The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump once reconsidered sticking with Truth Social. Now he’s stuck.

The former president has told his allies that he can’t leave his Twitter clone because he’s propping it up, and he doesn’t want a site so closely associated with his brand to collapse.

Former president Donald Trump exits the stage of the America First Agenda Summit in Washington on July 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The co-founders of former president Donald Trump’s post-presidential start-up, Trump Media & Technology Group, had a name for June 11, 2021: “meltdown day.”

Andy Litinsky and Wes Moss, former contestants on Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” had a week earlier traveled with an 11-person entourage to Trump’s palatial golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to show off what they’d worked for months to build: a web of conservative-aimed business ventures, including the Twitter clone Truth Social, that heavily promoted and depended on Trump’s name and brand.

Trump, however, was already considering other ideas. On June 11, Trump met at Bedminster with another suitor: his former aide Jason Miller, who was launching a rival conservative social network, Gettr, and had offered Trump at least $5 million a year and a stake in the company to join.

A Trump defection would have triggered a disastrous meltdown of everything Litinsky and Moss had created. Trump Media lawyers scrambled to mount a counterattack, according to people familiar with the episode, which has not been previously reported.

Would Trump really “do a side deal?” the Trump Media co-founders wrote in a daily log that company whistleblower Will Wilkerson shared with government investigators and The Washington Post.

Trump ultimately stuck with Truth Social, helping the site attract a modest following. But the billionaire industrialist Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could put Trump’s commitment to a new test, and some in his orbit wonder whether he’ll be able to stay loyal to a small site that is struggling to gain an audience and faces looming financial threats.

Trump has told his allies that he can’t leave Truth Social, because he’s propping it up, and he doesn’t want a site so closely associated with his brand to collapse, according to people familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a detailed request for comment for this story.

Musk has called Twitter’s ban of Trump, after the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, a mistake and pledged to reinstate Trump’s account, although when that might occur remains unclear. Trump, however, has said he would not return even if he were invited back, saying he wanted to focus his efforts on Truth Social.

“If I choose to run, I will only use Truth” to post his thoughts, Trump told Fox News on the day after Musk’s takeover of Twitter became official. “When I put out a Truth, it is all over the place.” The platform feels “like home,” he said, and he likes “the way it works.” In a Truth Social post, he added, “I LOVE TRUTH!”

But Trump’s 4 million followers on the platform are a small fraction of the 88 million he once had on Twitter, and his dozens of posts — called “truths” — there in recent weeks have received none of the broad engagement and traction he counted on during his presidency.

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Trump has asserted in recent Truth Social posts and TV interviews that Truth Social has performed better than the biggest apps on the internet, including Twitter and TikTok. The app debuted at the top of the Google app-store rankings last month when Google added it, but it has plunged in the days since, and it remains outranked by mainstream social networks in every measure.

In September, Truth Social had fewer than 1.7 million monthly unique visitors in the United States, according to the traffic analysis group Similarweb — lower than the websites for the crypto news source CoinDesk, the drugstore chain CVS Health and the internal job-listing page for Walmart. That month, Twitter had more than 184 million monthly unique visitors in the United States, Similarweb estimates show.

The allure of Twitter — a nerve center and obsession for many of those interested in American news and politics — could become even harder to ignore when Trump launches his widely expected campaign for the 2024 presidential race. Trump’s aides still print out tweets with positive feedback about him, as well as the messages of influential reporters and lawmakers, and hand-deliver them at his request, people familiar with the matter said.

Litinsky and Moss did not respond to requests for comment.

The Post sent Trump Media a detailed list of claims from this story, none of which were disputed. Trump Media spokeswoman Shannon Devine said only in a statement, “The Washington Post’s obsessive series of conspiracy theories about Truth Social read like the jealous projections of a failing newspaper because the Post is, in fact, a failing newspaper envious of our undeniable popularity.”

***

When Trump had considered jumping to Gettr, the co-founders at Trump Media felt confident he’d stick by their side. In February 2021, shortly after his supporters stormed the Capitol, Trump signed a document with a “mutual noncompete” clause pledging not to work with anyone else in exchange for 90 percent of the company’s shares, Wilkerson, the former Trump Media executive, told The Post. He was fired last month after that interview.

In the services agreement document, which Wilkerson shared with The Post, the co-founders said Trump had been “robbed of his digital voice” and been “viciously and brutally silenced by 'Big Tech’ ” — an injustice they could help rectify with their “strategic plan to … commercialize targeted media and technology opportunities” using Trump’s brand. The men pledged to devote “whatever time is necessary” to accomplish the Trump company’s goals, including meeting with Trump whenever he wanted.

The document envisioned a pro-Trump umbrella organization, including technology start-ups and a publishing house; it even laid out guidelines for how company employees could be reimbursed for corporate expenses. For his part, Trump agreed to give the co-founders a “perpetual … royalty-free, irrevocable right” to use Trump’s name, photos and likeness “in any format and medium” they wanted, according to the agreement. Trump also offered up access to email databases compiled by Trump and his family company, the Trump Organization.

In the following months, the co-founders raised money for the Trump business, recruited staffers for the company and traveled repeatedly to Trump’s homes in hopes of keeping him happy and onboard with their plans, according to Wilkerson and internal documents he shared with The Post.

Co-founder of Trump’s media company details Truth Social’s bitter infighting

The co-founders did not realize until “meltdown day,” however, that Miller, Trump’s longtime spokesman, had spoken with Trump repeatedly to lure him to Gettr. During one meeting with Miller, Trump asked whether a platform with “Truth” in the name sounded good, not mentioning that he was already attached to one, people familiar with the meeting said. Miller declined to comment for this story.

When the co-founders learned of Trump’s meeting, they immediately set about undermining Miller with details of his interpersonal squabbles. (The conservative radio host “Dan Bongino hates Jason Miller,” the co-founders noted in a log entry on June 13.)

They also scrambled to recommit Trump to his own company. In late June, Moss, Litinsky and Wilkerson traveled to Trump Tower in New York to demonstrate a Truth Social prototype for Trump and his adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr. The men compiled a presentation showing off company milestones, including the raising of millions of dollars in private investment and the installation of key personnel for Trump’s company, according to a copy of the document. To commemorate the moment, the co-founders gathered outside the building and took a group selfie, which Wilkerson provided to The Post.

But, all the while, Trump continued to negotiate with Miller about a jump to Gettr. On July 1, when Gettr was officially launched, Bradford Cohen, another former “Apprentice” contestant who’d become a lawyer in south Florida and helped arrange the co-founders’ first pitch with Trump, exploded on Miller, telling him he was engaging in “tortious interference” because the site had an account — named “ReaIDonaldTrump,” using an uppercase ‘I’ instead of a lowercase ‘l’ — that they’d believed was a placeholder for Trump, one of these people said. A person involved with Gettr told Politico that day that the site had “an account reserved for [Trump] and waiting for him but that’s a decision for him to make.”

Miller’s final offer to Trump included $100 million — and potentially more — over five years to post on Gettr, the people said. The deal would have even included a payout for Trump if he were elected president again, one of these people said, and much of the money would have been paid near the end of the agreement, before Trump retook office.

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Trump expressed interest in such a deal but never committed, and he repeatedly requested larger equity in the company, people briefed on the meetings said. At one point, Trump asked if he could get 85 or 90 percent before settling for a lower number after Miller likened the agreement more to a trademark or licensing deal, the people said.

Even as the Gettr deal loomed, the Trump Media co-founders faced troubles on another front, from Trump’s family members and business associates, who were livid over the original services agreement and argued that Trump had given away too much, Wilkerson said.

In one email exchange Wilkerson provided to The Post, lawyers for Trump’s older business and his new start-up grappled over a new license agreement, proposed by Trump’s family representatives, that would have greatly diminished the company’s standing and made Trump’s involvement “nonexclusive.”

“The elimination of DJT’s ‘exclusive’ commitment to [Trump Media group’s] product offering essentially renders the TMG initiative ‘un-bankable,’ ” a lawyer for the co-founders wrote in an early-August email. The new agreement “essentially ‘guts’ the key commercial commitments by DJT to TMG’s product offering.”

Trump Media ultimately agreed to the new agreement, which restricted how the company could use Trump’s name and brand and offered more carve-outs for Trump political activities and business ventures that only he could profit from or control, according to a copy of the document Wilkerson shared with The Post.

In the agreement, Trump agreed to make his posts exclusively available on Truth Social for eight hours before he could share them elsewhere. The agreement offered exceptions for “political messaging, political fundraising or get-out-the-vote efforts,” which he could do anywhere at any time.

***

In the months since, Truth Social has secured a niche online for Trump boosters and right-wing memes.

The site is rife with criticism of Trump’s enemies and is commonly used by people who say they believe lies that rampant election theft was the reason for Trump’s 2020 loss. A pro-Trump group in Arizona, which had used Truth Social to make false claims about voting fraud and organize teams of ballot-box watchers, was ordered by a federal judge last week to post notices on the site accurately describing local voter laws.

After a delayed start on his own platform, Trump has begun using it actively, posting memes and sharing messages from accounts promoting QAnon, the jumbled set of conspiracy theories that herald him as the ultimate warrior against a “deep state” cabal of satanic elite. Truth Social, however, has failed to gain the kind of mainstream base of users or advertisers on which most major social networks rely. Gettr is doing no better: Its audience of 400,000 unique monthly visitors in September, according to Similarweb estimates, was a quarter of Truth Social’s size.

Truth Social’s financial standing also remains in doubt. Trump Media committed last year to merge with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, named Digital World Acquisition, to which investors have given roughly $300 million in operating funds.

But Trump Media cannot unlock that money without a merger that has been frozen by ongoing federal investigations. The announcement of a shareholder vote to extend the company’s merger deadline has been postponed six times in the past two months, most recently on Thursday, an indication that the SPAC still does not have the votes it needs to seal the deal. Liquidation of the SPAC is scheduled for Dec. 8 if the extension still has not been passed, zeroing out Trump Media’s biggest financial base.

Trump’s Truth Social steps closer to a financial cliff

Digital World’s sponsor paid $2.8 million in September to give itself three more months to pass the vote. But as the vote effort has doddered on, the company has lost money from investors leery of the ongoing legal morass, the possibility of Trump’s return to Twitter and Truth Social’s questionable performance. Investors have pulled at least $138 million out of what was once a $1 billion deal, Digital World said in filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Digital World also recently changed its address from an office in Miami’s financial district to a box in a UPS store, securities filings show. Its share price has plunged from around $100 earlier this year to $17.48 on Friday.

Trump Media’s co-founders were ousted earlier this year after Trump signed a surprise document shaking up the company, knocking Litinsky off the board of directors and adding his son Donald Jr. and the company’s chief executive, former representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Other executives left shortly after.

And Trump has continued to be open to other corners of the right-wing online ecosystem. After Kanye West, now known as Ye, announced last month that he’d be buying another right-wing social network, Parler, Trump and the rapper reportedly had a discussion about joining each other’s platforms.

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