The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Brad Parscale, once a ‘nobody in San Antonio,’ shaped Trump’s combative politics and rose to his inner circle

Brad Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, speaks at a rally in Houston last month.
Brad Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, speaks at a rally in Houston last month. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Brad Parscale was riding on Air Force One a week before the midterm elections when his boss, President Trump, had an idea about how to close out a campaign season that had already been laced with fear. The president wanted an ad depicting a migrant caravan and an immigrant who had killed law enforcement officers, according to a person present.

Parscale, the manager of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, went to work, fine-tuning the script and video. The next day in the Oval Office, he pulled out his iPad and showed the president the spot — an ominous commercial featuring crowds of migrants spilling across roads and a twice-deported immigrant from Mexico boasting about killing two California officers.

Trump loved it, according to a person at the meeting, and Parscale signed off on a $1.5 million national ad campaign.

After the ad was rejected by CNN as “racist” and pulled from other television networks and Facebook, Parscale lashed out, tweeting, “The #FakeNewsMedia and #PaloAltoMafia are trying to control what you see and how you think.”

Such loyalty has earned Parscale a rare spot in the president’s small inner circle, rising in prominence as onetime confidants such as Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen have fallen away.

The episode reflects the curious ascent of the 42-year-old Parscale, who met Trump by selling discounted website services to the family business, served as digital strategist on his 2016 campaign and now is the prime mover of Trump’s combative and racially charged brand of politics.

As the president has escalated his attacks on immigrants — an approach that he is likely to carry into the 2020 race — Parscale has amplified them with gusto, producing inflammatory ads and using his own Twitter feed to echo the president’s messages.

One week this fall, Parscale said, he spent 60 hours with the president at rallies and on Air Force One. The two discussed political strategy and polls, bonded over their shared passion of football and watched lots of television — from Fox News to CNN to the coverage of Tiger Woods’s victory in a golf tournament.

“Brad is uniquely qualified in that he has the full faith of the family, which is something I’ve rarely seen in Trump world since I’ve been part of it,” said Katie Walsh, who worked closely with Parscale as chief of staff for the Republican National Committee and White House deputy chief of staff. “There is no daylight between the president and Brad Parscale.”

Parscale used his proximity to help shape the president’s dark tone as he campaigned for Republicans this fall. Among the evidence of his influence: He persuaded Trump to adopt the more ominous-sounding “illegal aliens” in place of “illegal immigrants,” according to two campaign officials.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Parscale dismisses charges that he is playing off racial fears. He said the migrant ad used “real footage of people trying to enter the United States illegally” and reflected the concerns of most Americans.

“Since President Trump has assumed office, I have learned a great deal about the problems on our borders,” Parscale said, adding that he also discussed the matter with Texas officials.

Parscale is also using his influence to go after the very platforms that he credits with helping Trump win in 2016. For months, he has been publicly accusing Facebook and other social media companies of seeking to ban pro-Trump voices, a charge the companies deny.

His flamethrowing approach has alarmed some Republicans, who worry that his message will alienate moderate voters Trump will need in 2020, and surprised longtime friends, who do not remember him being particularly driven by politics or ideology.

Trump names longtime aide Parscale as campaign manager for 2020

Quintin Mason, who played basketball with Parscale at Trinity University in San Antonio and has remained a close friend, said he remembers Parscale used to describe himself as a libertarian. Mason, who is African American, said that when he bought a house in 2007 in San Antonio, vandals painted the n-word on his front door and garage. Parscale came to the house and painted over the message.

“Brad is the opposite of what we define as a white-supremacist racist,” Mason said. “He was just as upset about what happened to my house as I was.”

“It’s kind of weird to see that my friend is campaign manager for Donald Trump,” added Mason, a Democrat, who said he views Trump as “dangerous.”

Sitting in a windowless basement office of the RNC building on Capitol Hill last month, Parscale was unapologetic in dismissing the vestiges of the party his boss turned upside down.

“I’m here because I love his family and I wouldn’t have the life I have without him,” Parscale said during a two-hour interview, one of several conducted over the past month.

Folding his 6-foot-8 frame on an L-shaped sectional sofa in his cavelike office, darker than normal because he dislikes fluorescent light, he said: “I am loyal to them. I also believe in what he is doing for this country.”

'I was in free fall'

Parscale’s first memory of Trump dates to 1988, when he was 12. His father, Dwight Parscale, who had been Kansas’s assistant attorney general for civil rights and made an unsuccessful congressional bid as a Democrat, had switched parties. The family was in the thrall of President Ronald Reagan, and Parscale told his parents he wanted to be a stockbroker or maybe a CEO.

The young Parscale asked for a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and still remembers reading about a brash New York developer named Donald Trump.

After attending college in San Antonio, Parscale worked briefly for a tech company run by his father that went into bankruptcy. In the wake, he got divorced.

“I was in free fall,” Parscale said.

In 2004, Parscale started a company that specialized in marketing products on the Internet and developing websites. He was modestly successful until a serendipitous encounter.

One of Parscale’s customers sat on a flight next to a passenger who would soon join the Trump Organization. Parscale’s work came up, and eventually he got an email from the seatmate asking whether he wanted to bid on developing a website for Trump’s company.

Parscale, a regular viewer of Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice,” jumped at the chance.

“I just made up a price,” said Parscale, offering to do it for $10,000. He told Trump’s son Eric that the money was refundable if the work was unsatisfactory. “I recognized that I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.”

Eric Trump became Parscale’s biggest supporter. “He wowed me,” Eric Trump said in an interview. “I found myself going to Brad over and over again.”

Over the next five years, the Trump Organization sent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of website-related work to Parscale.

Before long, he said, he ran one of the largest digital advertising companies in Texas.

“I made a lot of money during the four or five years I was doing business with them,” Parscale said of the Trump family. “I was doing well, but they blew me up. It made my name and success.”

Thanks to his Trump ties, Parscale began working for a number of Fortune 500 companies, he said, relying heavily on Facebook, learning techniques that he later harnessed to help elect Donald Trump president.

In February 2015, Trump asked Parscale to design a relatively simple Web page for a presidential exploratory committee for $1,500. When Trump launched his campaign in June 2015, he paid Parscale $10,000 to develop the campaign website.

Five months later, Parscale got a call from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recognized the importance of Facebook but felt the digital campaign in the first-caucus state of Iowa was not doing well. Kushner asked Parscale how he would run the digital strategy.

“If he wants to be the next president, he has got to harness Facebook,” Parscale said he told Kushner. “Give me the power, and I can help you win.”

At first, Parscale used Facebook to blast out videos of Trump. As Parscale’s role increased, he said, he realized that Facebook had morphed from its urban-centric membership to having millions of older, rural users — just the kind of people Trump needed to reach.

Eventually, Parscale ran a 100-person advertising operation called Project Alamo in a San Antonio industrial-park office building, operating for months in near-secrecy.

By October 2016, Parscale had decamped to Trump Tower in New York and oversaw an advertising budget of nearly $200 million. Half was for television ads. The other half was for digital platforms, with the majority of that going to Facebook.

Parscale was convinced he had found a tunnel to victory, targeting large numbers of rural voters in a handful of swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had missed.

The Trump campaign uploaded lists of supporters to Facebook, which matched them to existing profiles, allowing them to target ads directly to those users. Parscale’s team then exponentially expanded the reach of the ads through a Facebook tool that identifies “look-alike” audiences.

Trump, however, was livid about the amount of money being spent on Facebook.

In the middle of October, the candidate stormed into Parscale’s office on the 14th floor of Trump Tower. For 30 minutes, Trump spewed anger at Parscale — spraying spittle onto Parscale’s face at one point, according to a witness. Pointing to a nearby screen, Trump complained that Parscale was wasting millions of dollars on Facebook ads instead of television commercials, which was “how people win elections,” Trump said.

Parscale said he responded, “If you are going to be the next president, you’re going to win it on Facebook.”

A senior Trump aide who witnessed the fight said Parscale was on the verge of quitting. Afterward, Parscale paced midtown Manhattan for hours.

“It was the first time he had really yelled at me,” Parscale said. He decided to stay after “every person in the family called me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”

'There is a tremendous trust'

After Trump’s victory, the president’s reliance on Parscale deepened, even as others in the inner circle came and went.

Eric Trump said his father has bonded with Parscale in a way he has with only a few people outside the family. “It is very close,” he said. “There is a tremendous trust with all of us. . . . He is one of a very select group of people.”

Parscale’s new role has been lucrative. In the past two years, $20 million has flowed from Trump’s reelection campaign, the RNC and other political committees to Parscale and several of his companies, according to campaign finance filings. Parscale said much of that money was for expenses and advertising buys. He said he kept a fraction but declined to disclose the amount.

As campaign manager, Parscale said he has agreed to work for a retainer of at least $300,000 per year, along with bonuses. Unlike most strategists, he said, he is not going to take a percentage of media buys, which can total millions in presidential campaigns.

Separately, Parscale also runs a company called Parscale Strategy, which he said has eight employees and expects to do $25 million in business this year. Parscale declined to release a list of its clients, citing nondisclosure agreements.

But most of his time is focused on advising the president on messaging. He has urged Trump to talk about the economy and immigration. He has also echoed the president’s frustration with the special-counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Five months before Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe, Parscale tweeted: “Time to fire Sessions. End the Mueller investigation.”

Much of Parscale’s work for the campaign was out of sight until the past two weeks, when he unveiled a $6 million advertising campaign to boost Republican candidates in the midterm elections. He produced a number of ads, including a spot targeting suburban women that touted the strong economy.

But the commercial requested by Trump — which declared “Stop the caravan, vote Republican” — got the most attention. CNN refused to air it, and Fox News eventually pulled it.

The origin of the ad is murky. On Oct. 31, around the time Trump gave Parscale the idea for the commercial, the president tweeted a longer video with similar images and themes that falsely blamed Democrats for letting an immigrant into the country illegally who then killed two police officers. That video was not produced by the campaign, according to a person familiar with it, and there is no disclosure identifying who made it.

The White House did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the video.

Parscale declined to comment on the video that Trump tweeted. The campaign commercial that he helped produce, which was released Nov. 2, did not include the misleading language about Democrats.

Still, it drew fierce backlash from critics who said it played on racial fears. Parscale responded on Twitter: “When will it be enough? When the caravan is 100K, 500K, 2MM in size?”

Trump’s Four Pinocchio claim: ‘Democrats let him into our country’

In an interview, Parscale defended the ad as fair and effective. “I think the caravan ad definitely helped the Florida victories,” he said, referring to the GOP’s apparent wins in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races there. (Both are so close that recounts may be held.)

Some Republican strategists, however, fear Parscale’s incendiary approach will further alienate voters who Trump may need in 2020.

“The fact is, you have a tough shakedown cruise with these new campaign managers who haven’t done this before and make mistakes, and this is probably one of them,” said Doug Gross, a longtime Republican consultant in Iowa.

Friends say Parscale did not always seem so political. He voted only twice between 2006 and 2016 and did not cast a ballot in the general election for Trump, according to Texas voting records. (Parscale said he believed he did vote in the general election by absentee ballot and questioned the validity of the records.)

“His voice and tone on Twitter seems like he is speaking as the job, not reflective of who he is as a person,” said one associate who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Parscale said his change in style reflects his shift in roles from 2016 to now. “A digital director shouldn’t be out front, but a campaign manager’s job is to set a narrative,” he said.

An attack on social media

One of the most dominant narratives Parscale has pushed is that the same social media platforms that he used to help elect Trump are biased against the president. He has criticized Facebook for banning a number of commentators who have been supportive of Trump, including conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones, who has falsely claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 dead in Connecticut was “completely fake.”

In an opinion piece for the Washington Examiner, Parscale said that Facebook and other companies were being controlled by the “inherent totalitarian impulse of the Left.”

Parscale has also complained that a change earlier this year in Facebook’s algorithms — which the company said was designed to boost posts by a user’s friends — made it more difficult to promote Trump, tweeting the hashtag #StopTheBias.

In June, Parscale brought his complaints directly to top Facebook officials including Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy, in a private meeting at the company’s Washington office attended by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“I was pretty tough on them,” Parscale said.

Facebook officials declined to comment on the meeting or on their relationship with Parscale.

In a statement, company spokesman Andy Stone said, “We do not suppress content on the basis of political viewpoint or prevent people from seeing what matters to them.”

Twitter also said it does not ban users based on ideology.

Parscale said he is unconcerned about the impact of vilifying powerful social media companies such as Facebook.

“Do we need them this time? No,” Parscale said. “The revolution of information that Trump needed for his grass roots — that has already occurred.”

Inside Facebook and Twitter’s secret meetings with Trump aides and conservative leaders who say tech is biased

Under his leadership, Trump’s campaign committee has churned out fundraising appeals with charged messages about immigration and “fake news” that have already helped raise $100 million for the president’s reelection.

With his early war chest and a database of 20 million Trump supporters, Parscale is poised to launch a massive reelection operation that he expects will raise $1 billion — three times what the campaign collected in 2016. Rather than lean on Facebook to reach supporters, he plans to rely heavily on email, cellphone texts and apps.

“The whole game will be different” in 2020, said Parscale, who plans to run the operation from an office complex in a Virginia suburb. “We are no longer a grass-roots campaign. We are now sitting in the White House. We have a different mission now.”

The last campaign, he said, was about presenting voters with “dreams” of what a Trump presidency could be like. Now, Parscale said, the mission will be to present voters with “facts” that prove those dreams are coming true.

“The old Republican Party is gone,” Parscale said in his basement office at RNC headquarters. “It’s now Trump’s party.”

Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.