT THE CONVENTION] You know, I — I don’t think electric airplanes work very well.
ELKIND: — and eliminate cows and talked about how, “This is a shame — I really like to eat steak.”
PARSCALE: [AT THE CONVENTION] And look, I don't know about you guys — I really like steak. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
ELKIND: He really fed them red meat in his speech.
[PLUNKY STRING MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: Like Trump, Parscale reinvented himself. He was a middling businessman who’d gotten a head start from his parents and worked for a company that went bankrupt. He tells a different story, about a guy who started with $500 dollars and made it.
ELKIND: He changes dates. He rearranges facts. He omits conspicuous events. He basically rewrites his own life story to become a more romantic tale to fit into the — the image that he's trying to convey. He is a promoter, he's a hustler, he's a marketer.
BERNSTEIN: Kind of like Trump.
ELKIND: Kind of like Trump, yes.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. So he's — he’s creating the character, Brad Parscale.
ELKIND: He created the character Brad Parscale as the personification of the American Dream.
BERNSTEIN: Trump’s Trump.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: Parscale grew up in Kansas.
ELKIND: They weren't wealthy, but he lived in a kind of suburban cul-de-sac, grew up in a nice neighborhood, and went to public high school and played basketball and was smart.
BERNSTEIN: Eventually, he graduated from college and went to work for his dad. His father was a lawyer-turned-serial entrepreneur with businesses selling scuba equipment, restaurants and nightclubs. When he tells his life story, Parscale said he’s a self-made man.
ELKIND: In contrast to feckless Democrats who want help from the government — and, you know, free — a free lunch.
BERNSTEIN: Before he went to work for Trump, Parscale didn’t express much interest in politics. He had a Twitter feed, where he complained about things like the size of the salad at Chipotle.
He had a kid at age 23, moved to California, worked for a business that filed for bankruptcy, married, then divorced. When he talks, he doesn’t mention the problems with the company where he worked in California.
ELKIND: He went to work for his father out there, with a 3D tech business. That company went into bankruptcy and was sued by the bankruptcy trustee for bankruptcy fraud. Brad was one of the defendants in the case.
BERNSTEIN: The family settled the lawsuit. Brad’s mom Rita called it “a bunch of baloney.”
Parscale moved back to San Antonio and set up a digital marketing business. He had clients like Dury’s Gun Shop, Quest Plumbing, and D&D Farm and Ranch. One day in 2012, he was eating at a pancake house.
PARSCALE: I was sitting at IHOP and I got an email. I was eating a ham and cheese omelet. I was!
BERNSTEIN: Parscale told the story to 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl after the 2016 election.
PARSCALE: And I get the email, and I opened it up, and says, “This is Kathy Kay from the Trump Org. Can you please call me?
LESLEY STAHL: Out of nowhere?
PARSCALE: Out of nowhere.
BERNSTEIN: Parscale later told the Washington Post, quote, “I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.” So he made up a price, way cheap. Parscale calculated that working for Trump would shine up the rest of his brand. This was the kind of thinking that Trump liked — still likes.
ELKIND: Parscale got work for Trump's real estate business: for the Trump Winery, for Melania Trump's skin care brand, and for Eric Trump's Foundation, which he did for free. Parscale really cultivated a relationship with the Trumps. When Eric and his then-fiancée Lara came to San Antonio, he met with them, took him out for a steak dinner, and then Tweeted about it afterwards.
BERNSTEIN: “Truly was honored to have their time. One #SuperCool couple.”
BERNSTEIN: And then it was 2015, and Trump was getting ready to campaign, and Parscale got another email.
PARSCALE: It said, “Donald Trump is thinking of running for President. We need a website in two days.” So I wrote back — I said, “Yeah, I'll do it for $1500.”
BERNSTEIN: For a while, things go well. Parscale particularly works on Facebook. Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump — Eric’s wife — spoke to Parscale for the Trump Campaign podcast. (Lara also works for Parscale’s company.)
PARSCALE: I always explain, it was like an airplane being built in real time in the air. In that later you were put on just the right moment and was finished and it landed somewhere.
LARA TRUMP: I never heard you say that. That's a great analogy.
BERNSTEIN: He says that a lot.
Less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s website crashes. One campaign staffer writes to another, it’s time to, quote, “transition away from Brad.” But the other staffer puts the kibosh on that. “Brad is considered family,” this staffer wrote.
ELKIND: Brad had developed a relationship with Eric Trump, and was developing a relationship with Jared Kushner that would be very close.
BERNSTEIN: Kushner took a special interest in the campaign’s digital efforts. He and Parscale became allies. Parscale keeps both Jared Kushner and Eric Trump on his good side.
PARSCALE: Luckily, from the blessing of God, that I've become to get here and I can sit right between the two of them and somehow keep them both happy.
LARA TRUMP: You're doing a great job, Brad.
BERNSTEIN: In the spring of 2016, Trump won enough delegates for the nomination. Then the RNC and the campaign started to fight about how to divide up donations. The RNC wanted Parscale fired.
ELKIND: Brad called up Jared Kushner and said, “Hey, you know, I'll do anything for the family! I care deeply about you.” I mean, really offered a passionate plea to stay aboard. And Kushner, with whom Brad had become close, ultimately helped negotiate with Brad a settlement on this whole issue.
BERNSTEIN: Late October, 2016. All three debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have taken place. Trump is losing by his biggest margin in a month. Then, campaign finance filings come out. They show that Donald Trump has paid the company owned by his ad-man, Brad Parscale, $30 million and counting.
ELKIND: And someone put that in front of Donald Trump, and he erupted.
BERNSTEIN: Trump takes the elevator down some 20 stories to an unfinished floor of Trump Tower.
ELKIND: He went downstairs in Trump Tower and confronted Brad in the kitchen of the campaign headquarters and was furious.
BERNSTEIN: Witnesses described the scene: Trump is tall, but not as tall as Parscale. Trump starts screaming at Parscale.
ELKIND: He was in a spitting rage — chewed him out, “What the bleep are you doing with my money? What have you done with it?” And they basically had to be separated.
BERNSTEIN: Trump is yelling: “Where the fuck is my money?” The deputy campaign manager, Dave Bossie, has to jump between the two. Trump won’t back off. The campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, sneezes on Trump. This distracts him. Eventually, Trump gets persuaded that Parscale is spending most of the money to pay for ads, not personally profiting. Parscale learns a lesson.
ELKIND: Parscale was shaken by the episode. But that clearly made an impression on him. He understood that Trump was incredibly sensitive about the appearance of anybody making too much money off him.
BERNSTEIN: Later, Parscale did what Trump would do. He said publicly he was taking the high road, limiting his salary. He didn’t mention his company would be making millions.
We’ll be right back.
BERNSTEIN: We’re back.
BERNSTEIN: In a TV interview, in the glow of victory, Parscale quoted his wife, Candice Blount.
PARSCALE: [ON 60 MINUTES] She said that I was thrown into the Super Bowl, never played a game, and won.
BERNSTEIN: And Parscale took his Super Bowl ring, and monetized it.
ELKIND: He tried to really cash in on the success of the Presidential campaign. He actually pitched his commercial work as “the Parscale effect,” and the notion was, “Mr. Commercial Businessman-slash-company, you know, hire Brad Parscale to do the magic for your company that he did for Donald Trump.” That was kind of the theme.
BERNSTEIN: He starts working on a project for the Dallas Mavericks. He pitches a high-dollar digital marketing campaign for Sea World, does paid speeches in Romania and Monaco. He’s spotted flying around the world. Walking down an airplane aisle, he’s hard to miss.
ELKIND: But he's also continued to do political work from literally from the moment Trump takes office.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: After the whole issue with the fight, and the ad commissions, Parscale reframes things for the 2020 election, says he’s only taking a $300,000-a-year salary from the campaign. But he positions himself to be the beneficiary of much larger income streams for his campaign work. While he’s collecting this salary from the campaign, his company gets paid millions of dollars by the Republican National Committee to make and buy ads.
ELKIND: Well, there’s nothing wrong with people in politics making money, of course. Many high-level operatives for both parties have unapologetically cashed in. It’s business as usual for the political class.
BERNSTEIN: Parscale says he’s doing this for love of country and Trump.
ELKIND: Working for Trump has clearly made Brad millions and transformed his life. He now drives a Ferrari and a BMW. He owns a gorgeous $2.4 million waterfront home in Florida.
BERNSTEIN: The money from the campaign and the RNC weren’t the only way Parscale was making money.
ELKIND: After the 2016 election, his company was also making money from a pro-Trump dark money group called “America First” — and that's a group that's free from the normal restrictions on disclosing its donors on how much money can raise and how it spends money.
[PIANO MUSIC UP]
BERNSTEIN: Under the law, these groups are barred from coordinating with a political campaign.
ELKIND: But Parscale had actually co-founded this group, along with other Trump campaign operatives — and he was simultaneously getting paid by both Trump’s reelection campaign and America First.
BERNSTEIN: Common Cause has filed complaints about this with both the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department. The complaints are still pending.
ELKIND: After Parscale was named campaign manager in February 2018, America First, which has to publicly report its payments, suddenly stopped paying Brad’s company, Parscale Strategy.
BERNSTEIN: But then, Parscale’s crew didn’t stop doing the work — and he didn’t stop making money from it.
ELKIND: He incorporated a mysterious Delaware LLC that had no public connection to him.
BERNSTEIN: It’s called “Red State Data and Digital.” It took over the work Parscale was doing for America First’s super PAC.
ELKIND: Its payments, as reported in public Federal Election Commission filings, were to an anonymous mail drop at a Pennsylvania Avenue UPS store. And the secretive new company, which has no other known clients, has made more than $900,000.
BERNSTEIN: At first, Parscale said his company’s work for the RNC, the super PAC, and the Trump campaign were all legally vetted. After ProPublica and other news organizations began asking questions, Parscale said he’d stop doing ad buys for the RNC. But all of that back-and-forth obscured something.
Peter uncovered something else. It’s not just that Parscale was getting streams of income from the campaign, a super PAC, and the RNC. It’s that the Trump campaign has taken over the RNC in unprecedented ways.
ELKIND: Under Trump, the RNC has become practically a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump campaign. It’s not unusual for Presidents to direct their parties to play a critical role, but as with so much else in this situation, Trump takes this way, way further than any of his predecessors have.
BERNSTEIN: One way this has happened: There’s a metric down-ballot candidates — people running for Governor or Congress — look at, called “voter scores.” It’s information on how voters in a particular district feel about Trump, which could affect campaign ads and messaging. Previously, the RNC would allow these Republican candidates to see this information. Not Trump.
ELKIND: So candidates in Michigan or Ohio or Illinois who are trying to figure out how best to run their campaigns, how best to be victorious Republican candidates, are deprived of the information from the party on how voters in their district feel about Trump.
BERNSTEIN: RNC officials say the data belongs to the Trump campaign, which is free to withhold it if the President wants. America First declined comment.
BERNSTEIN: So it's kind of an enforced loyalty. [ELKIND LAUGHS] They don't have the information that they need. That might incline them to distance themselves, therefore they're in the situation of — of being afraid that if they don't hew very closely to the President and to his wishes, that they're going to jeopardize their own candidacies.
ELKIND: I mean, clearly, President Trump is not patient or tolerant of people that try to run campaigns that distance themselves from him. And it's not just the fear factor — the party's actually also depriving them of information that might be helpful in them winning re-election or winning office.
[GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: In 2016, Trump promised to drain the swamp, to fund his own campaign, to reduce the influence of big donors. That’s not what happened.
ELKIND: So here we have what’s projected to be America’s first billion-dollar campaign. And there is so much money is rocketing through the Trump campaign and related accounts and the groups that are supporting Trump, and Parscale is at the center of it all. He personifies a huge issue: which is how big money has taken over American politics.
[MUSIC OUT FOR A MOMENT]
BERNSTEIN: You can read more from Peter about Brad Parscale in his investigative profile on ProPublica and in the Texas Monthly. After it came out, Parscale told reporters on an unrelated conference call that ProPublica’s investigation into his life was a "stupid story,” and added, “I’m not gonna comment on that right now.”
[MUSIC CHANGES TONE]
BERNSTEIN: Over the next 15 months on Trump, Inc., we’re going to be paying particular attention to the money machine surrounding Trump. In the last several election cycles, more and more money has been flooding into politics since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that said, essentially, when it comes to political speech, corporations are people — they can give as much as they want.
On top of that, we just learned that the Federal Election Commission no longer has a quorum of commissioners, which means the agency in charge of enforcing campaign finance law cannot actually enforce campaign finance law. And on top of that, we have a transactional President who has made it perfectly clear that he especially likes people who pay him.
[MUSIC CHANGES TO CREDITS MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: And there are so many ways to do that: international real estate deals, golf course memberships, hotel stays. Throughout the campaign, we’ll be looking at all of these money flows holistically: all of the ways money flows into the campaign and Trump World, and all of the ways it flows out. You might call it what Trump’s campaign is actually called — Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.
We’re gonna need your help. Trump, Inc. is an open investigation. Send us your tips. Find out how at TrumpIncPodcast.org. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter.
This episode of Trump, Inc. was produced by Alice Wilder and Katherine Sullivan. The Executive Producer is Meg Cramer. The engineer is Jared Paul.
Thanks this episode to ProPublica’s Peter Elkind and Doris Burke.
The editors were Nick Varchaver, Eric Umansky, and Robin Fields. Emily Botein is the Director of Original Programming at WNYC, and Stephen Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Propublica.
The original music is by Hannis Brown.
[THE SOUNDS OF A CROWD CHEERING]
PARSCALE: [THROWING OUT HATS] Let’s see if I can get one to fake CNN! [CHEERING] Woah! How about fake MSNBC? [MORE CHEERING] There’s gotta be somebody else out there. The failing New York Times! [WHISTLING]