The day he announced his presidential candidacy in June 2015, Donald Trump looked up from the lower level of the Trump Tower atrium at people lining the balconies around him.
“That is some group of people,” he said of the audience. “Thousands!”
It wasn’t thousands. It was hundreds, as news reports at the time make clear. But this isn’t a story about Trump seeing an audience and inflating it (once again). It’s a story about how those protesters got there.
Shortly after the announcement, it became clear that some of that enthusiastic audience had been paid to attend. The Hollywood Reporter dug up an email from a casting agency asking people to come to the event in exchange for $50. Actors who’d worked with the company posted photos from Trump Tower. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, we learned that the firm he hired to produce the event wasn’t paid until months later.
After our report in January on that late payment, a former employee of the firm, Gotham Government Relations, reached out over email. We spoke by phone Friday, and she explained how the process worked.
“They hired that acting company. They put ads on Craigslist. And then they also just like reached out to random people through Twitter,” the former employee said. She spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for retribution — from Gotham, not Trump.
“There was a small portion of people there who weren’t paid at all, but that was very small, like 100 people,” she said — meaning that two-thirds of the 300-person audience (in her estimation) was paid. She couldn’t remember how much attendees earned — whether it was $25 or $50 — or whether the payments were made in cash or with American Express cash cards. She did remember where the payments were made: At Whiskey Trader, a basement bar on nearby 55th Street. Most of the people hired to attend came through the acting company, she said. Only about 25 were paid at the bar.
Why does this matter now? In part because of this tweet, the latest in a series from the president.
He’s disparaged protesters as being paid before, most notably two days after the election. It’s not clear whether he knew that some attendees at his announcement had been paid, but it would help explain why he thought that those coming out to protest him might be.
The problem, though, is scale.
Let’s say the same metrics hold for the anti-Trump protests: $25 a head and two-thirds Astroturfed (the term for fake grass-roots activity). That would mean that someone — George Soros is the usual suspect, for a variety of reasons — shelled out the following amounts for various Trump actions.
The protest in Berkeley, February 2017:
Estimated attendees: The Associated Press put the total attendance at more than 1,500. A smaller subset of that group — probably in the dozens — was responsible for the violence that erupted.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 1,500 — the subset that was paid — is 1,000. Total cost: $25,000.
The airport protests, January 2017:
Estimated attendees: It’s hard to put a concrete figure on these protests, which focused on Trump’s executive order on immigration. Starting last Friday night, they stretched into Saturday and Sunday at dozens of airports around the country and some additional sites. Reuters figured that the number was in the “tens of thousands” on Sunday alone. Figure 100,000 total over the weekend, conservatively.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 100,000 is 66,666. Total cost: $1.67 million.
The women’s march, Jan. 21, 2017:
Estimated attendees: It’s not clear if Trump’s assumption that protesters are being paid holds outside the U.S. Counting just the American protesters, one expert put the number at 3.3 million in 550 cities and towns.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 3.3 million is 2.2 million. Total cost: $55 million.
Inauguration Day protests, Jan. 20, 2017:
Estimated attendees: There were protests across the country, but let’s just focus on Washington, where thousands turned out to protest — and over 200 were arrested. Let’s figure 3,000 people turned out in total.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 3,000 is 2,000. Total cost: $50,000.
Congressional protests:, January–February 2017:
Estimated attendees: Several protests and crowds appeared at congressional offices to protest proposed cuts to the Affordable Care Act. These are ongoing; on Thursday hundreds turned out to confront an elected official in Southern California. So let’s say 10,000 people nationally over the past month.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 10,000 is 6,667. Total cost: $167,000.
The post-election protests, November 2017:
Estimated attendees: This is again difficult to tally. There were thousands in New York and pockets of thousands or hundreds in other places, too. Let’s again be conservative: 30,000 in total.
Estimated cost: Two-thirds of 30,000 is 20,000. Total cost: $500,000.
Grand total: Using our conservative estimates, these protesters earned a combined $57.4 million.
There’s a big flaw in Trump’s theory of paid protesters, beyond the willingness of someone to shell out $57.4 million. Unlike with his campaign announcement, there’s no evidence that people who are taking to the streets have received money from anyone to do so. There are organizations that have helped plan the protests and worked to turn people out, but they’re playing the role of Gotham Government Relations in this analogy. There’s no demonstrated analogue for actors getting $25 cash-cards at Manhattan bars. There would be evidence: Coordinating payments to 2.2 million people seems like it would be hard to keep under wraps.
Even though he was the beneficiary of paid turnout, it seems pretty clear that Trump doesn’t honestly believe all of those protesters were paid. Instead, he’s trying to dismiss their complaints about his presidency by casting a pall of doubt on their sincerity. Some may be convinced that this is the case, but it requires an awfully big act of faith.
Trump may also be shooting himself in the foot a bit with these paid protester claims. After all, he said there were as many as 1.5 million people at his inauguration. If Gotham helped boost turnout, that could mean that he’s on the hook for — (two-thirds of 1.5 million times $25) — $25 million.
He should be happy that turnout estimates were far lower than that.