It was an unprecedented use of an ad — one that cost $142,655, according to the firm Advertising Analytics — to promote a campaign staffer. It sent a clear message to Trump’s orbit: Parscale, a colorful and outspoken public face of Trumpism, was the leader of the campaign.
But the image concealed a more complicated reality. As Trump’s reelection effort struggles, Parscale, despite his self-promotion, increasingly finds himself out of favor with his boss and hemmed in by newly hired staffers and recently promoted advisers, according to people familiar with the campaign.
A political novice who became a Republican celebrity after running Trump’s online ad effort in 2016, Parscale has long operated without a campaign manager’s usual autonomy, as Trump family members exert their influence.
Now Parscale’s role is being further threatened. Trump has made clear his displeasure with Parscale, especially after a disappointing rally in Tulsa, and the campaign has expanded its senior team in ways that diminish his role, according to multiple campaign and administration officials.
Trump’s new kitchen cabinet, a combination of White House and campaign employees led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, includes Parscale’s recently promoted deputy, Bill Stepien, and two communications aides from the 2016 campaign — Hope Hicks and Jason Miller, who was recently hired by the campaign and is increasingly seen as its principal strategist.
Miller and Stepien, who officially report to Parscale, were talking with Trump almost every day in the week leading up to Trump’s pivotal July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore. Sometimes, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Chris Carr, the party’s political director, joined the conversations.
The advisers discussed polling, potential campaign events, organizing and other topics, officials said. Parscale, though, returned to his home in Florida after visiting Washington early in the week and continued to dial into conference calls, officials said.
Parscale, 44, has long occupied a unique spot in Trump’s orbit. At 6-foot-8 with a dramatic red beard, he cuts a brash figure and is given to statements such as comparing the Trump campaign to the Death Star, a superweapon in the Star Wars movies. In many ways, his self-promotion and aggressive style mirror Trump’s.
In a statement for this report, Parscale denied any weakening of his position and rejected criticism of his performance.
“This is the same tired story being shopped every week by the same lowlife anonymous sources who are putting their own personal interests ahead of the president and his campaign, in a misguided attempt to weasel their way in to resurrect their failed and disgraced careers,” Parscale said.
But campaign and White House officials say Parscale does not always appear to understand the political dynamics of crucial swing states. In a recent meeting at RNC headquarters, an official said, Parscale asked questions about the reelection budget that suggested he did not fully grasp it. Trump and Kushner have begun interrupting him more frequently when he speaks, this person said.
Allies of Parscale say that he maintains the trust of the Trump family — including Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law — and that he continues to advise the president and travels weekly to the White House. Many on the expanded team, they said, work well with Parscale, and he is largely responsible for the massive reelection operation, with its million-plus volunteers, nearly $300 million in cash and extensive data operation.
“Brad is absolutely the right man for the job,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “His work ethic and command of what it takes to run a successful campaign in 2020 is second to none.”
A senior Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on personnel issues, said Parscale “knows he screwed up” with the Trump rally last month in Tulsa, which featured numerous empty seats despite the president’s predictions of an overflow crowd. But such occasional mistakes do not overshadow Parscale’s significant accomplishments, this person said. “He knows what his job is, and we are entering a new phase,” the official said. “Brad’s focus right now is really on management and data.”
The official said the most important people in Trump’s orbit still trust Parscale. “In this town, you have a lot of people who are the political consultants who are always trying to position things,” the official said. “That is not Brad. We know he has the same intention as the family.”
That confidence, however, has not prevented internal complaints about Parscale’s frequent absence from campaign headquarters. Parscale lives in Florida, while the campaign is based in Northern Virginia. Staffers say that when they talk to him, he is often by his pool in Fort Lauderdale.
“You can’t have a campaign manager who isn’t even around the campaign,” said a senior White House official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.
Campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh defended the arrangement. “Brad has been in the office every week since we’ve been open, except the week after the Tulsa rally, when he was quarantined,” he said. “There’s no question at the campaign who’s in charge. We all report to Brad.”
Parscale added, “These anonymous cowards have no valid criticisms of the job I’m doing, so now they’re attacking where I sit.”
The dissent comes as several longtime Trump advisers are trying to lift the president out of his dismay over the state of his campaign. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently sent Trump a lengthy memo explaining that the president could not run the same campaign in 2020 as in 2016 and offering various ways to improve his standing. Other informal advisers, such as Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax, have counseled the president to change course in ways that would appeal to independent-minded voters.
Amid these struggles, Parscale’s high profile has not gone unnoticed. One senior administration official told him that putting his face in a TV ad was not helpful. Parscale told his production team to stop including him in ads, a campaign official said.
But other novel promotions of the campaign manager continue. Parscale is listed as a “host” on invitations for Trump’s high-dollar fundraisers, even ones he does not attend. Campaign managers typically leave such billing to party leaders and top donors.
A campaign official defended the invitations as appropriate, since the fundraisers are for a joint committee of the campaign and the Republican Party and the RNC’s McDaniel is also listed.
“A lot of donors want to meet and talk to Brad,” Murtaugh said.
The campaign, meanwhile, has placed $566,567 in campaign ads through Parscale’s personal Facebook fan page.
It is an unconventional strategy that staffers describe as part of an experiment to increase voter response to the ads. “There is no financial gain for Brad,” Murtaugh said.
The ads, which a senior campaign official said were not bought at the campaign manager’s urging, place Parscale’s name and image in voters’ Facebook feeds, and they link back to his fan page. That page, in turn, included a link to Parscale’s consulting company until recently, and it continues to offer dozens of photographs of Parscale in action — dining with the Trumps, in a Super Bowl skybox, flying on Air Force One.
Murtaugh said the campaign also advertised through Pence’s Facebook page. After the Parscale Facebook effort was revealed by Mother Jones, the campaign began advertising through the page of Katrina Pierson, another senior campaign adviser. A campaign official said the practice would soon be expanded to the pages of other Trump surrogates.
The amount of money that Parscale has personally earned from the campaign is undisclosed in Federal Election Commission reports, because the reports do not distinguish between the money that goes directly to him and the payments that go to his firm, Parscale Strategy, for pass-through costs.
The reports show regular monthly payments to Parscale Strategy from multiple accounts — Donald Trump for President Inc., the RNC, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Trump Victory. (The last two are joint operations of the campaign and the GOP.)
Between September and May, those accounts paid Parscale Strategy an average of $100,905 a month. Still, the payments included multiple salaries for other people, including campaign adviser Lara Trump, who is the wife of the president’s son Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, a campaign fundraiser who is dating Donald Trump Jr., according to a person familiar with the situation.
In comparison, records show that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, has been paid $11,486 a month since taking over in April. That number, which is low for someone in such a senior position, does not include any other undisclosed payments or bonuses she may have negotiated.
Trump’s Republican opponents have seized on the Parscale payments in hopes of angering the president and exacerbating divisions within the campaign.
The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC, has used ads to highlight Parscale’s purchase of a Ferrari and a 32-foot boat and released a digital spot recently that flashes repeated images of Parscale while alleging a “loyalty problem” in the campaign.
“We go after things that we know Donald Trump is sensitive to,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. “He doesn’t like people to be bigger than him, and he doesn’t like people to make money off him.”
The senior administration official said that members of the Trump family are familiar with Parscale’s pay package and are comfortable with it.
Parscale’s power in the campaign derives from the trust he has earned with the family, say people familiar with the operation, especially Kushner and Eric Trump.
Previously a San Antonio-based Web designer, Parscale started building corporate websites for the family before Trump entered the 2016 race. Once the campaign started, he quickly became its top digital strategist.
Parscale has since become an iconic presence in the Trump universe, sometimes modeling Trump gear, such as an as-yet-unreleased Trump face mask. Earlier this year, he successfully pushed the president to pull back from an outright ban on flavored vaping products, which he believed would affect core Trump voters.
But he has struggled at times to steer the campaign, with the president delaying Parscale’s April push to launch negative anti-Biden ads in favor of more-positive spots. More recent campaign personnel moves, including the hiring of Jeff DeWit, a former chief financial officer at NASA, were announced by Kushner, not Parscale. Emails reviewed by The Washington Post show DeWit clashed with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine over spending decisions before his departure.
Trump’s recent dissatisfaction with Parscale can be tracked in large part to Parscale’s aggressive promotion of the president’s first rally since the novel coronavirus crippled much of national life. Parscale boasted that there was enormous demand for tickets to the Tulsa event — “Just passed 800,000,” he tweeted at one point — but the 19,000-seat venue was not filled during the rally.
Trump advisers say Parscale made a fundamental mistake in setting expectations too high and disappointing Trump.
Afterward, Parscale blamed the low attendance on “a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of covid and protesters.” Six Trump campaign advance staffers tested positive for the coronavirus before the event, with two more afterward.
But at the rally itself, the campaign manager was more circumspect. As Trump spoke, Parscale sat in the back of the Tulsa arena alone in a blue suit, regularly checking his phone.
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.