The myths of the 'genius' behind Trump’s reelection campaign
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
On the evening of May 30, Brad Parscale, the campaign manager of Donald J. Trump for President Inc., gave a speech to a gathering of the faithful. Parscale is a striking figure: 6-foot-8, with a trademark Viking beard and a penchant for bombast. He was a phenom of the 2016 election, rising, in a matter of months, from an anonymous web designer in San Antonio to the Trump campaign’s reputed digital savior. Parscale has become a frequent warmup act at Trump rallies and a prized attraction in GOP fundraising circles.
On this occasion, he was speaking to the Miami Young Republicans. Parscale regaled the audience with his litany of Trump’s achievements, according to a recording of the speech (provided by Palm Beach Post reporter Christine Stapleton). He warned of the “crazy socialist Democrats” who want to “slaughter” babies in the third trimester; admit “all of South America” to the U.S. through open borders; and render jet-fueled planes illegal and “farming cows” extinct. “I don’t know about you guys,” Parscale told them. “I really like steak.”
Parscale then turned to his own rhetorical question: “How the heck did you get from East Topeka, Kansas, 43 years old, to become the right-hand man to the Trump family?” That’s a truly remarkable tale, although much, as it turns out, is not quite as Parscale describes it.
In the speech, Parscale painted his own life story as a testament to the need for Trump. He served up a vivid account of facing crushing personal and professional setbacks (“I was down and out”) before launching a business on a shoestring, then prospering through hard work and self-reliance. He is evidence of the American dream, Parscale declared. His life, he said, shows “why we all need to go out and fight for the president. So that all of our kids can have that same possibility to have that dream happen for them.”
In fact, Parscale’s accounts of his life and his work for the president comprise a classic Trumpian tale: They’re a combination of hyperbole, half-truths and the occasional fiction. Indeed, Parscale shares more than one trait with his most important client. He has embraced political beliefs not in evidence before the 2016 campaign. Like Trump, he has adapted to opportunities as they arose. And like Trump, Parscale is largely unencumbered by the concerns for consistency and accuracy that are the hobgoblins of smaller minds. “When I give a speech, I tell it like a story,” Parscale says when asked about his biographical embellishments and errors. “My story is my story.”
Consider what Parscale has said about his own compensation this campaign season. He has repeatedly emphasized that he is refusing to take the customary cut of the campaign’s digital ad spending. “I felt like as campaign manager it would seem not very ethical and very good of myself to pay myself a percentage of my decisions,” Parscale told CNN earlier this year. Instead, he said, he is accepting a relative pittance for his efforts: an annual “retainer” of $300,000, plus unspecified bonuses. “I wanted to set a high mark,” he told Breitbart News. As he put it: “I don’t do this for a percentage. I do this for my country and for President Trump.”
But that wasn’t the full story. Parscale’s no-commissions policy did not apply when the client was the Republican National Committee, whose main mission, at least when it comes to employing Parscale’s firm, is reelecting Trump. That work represented $18 million in billings for Parscale Strategy since he was named 2020 campaign manager, dwarfing the $4.8 million his companies have received directly from Trump committees.
In an interview for this article, Parscale confirmed he was taking commissions on the portions of the $18 million that was used to buy advertising, but he declined to discuss specifics. Parscale said he saw no conflict of interest because the party was making the decisions. “That’s the RNC’s money,” he said. “If they call me tomorrow and say, ‘We’re not spending any more money on this,’ there’s nothing I can do.”
Parscale then changed his position following that interview and two articles in other publications that examined Parscale’s compensation. The RNC told ProPublica and Texas Monthly in early September that, at Parscale’s request, it would no longer purchase digital ads through his firms. “Going forward, all RNC digital buys will be made directly to the host sites,” party spokesman Mike Reed says. “This is to ensure complete transparency and to give Democrats and the press no way to mislead and wrongly accuse anyone of impropriety.”
Parscale and his fees have attracted an unusual amount of attention, but they’re only part of the story. He has also spearheaded what appears to be the Trump campaign’s takeover of the RNC to the benefit of the president — and the seeming detriment of other Republican candidates. Other presidents have consolidated control over their party; similar criticisms were made of Barack Obama. But the extent of Trump’s takeover is unprecedented, according to experts. They say it inflicted damage on Republican congressional candidates in the 2018 elections, and could do so again in 2020.
One previously unreported example: Since Trump’s election in 2016, critical “voter scores” — sophisticated polling-based analytics that the RNC provides to party committees and candidates — have conspicuously omitted an essential detail for any down-ballot race: how voters in specific states and congressional districts feel about Trump. Republican insiders believe these analytics are being withheld to try and prevent GOP candidates from publicly distancing themselves from the president or leaking unfavorable results that embarrass Trump.
“They don’t want you to know if it isn’t good,” says former RNC chairman Michael Steele, a vocal Trump critic. “There’s a lot of data they’re sitting on that they’re not sharing.” Steele adds that today, “the RNC is not an independent actor; the RNC is now a part of the Trump campaign. The question now isn’t, ‘What do you need?’ The question is, ‘Do you support Donald Trump?’”
In both power and money, the 2020 Trump campaign dwarfs the 2016 incarnation. “You have less than a handful of people who now control the entire ecosystem” of the Republican Party, says one prominent former RNC official, and Parscale is one of that handful. A big part of his sway stems from the massive quantities of money he raises. Parscale sits atop a juggernaut that reported gathering $108 million just in the second quarter this year and that is well on its way to becoming what he claims will be America’s first billion-dollar campaign.
All of which raises the ultimate question for Parscale: He won big in 2016 as an upstart among a small band of political insurgents. Can he win again in 2020 as the captain of an operation so big and established that one operative refers to it as the “Death Star”?
In political terms, Brad Parscale was a nobody before his association with Trump. In the span of just a few years, he has reinvented himself, transforming from an apolitical digital geek — building local websites in T-shirts and cargo shorts for a small San Antonio company — into a hyperpartisan president’s raging avatar, bestriding the national stage in Ermenegildo Zegna suits.
“He was not that guy three years ago,” says John Dickson, a principal of Denim Group, a prominent San Antonio cybersecurity firm, who met Parscale during the 14 years Parscale worked in that city. “He was not a bomb-thrower or an ideologue. He was a savvy business guy, a hustler.”
Indeed, before Trump, Parscale’s Twitter feed was far more Deep Nerd than Deep State — exchanges of coding tips and bro talk. He almost never weighed in on politics. Back then, his Twitter targets weren’t Bernie and Biden, but Luby’s and Chipotle, for falling short on his culinary expectations (“sad there are no standards on how much you get in a salad…”).
Parscale and his parents say he adapted so quickly to meeting Trump’s needs because his own father is very much like him: impatient, unfiltered and larger-than-life.
“I’m not a silver-spoon-type person,” Dwight Parscale declares during a three-hour conversation in the 19th Hole restaurant at Club at Sonterra, the San Antonio country club where he holds court many mornings. “I worked my ass off all my life, and I didn’t know any other way. … Am I worth over a million bucks? Yes. But that’s not that much today. I’ve never considered myself rich.”
Dwight Parscale, 73, was a lawyer but says he abandoned the profession around age 50 after an unfriendly local judge handed down an “outrageous” opinion, prompting him to announce to friends, “I’m going to beat the crap out of him!” He adds, “I finally calmed down and went home and told my wife I’m not going to practice law anymore.”
Aside from Dwight Parscale’s legal practice, he and his wife, Rita, operated a string of businesses over the years, sometimes three at once. They included a swimming pool company, a scuba shop, real estate enterprises, restaurants and a Western-themed nightclub featuring a mechanical bull imported from Fort Worth.
Brad Parscale has spoken of a modest upbringing, describing himself as a “farm boy from Kansas.” In fact, he grew up on a suburban cul-de-sac. He attended Topeka-area public schools, where he was a good student and a basketball star. A frustrating college sports career, ended by injuries to his leg and back, took him to four schools. He graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio in 1999, majoring in international business and economics. (He regularly describes it, incorrectly, as an Ivy League school.)
Dwight Parscale, meanwhile, had become the CEO of a Topeka technology company, NewTek, and moved its headquarters to San Antonio before a falling-out with the founder that ended in litigation. The Parscales then relocated to Southern California, where Dwight Parscale became the CEO of a small 3D animation software company called Electric Image.
Brad Parscale went to work for his dad after college, becoming sales manager for Electric Image at a salary of $95,000. Rita Parscale helped manage the company’s books. By the fall of 2001, the Parscales say, they were trying to sell to private investors when the deal, and their business, collapsed amid the economic swoon that followed 9/11.
In his Miami speech, Parscale said he had “just had my first child, married” when he moved out to California, along with “an adopted son,” before the failure of Electric Image and the loss of his job, “within a few months” of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, sent him reeling. “In a year of that, I lost my wife. Not died — separated. … We got divorced, ended back in Texas.”
In fact, Parscale wasn’t married then, much less divorced. He had become a father in July 1999, at age 23, just weeks after graduating from college. The mother was a 22-year-old woman he’d met while she was working at a San Antonio tanning salon he patronized; she had a son from a previous relationship.
Court records show that the two didn’t marry until March 2003, three years and eight months after their daughter was born. Parscale filed for divorce in August 2004. The split wasn’t finalized until October 2007, when he was 31. Parscale never adopted his first wife’s son.
Electric Image’s failure is also more complex than he has portrayed it. The company filed for bankruptcy in August 2002, declaring $188,453 in assets and nearly $2 million in debt, including $100,068 owed to the IRS for unpaid withholding taxes.
Parscale and his parents improperly transferred company funds and assets to themselves, according to a lawsuit against the three family members filed by a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, a claim disputed by the family. Exhibits in the case show checks, all signed by Rita Parscale in August 2003, for $33,000 paid to Dwight Parscale, $4,800 to Rita Parscale and $6,200 to Brad Parscale. According to the bankruptcy trustee’s filings, Dwight Parscale had taken the company’s business records “to the garbage dump” before the family left California and returned to Texas.
The trustee also accused the Parscales of improperly transferring Electric Image assets for use by a new company in San Antonio, EI Technology Group, which later listed Brad Parscale as CEO. (He continued selling software through EI for years until 2009.)
The matter was finally settled in 2006, with the Parscales agreeing to repay a portion of the disputed funds. “We paid out of our pocket $86,000,” Rita Parscale says. She calls the claims of misappropriation “a bunch of baloney.”
Back in San Antonio, Brad Parscale became a website developer, incorporating in October 2005 what became Parscale Media. He has repeatedly spun a memorable origin tale. He said he started the business with his last $500, seeking clients by approaching them in the tech aisle at a local Borders bookstore.
“Life is amazing,” he wrote in a May 2016 tweet. “My first day I had $500 to my name and tapped shoulders for work. No one knew me.” In 2017, he tweeted from a speech in Monaco about delivering “my story of starting with $500.” In its online biography promoting him for paid speeches (fee range $25,000 to $40,000), the speaker’s bureau representing Parscale repeats that “he invested his last $500 in Parscale Media.”
Parscale may have started his business in late 2005 with $500. But it’s unlikely it was his last $500. Courthouse records show that Parscale, who had begun investing in rental properties, owned three San Antonio homes at the time (each carried a mortgage).
There was no question about the business’s early struggles. In 2008, Parscale’s operation was sandwiched between a car wash and a tattoo parlor and smack in the flight path of the San Antonio airport. “Every time you had a meeting in there,” recalls Ryan Kelly, a San Antonio digital marketing consultant who worked closely with Parscale, “you’d feel like a plane was going to fly right through the office.”
From the start, Parscale displayed qualities that would serve him well with Trump. He was a great salesman. He was a quick study and intensely loyal to his customers. And he worked like a maniac.
In San Antonio, Parscale built a volume business. He did fast, inexpensive work for small enterprises like Dury’s Gun Shop, Quest Plumbing and D&D Farm and Ranch. He pitched clients by day, often making cold calls, and cranked out websites at night. On the side, he sold his own software add-ons to website developers.
At the start, Parscale knew little about digital marketing and even less about design. But he recognized his limitations. Says Natalie Silva, a San Antonio marketing consultant who worked with Parscale for two years starting in 2007: “He was the type of guy who would oversell capabilities and then figure it out — ‘well, I’ll go find someone.’ He would bring in the people he needed to do the things he couldn’t do.”
By 2009, Parscale Media, on its website, claimed a staff of seven and pitched Parscale as “a true pioneer of the industry” with “over 13 years of professional web experience.” (That would date back to 1996, his sophomore year in college.) It also trumpeted “prestigious” Top 10 web designer awards “as seen in” Forbes and Texas Monthly magazines. In fact, both citations were paid marketing promotions, published as advertisements in the two publications.
As his reputation grew, Parscale sometimes found himself paired on projects with a San Antonio graphic and web designer named Jill Giles, who’d run her own small firm since 1984. Giles handled the projects’ look and branding strategy; Parscale did the under-the-hood work.
The two could not have been more different. Giles was 20 years older, a tiny, soft-spoken woman with blond curls and refined taste; a committed Democrat, she socialized with urban liberals. Parscale was a red-headed giant with a booming voice who lived in the suburbs. He dressed, Giles later joked to friends, “like a German tourist,” wearing T-shirts, shorts and sandals with socks to work. (Giles declined to be quoted.)
But in an age when businesses built their reputations and brands online, marrying design and tech skills made sense. They formed Giles-Parscale Inc. in July 2011. They set up shop inside the walled compound Giles owned on the edge of downtown, building out separate, industrial-chic structures for the design and digital teams.
Afflicted with chronic back pain from his basketball injuries, Parscale presided over his domain from an unusually tall standing desk; on difficult days, he sometimes conducted business stretched out on the floor.
With Parscale leading the sales effort, Giles-Parscale won prestigious new contracts. Dickson, the San Antonio tech businessman, saw Parscale dazzle the executive committee of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, winning its website and digital work. “He’s like Don Draper. He’s a great pitchman,” says Dickson. “There are just so few who can walk in, pick up the vibe in the room and say the right thing.”
It was just nine months after the merger, in April 2012, that Parscale got his first opportunity to work for the Trump Organization. Asked to bid on designing a website for Trump International Realty, Parscale — eager to land the legendarily cheap celebrity client — won the job with an outrageously low bid of $10,000.
In his Miami speech, Parscale described the Trump Organization call as coming at a moment when he was still struggling. “At this point,” he said, “I have six employees. … I’m living in an $80,000 house, driving a Dodge Charger.” In fact, in 2012, Giles-Parscale had a staff of 30. Parscale lived in a $500,000 home with a swimming pool on a golf course and drove a Lexus.
Parscale simply “made up” his $10,000 price for the initial 2012 work, he later told The Washington Post, with the aim of hooking the Trumps as a client: “I recognized that I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.”
Giles-Parscale soon became the go-to choice for other Trump work: the Trump Winery website, Melania Trump’s skin care products website; the Eric Trump Foundation website (Parscale did the latter work for free).
In November 2013, Eric Trump, in Texas for an event, stopped by Giles-Parscale with his future wife to meet the family’s webmaster. Parscale took them out for a steak dinner afterward, then promoted the visit on Twitter: “Hung out with \@EricTrump & his fiancé today. Truly was honored to have their time. One #supercool couple.”
Parscale insisted that Giles-Parscale made “a lot of money” from the Trump businesses. “Over the next five years,” reported the Post, “the Trump Organization sent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of website-related work to Parscale.”
A knowledgeable Giles-Parscale colleague says that’s not true. “We always lost money on the Trump commercial stuff. Brad wanted it so bad he would bid it ridiculously cheap. He would say, ‘Oh no, this is going to lead to a lot of other work.’… We all knew that we should have been charging more money for it.”
What came next is widely known: In February 2015, the Trumps asked Parscale to craft a simple landing page for the presidential exploratory committee. Parscale did it for $1,500, completing the work on his laptop at home over a weekend. He got another call in June and agreed to build the Trump presidential campaign’s website for $10,000.
Jill Giles was mortified. A lifelong Democrat, she told friends she found Trump’s candidacy “repellant,” and she didn’t want her firm to have anything to do with it. But Parscale reassured his partner: “Nothing will come of this. This isn’t going to last long.”
Indeed, 10 days after Trump announced his candidacy for president, Parscale met two top local Republicans for lunch. But he wasn’t there to chat about the race for the White House. Parscale wanted their support as he considered running for a seat on the San Antonio City Council. Says one of the lunch participants, Robert Stovall, then the Bexar County Republican chairman: “He was very serious about it.”
The two men told Parscale they couldn’t back him. The seat’s conservative incumbent was likely to run one last time in 2017. They didn’t want Parscale to challenge him. Throughout the conversation, Stovall says, one thing was clear: “Brad didn’t think the announcement of Trump running for president was going to be a long-term thing. Everyone was just chuckling about it.”
After Trump’s upset victory in 2016, Parscale would receive acclaim for his central role in a campaign whose intensive, targeted use of social media was without precedent. But it was nondigital skills that proved essential to Parscale’s ascent: learning to navigate the cutthroat culture of Trump’s political world. “He’s a rare survivor of Trump 1.0,” notes Kurt Luidhardt, co-founder of Prosper Group, a political consulting firm that worked on the 2016 campaign. “That’s a big feat to pull off.”
Not that there weren’t some close calls for Parscale. The first came in late 2015, when an array of technical problems and lapses dogged the Trump website. Volunteer data wasn’t getting promptly downloaded. State campaign offices weren’t listed. And the website sometimes functioned poorly or crashed, hitting a low point in early December.
“Today was insane,” Parscale wrote his bosses on Dec. 7, 2015, a day on which traffic spiked as hackers tried to overwhelm the website with a so-called distributed denial of service attack. His email’s recipients included Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, political director Michael Glassner and communications chief Hope Hicks. “About 4 p.m. CST time the traffic on the website increased by about 700,000x the normal traffic…The site has become very unresponsive because it is designed to do 200-300K people a day, not a million in a few minutes.”
“I can build to handle these numbers,” Parscale added, “but at this time I have not spent the cost to make it work this large...I am sorry for the problems today, these numbers were just insane high fast.”
Glassner conferred by email with Matt Braynard, the campaign’s data chief. The two men had been discussing the website problems for weeks. Glassner asked if the day’s traffic would have been a problem if another company ran the Trump website. His email’s subject line: “Transition away from Brad.”
“My suspicion was the answer was no,” Braynard replied, “but I’ve confirmed” that the crash wouldn’t have happened if another firm was running the site. He promised to quickly “compose a summary of reasons why I believe we should transition.”
But before he could do so, Glassner ended the discussion. “We’re going to stick with Brad,” he emailed the next day. Glassner later explained the reason simply: “Brad is considered family.” (Braynard departed the campaign himself a few months later and now runs a nonprofit seeking to register conservative voters.)
Parscale had cultivated a crucial relationship with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had taken a special interest in the campaign’s digital efforts. Kushner became his most essential ally, enlisting Parscale as his proxy. Parscale understood a fundamental rule of life of Trump’s world: The family’s favor meant everything. “He focused on the kids,” says estranged Trump adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, who met Parscale during the campaign. “Once the kids like you, you’re in with Trump.”
Parscale regularly announced his interactions with various Trumps and assiduously flattered them. His Twitter profile today proclaims: “Proud to work for America’s best POTUS.” He has described Trump as “like a second father to me” and recently proclaimed the family “a dynasty that will last for decades.” In tweets, he has called the Trumps “the most amazing family” and pronounced Kushner “a great leader” and “a genius. Also the nicest guy ever.”
In 2016, several factors conspired to elevate Parscale’s role. One was the Trump campaign’s raging distrust of the usual suspects from the GOP’s political “swamp,” including both Washington operatives and the Republican National Committee.
Trump also harbored contempt for conventional political practices. With his universal name recognition and domination of media headlines, Trump, who had pledged to bankroll his own primary campaign, had neither the need nor the desire to spend heavily on TV ads. That opened the door to a low-cost alternative in Parscale’s sweet spot: Facebook.
With Kushner’s backing and a small budget, Parscale began crafting Facebook ads directed at voters in key primary states. He’d also built a website page to sell “Make America Great Again” gear, which became a profit center for the campaign.
Through the end of 2015, the Trump campaign had paid Giles-Parscale just $39,000, mostly for “website development,” according to Federal Election Commission filings. By February 2016, his firm was receiving monthly six-figure sums for “digital consulting.” In June, he was named the campaign’s digital director.
Back in San Antonio, Parscale’s work for Trump had roiled his firm. At the start, Parscale had managed the website from home on his laptop. But as his duties grew, he began tapping Giles-Parscale staff for help, recruiting a few designers after first asking, “You got a problem with Trump?”
At the start, Parscale had portrayed the Trump work as just another contract, telling a San Antonio reporter: “We don’t have a say in his views. We are just a mechanism for his delivery.” Giles held to the view that he was, as ever, going overboard to please his client. “I think he would have been equally enthusiastic if he were doing it for Hillary,” she told friends.
By the spring primaries, it became impossible to pretend the work wasn’t affecting Giles-Parscale. Campaign operatives were appearing regularly in the office. “Nobody in their right mind thought it would go very far,” Giles explained to friends months later. “It was kind of scope creep. One day you wake up and say, ‘Holy shit, how did this happen?’”
Giles finally told Parscale he needed to take the Trump work elsewhere. In early June, after it was clear that Trump had locked up the GOP nomination, Parscale secured office space on the third floor of a building near the San Antonio airport. He announced plans to hire a general election digital team of as many as a hundred staffers. With that, Parscale largely abandoned Giles-Parscale.
As Parscale assumed his new role as the Republican nominee’s digital chief, he faced a big question: Now what do we do? He’d never helped run anything approaching the scale and complexity of a presidential campaign.
At that stage, most presidential nominees would already have dozens of experienced digital operatives on board. Clinton had more than a hundred. Trump had just one data staffer in New York and no data infrastructure. “He had to scale from two people to national in 30 seconds,” says Bill Skelly, a veteran RNC data consultant who worked with the 2016 campaign.
Parscale frantically began conferring with an array of consultants, seeking their advice. He was open about how much he didn’t know and bombarded everyone with questions.
With Trump now the certain nominee, his campaign and the Republican National Committee — warily viewed as a haven of “Never Trumpers” — had forged an uneasy alliance. The RNC dispatched about a dozen staff members to San Antonio: experts in political strategy, email fundraising, data and digital marketing.
Conflict soon erupted over power and money. In June 2016, the most immediate flashpoint was the joint fundraising agreement Trump had signed with the RNC, as was customary for the party’s presidential nominee. It provided for fundraising emails to go out in the name of the candidate, seeking donations of $200 or less.
All the funds were to flow into a joint committee, to be split 80-20 between the campaign and the party, and the two sides were to share the valuable donor data the emails generated. Trump clearly needed the help. He hadn’t done any email fundraising during the primaries, and, as of June 1, he had just $1.3 million in his campaign coffers, compared with Clinton’s $42 million.
Yet Trump was refusing to cooperate with the RNC, which wanted both its promised money and the donor lists. Trump’s campaign, relying on private firms, finally dispatched his first fundraising letter on June 21, but it was a disaster. Although the campaign reported raising about $3 million in one day, more than half of the emails were caught in spam filters. Trump-haters had also slipped in prank addresses, generating embarrassing publicity about the campaign seeking illegal donations from members of the Australian, British and Icelandic parliaments.
The letter also directed all resulting donations to the Trump campaign rather than to the joint committee. RNC officials were furious. They wanted their promised cut — and control over the entire fundraising apparatus. “There was a lot of real angst happening at that moment about Brad,” recalls one GOP operative on the scene.
The RNC decided to play hardball. Ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend, it ordered all the RNC staffers working in San Antonio for Trump — more than a dozen — to leave. A former senior RNC official recalls the committee’s digital director, Gerrit Lansing, explaining what happened this way: “I pulled everyone out. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing down there.” Lansing told the RNC official he had even suggested to RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh that he would quit if Parscale wasn’t fired.
Lansing declined to comment on the record about this episode. Walsh says “there was a negotiation. … I don’t accept the premise that there was any sort of conflict.”
Parscale arrived at his new offices on Friday, July 1, to find the place virtually empty. The lone RNC staffer who remained in town was Gary Coby, director of digital advertising, who had quickly gained Parscale’s trust.
Coby later stood by as Parscale phoned Kushner, effectively pleading for his job. “He just kind of humbled himself to Jared,” Coby recalls. “He said: ‘Obviously it’s your guys’ call. But I’ll do anything for the candidate and the family. … I love this family. … Whatever you guys decide, you can count on me for anything you need or want.’” Adds Coby, “He was making his case as if his role was in jeopardy.”
Parscale managed to keep his job — and to broker peace between the campaign and the RNC. Unlike much of Trump’s inner circle, which viewed the GOP as the enemy, Parscale recognized that the party possessed critical political infrastructure that was impossible for Trump’s makeshift team to replicate. As Parscale puts it: “When I showed up at the RNC for my first meeting, I expected them to be my enemy. I was told that by many in Trump world. But I learned very quickly that for everyone to be successful, we need to be working hand in hand.”
By the middle of the following week, Parscale and his bosses had signed on to a deal with the RNC. The Trump campaign would get all the proceeds from text message appeals and ads on social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter. All donations from email fundraising — a bigger pot — would be split, though the RNC would cover all the costs. The RNC would run the joint email program and get access to Trump’s growing donor file.
Notes one campaign adviser: “I’ve always thought that was the moment when Brad realized if I play nice with these people, they’re going to play nice with me. And he’s maintained that ever since. I am convinced to this day Brad is who he is because he made peace with the RNC. At every point since then, the benefit of that arrangement has been reinforced. He’s navigated all the levers of power very effectively. Honestly, I think that’s what he’s best at.”
Any collaboration with the Trumps, of course, required support from the family, and Parscale worked to ensure that too. After the RNC fundraising showdown, he urged Kushner to sign off on joining forces with the RNC on the digital front. Parscale also met Eric Trump in Washington for a tour of the Trump International Hotel construction site, dirtying his suit before attending a high-level briefing at RNC headquarters on the party’s plans for the campaign’s ground game. Parscale then backed that plan during a three-hour Acela train trip with Eric to Manhattan and convinced him to support the plan, too. “That’s the day we all got married,” Parscale says of the campaign and the RNC.
After the 2016 election, much was written about the Trump campaign’s use of new Facebook tools to “microtarget” voters, sophisticated data analytics and rapid-fire testing of thousands of campaign ad permutations. Parscale was hailed as an innovative “genius,” an impression he encouraged. “I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win,” he told Lesley Stahl, of “60 Minutes,” in 2017. “Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won.”
Parscale also claimed that after being given broad new responsibilities late in the race, he’d spotted critical voter shifts and “changed all the budgets around” in the campaign’s final days. He says he diverted “every nickel and dime” from hopeless Virginia and sure-win Ohio into advertising in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump notched narrow upsets.
“If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you think he’s a 21st-century Steve Jobs,” says a Republican consultant who knows Parscale. “He’s not an asshole. He’s kind of a huckster. But he’s smart enough to realize he’s a huckster.”
Parscale’s true gift wasn’t deploying new, cutting-edge uses for technology. It was skillful management: cobbling together and empowering a fast-moving, opportunistic digital team staffed by experts from the RNC, commercial ad placement firms and social media companies, which flew about a dozen employees into San Antonio to work alongside Parscale’s team. At Parscale’s direction, the digital operation carried out an unprecedented tilt toward social media, for which the Trump campaign spent nearly half its media budget.
Parscale’s all-in approach toward Facebook was perfectly suited to his unique candidate. “The key to digital success is bottling lightning, and with Donald Trump, the lightning strikes every five minutes,” says Wesley Donehue, CEO of Push Digital, who worked on Marco Rubio’s failed bid for the 2016 presidential nomination. “You will never be able to replicate any digital strategy you had for Donald Trump for any other candidate or any corporation because there is no other Donald Trump.”
Academics and political strategists say digital ads don’t do much to persuade voters to switch candidates. They’re aimed primarily at raising money, firing up the base and suppressing turnout among opposition voters — which perfectly matched Trump’s needs.
In large part, Parscale’s approach was a matter of necessity. In 2016, Trump was anathema to the GOP’s traditional wealthy donors. But small-dollar contributors — “the Army of Trump,” Parscale would later call them — loved him. Trump’s supporters were uniquely responsive to donation appeals on social media; his celebrity and gut-level appeal commanded eyeballs. “The hardest thing in digital advertising is getting people’s attention,” says Coby. “You got a cheat code with Trump.”
Trump’s online and email fundraising generated a record $239 million in small-dollar donations, far more than Hillary Clinton’s and more than two-thirds of his donation total, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. This made Trump competitive in a race where he was outspent nearly 2 to 1.
Parscale’s growing role remained pretty much a secret for weeks into the general election race. But in mid-August, a new FEC filing was about to reveal that Giles-Parscale, an obscure San Antonio firm, had become the campaign’s biggest vendor, receiving $12.5 million to date. That prompted Wired to run a quick, flattering profile of him. Trump, according to a former RNC official, soon began referring to Parscale as “my $10 Million Man.”
By the October FEC filing, that figure had multiplied. Giles-Parscale had received more than $20 million in the previous month, on its way to a jaw-dropping final $94 million tally from the Trump committees. After Trump read media reports spotlighting Parscale’s most recent take, he erupted. Making a rare descent to the campaign’s makeshift offices in Trump Tower, he cornered his digital director in the kitchen and flew into a spitting rage, screaming, “Where the fuck is my money?”
Parscale told Trump that the vast majority was simply passed through his firm and went toward buying ads. After salaries and various consulting fees, he insisted, he’d received only a small percentage — far below what’s typical — as profit. Deputy campaign manager Dave Bossie, who had jumped between the two men, backed Parscale’s story. According to two witnesses, the confrontation ended when Kellyanne Conway sneezed on Trump, distracting him from his fury.
Inside the walls of Giles-Parscale, Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, on the morning after Election Day, was met with tears. For months, many at the firm had clung to a hope: Trump would surely lose; Parscale would come back. Everything would go back to the way it was.
Early in 2016, Parscale appeared to be putting down roots in San Antonio. In January, he and his second wife had spent $801,456 on a new 6,145-square-foot home in a gated country-club community near his parents. But after Trump’s victory, he wasn’t about to go back to selling websites. His partner, Giles, was just as eager to part ways.
The two partners agreed: Parscale, the hot commodity, would take the lead in seeking a buyer who could run the digital business. In the meantime, he was busy taking victory laps, attending election post-mortems at Harvard and in Silicon Valley, giving a speech in Monaco and sitting for interviews. He’d assigned a copywriter who had worked on the Trump campaign to write a Wikipedia profile for him.
On Aug. 1, 2017, the sale of Giles-Parscale was announced, to a company called CloudCommerce Inc. The commercial marketing business would become Parscale Digital. The design side would be renamed Giles Design Bureau. The political work — along with Parscale himself — would move to Florida as an independent company called Parscale Strategy.
A press release described the deal as a $9 million all-stock purchase of Parscale’s business. Parscale was also to receive $1 million in cash for his web hosting company, become the face of the parent company and receive a seat on the board. Giles got stock options, along with rent for use of her building and about $700,000 cash.
In reality, in selling to CloudCommerce, an obscure California penny-stock company, Parscale had jumped into a mess of his own making. For starters, his stock would be worth $9 million only if the shares rose exponentially. And the company, as Trump might say, was a doozy.
CloudCommerce had lost money for seven straight years, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, prompting its accountants to voice “substantial doubt” about its ability to remain “a going concern.” In the days before the acquisition was announced, its stock was trading at less than a penny.
The company had a distinctly dodgy past. A former CEO and a second executive had pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in a scheme to pump up the price of the company’s shares. Its current CEO had once filed for personal bankruptcy. CloudCommerce, whose leadership had vowed to rapidly grow the enterprise enough to uplist it onto a major exchange, had changed names and business strategies three times, while seeking to entice acquisition targets, as one email put it, with the prospect of “riding the tidal wave” of company shares “to early retirement.” (CloudCommerce did not respond to requests for comment.)
After the sale, Parscale began deploying his digital-marketing tactics on a new product: himself.
On Aug. 8, he tweeted about a 500% spike in CloudCommerce’s share price, from less than a penny to 5 cents, that had greeted the announcement.
Much like Trump, CloudCommerce and its new marquee player worked to lure business by creating a premium brand that would convey the value of his personal magic. They called it “the Parscale Effect.” Digital ads for Parscale Strategy’s website, which featured juddering images of Parscale and admiring media headlines (“Donald Trump’s Michael Bay”), declared: “Brad Parscale shaped the 2016 presidential election with a data driven digital strategy to influence action. Find out how the Parscale Effect can transform your business.”
Parscale approached political contacts, asking if they’d want to sell their firms in exchange for CloudCommerce stock, according to two people with direct knowledge. At least two turned him down. One recalls Parscale’s pitch: “He told me he was going to list CloudCommerce on Nasdaq, and we were all going to be really rich.”
Parscale’s political success intrigued some high-profile clients. In mid-2017, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hired Parscale for a “sales analytics” project, to see if he could help sell basketball tickets. “I figure, we’ll see if what he does can make a difference. … I’m a big believer that when it comes to data, you don’t take sides. You look to see results,” says Cuban, a reality TV star who has toyed with running for president. In the end, Parscale’s impact was “in line with what we did with other advanced metrics companies,” says Cuban. “It helped, but wasn’t anything dramatic.”
Parscale was hired to boost ticket sales for “Only the Brave,” a Hollywood movie about an elite California firefighting team. He retained a Trump surrogate, Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL and war hero who was depicted in the movie “Lone Survivor,” to endorse the film, according to Variety, and Parscale promoted the movie on Twitter without disclosing he’d been paid to do so: “A film about real American heroes. Risked it all to save others. Can’t wait to honor these men by watching the movie! #onlythebrave #maga”
Ultimately, CloudCommerce was unable to successfully exploit Parscale’s commercial business, which largely went on hiatus as Parscale turned back to politics. CloudCommerce continues to lose money and bleed cash. The company’s SEC filings now list Parscale’s role as Trump’s campaign manager as a “risk factor,” citing the president’s unpopularity with some employees and customers.
“Brad thought if he got on board and applied some of his techniques, a penny stock becomes a dollar stock and $1 million becomes $100 million,” says Jeremy Sloan, a San Antonio lawyer who represented Parscale in the CloudCommerce deal and has known him for a decade. “I remember telling him: ‘Dude, you’re taking a risk here — selling your whole company, all these assets you’re selling for stock. If you go from one penny to $3, that’s great. But if you go from one to zero, that $9 million headline turns into $90,000.’”
As of Sept. 9, CloudCommerce shares were trading for less than a cent.
Parscale’s efforts to monetize his role in Trump’s victory met with more success in the political world.
Trump pioneered the nonstop presidential campaign, filing for reelection on the day of his inauguration, and Parscale positioned himself to capitalize on it. He incorporated Parscale Strategy, his political-consulting business, just 10 days later. Although Parscale lacked a formal campaign title until being named campaign manager in February 2018, he never stopped working for Trump — or getting paid for it.
During the 14 months before Parscale’s selection, his firms received more than $13 million. The money came from three different Trump campaign committees, the RNC, the presidential inaugural committee, a pro-Trump super PAC and a “dark money” organization. Parscale unsuccessfully sought work from at least two other GOP campaign committees.
Parscale simultaneously served as a co-founder of and senior adviser to America First Policies, a pro-Trump “dark money” group, and its sibling, the super PAC America First Action, which quickly became a paid refuge for Trump campaign veterans. The two groups are allowed to raise unlimited sums but are legally barred from coordinating with the campaign. Activist group Common Cause claims, in complaints to the FEC and the Justice Department, that the two groups have illegally coordinated with the Trump campaign. The complaints are still pending. (A spokesperson for America First declined to comment.)
Up through his appointment as Trump’s campaign manager on Feb. 27, 2018, the two America First groups paid Parscale’s firm more than $3.5 million for “media advocacy,” website services and work in congressional special-election campaigns. Days after his appointment, America First ceased paying Parscale Strategy, presumably to avoid running afoul of laws barring the super PAC from coordinating with Trump’s campaign.
Instead, America First Action soon began making payments for similar services to a new entity, incorporated in Delaware on March 2, called Red State Data & Digital. Parscale told ProPublica and Texas Monthly that he formed Red State to allow his employees to continue working for America First while he distanced himself from the group. Parscale didn’t mention that one of the employees was his wife, a fact subsequently revealed by CNN. Red State Data & Digital has received $923,201 from America First Action.
Red State represents Parscale’s attempt to channel those funds to a legally separate entity. “The lawyers suggested it for firewall purposes so it would have its own billing,” says Parscale. “It was legally recommended to me. I don’t even see the bills. I have employees that work for them, and they are firewalled from me.”
Such maneuvers are part of “a really troubling trend” — a “fig leaf” — to form campaign vendors that are “legally distinct but practically inseparable” from a campaign, says Adav Noti, former associate general counsel for the FEC, who is now senior director for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “One serves the super PAC, one serves the campaign, but they’re run by the same people. You can firewall off staff people, but you can’t firewall your own brain. I would be very skeptical about that. Candidates and their advisers are not supposed to be coming in any contact with soft money.”
In 2016, Parscale, out of necessity, ceded much of the Trump campaign’s digital operations to the RNC. For the 2020 election, the tables are turned: Trump’s reelection campaign has effectively taken over the party organization.
The tone was set early at the top, with the installation of Ronna McDaniel, a fierce Trump loyalist, as RNC chair. But with Parscale’s help, Trump’s control over the committee has gone deeper. The group’s willingness to do Trump’s bidding has extended to its handling of voter data, for which Parscale has helped empower two former RNC chiefs of staff (who happen to be married to each other), Katie Walsh and Mike Shields. They’re the winners in an intraparty struggle that has shifted power, money and staff from the RNC to the party’s private repository of voter information, called the Data Trust. Parscale was named to the Data Trust board in May 2017.
The changes have degraded the GOP’s data operation, which is critical for winning elections, according to critics, including Bill Skelly, a longtime Republican data consultant no longer doing RNC work, and Jesse Kamzol, an RNC data director who was ousted in mid-2017. They believe out-of-date and incomplete information in the party-supplied voter files, used for voter contact and turnout efforts, contributed to the GOP’s poor performance in the 2018 midterms.
One example: sophisticated RNC voter score projections for Rep. John Culberson, a nine-term incumbent defending a suburban Houston seat held by Republicans for a half-century, showed Culberson winning his race handily, with a 56% to 35% margin among likely voters 11 weeks before Election Day, documents reviewed by ProPublica show. Other polls during this period consistently showed Culberson and Democrat Lizzie Fletcher in a far closer race. Culberson ultimately lost 52.5% to 47.5%.
Former RNC data experts blame such problems on poor data “hygiene,” the tedious work of keeping the files accurate and current. Says one: “They’re getting wrong addresses, wrong phone numbers, wrong emails. ... They’re not updating it. They’re building voter files and political data sets. It’s not a technical thing; it’s kind of an art. Imagine you suddenly went from having a bunch of Picassos and Monets. Then you go to someone who can finger-paint.”
Shields, who served as a senior adviser to the Data Trust until July 31, says all changes occurred “with the full knowledge of the Trump campaign and Brad.” He adamantly denies any systemic problems. He and RNC officials defend the quality of the data and blame the criticism on a “small pocket” of political operatives who have lost business in the Trump era. Skelly denies any such motivation, saying, “It is right to continue to innovate and look for change, but not for its own sake.”
More conspicuously, since Trump’s election, the RNC — at his campaign’s direction — has excluded critical “voter scores” on the president from the analytics it routinely provides to GOP candidates and committees nationwide, with the aim of electing down-ballot Republicans.
Republican consultants say the Trump information is being withheld for two reasons: to discourage candidates from distancing themselves from the president, and to avoid embarrassing him with poor results that might leak. But they say its concealment harms other Republicans, forcing them to campaign without it or pay to get the information elsewhere.
Indeed, RNC “voter score” documents from 2018 include a wealth of voter information for a given district, including attitudes toward the major parties, state elected officials, local candidates, critical issues and even Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There is no data on Trump. To the contrary, according to one GOP expert, 2016 Trump information previously made available was conspicuously withheld starting in mid-2017.
“There has been a major decision to lock down the Trump voter scores,” says a former national GOP data official, who was repeatedly blocked from obtaining the information. He calls this “Trump-first mentality” at the RNC “outside the norm” and a “major hindrance” to the success of down-ballot candidates.
According to RNC documents, the scores are used to guide an array of campaign efforts, including field programs, fundraising, digital advertising and communications. Says a former RNC data officer: “It’s definitely hurting the party not to release that information. I wish we could have handed it over.”
Current and former party officials from two major battleground states confirm that the RNC refused their repeated requests for Trump data. “What voters in our state think about Donald Trump matters,” says the executive director for one state. “There are people who loved our governor but were turned off by the president. We deliver different messages to people who need to be convinced to come out to our side. How are we supposed to run campaigns if we’re flying blind on thinking about the president?”
When asked about this, Walsh, who serves as a senior adviser to the RNC, embraces the proposition that the committee now — properly — does the president’s bidding. Because Trump effectively paid for the voter data by raising money for the RNC, according to this view, his campaign was fully entitled to withhold it even from other Republicans. “I don’t think most campaigns give their data out to other campaigns for free,” Walsh says. “So I don’t see why the president would be expected to. That’s all data work done by the RNC, and the head of the party is the president. So it’s his data.”
Says one veteran GOP consultant: “They should just put ‘TRUMP’ signs in front of the Republican National Committee building now, just like every other building he’s got.”
The 2020 Trump campaign could not be more different from 2016. Parscale has been methodically assembling a political war machine, largely along traditional lines. He has created a large-dollar fundraising network; begun training sessions for field recruits; and established outreach groups for African Americans, women and Hispanics. (In 2016, the campaign didn’t even translate its website into Spanish.) Parscale has also spent tens of millions building contact files of Trump donors and supporters, harvested from responses to Facebook ads and rally sign-ups.
Parscale’s life feels a lot bigger-scale these days, too. He now lives in a $2.4-million home on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He now drives a Ferrari and a BMW X6. Since his star turn on “60 Minutes,” Parscale has become a recognizable conservative political celebrity. He has 361,000 Twitter followers, up from 3,793 just three years ago.
Parscale has assumed the role of Trump’s troll-in-chief, backing his boss’s boasts and false claims; generating ads playing to voters’ fears; twisting the knife on the president’s opponents; and caricaturing Democrats’ policies. Recently, the Trump campaign circulated an ad on Facebook claiming that every Democratic presidential candidate would eliminate private health insurance. As a website called Popular Information first pointed out, the ad included a photo of five candidates raising their hands affirmatively at their June 27 debate, but it omitted the fact that they were responding to a different question. When I asked him about the ad, Parscale ignored the false photo and displayed some Trumpian defiance. “Make no mistake,” he says. “All Democrats from Bernie to Biden will eliminate private insurance either outright or as a consequence of the public option crowding out private insurance.”
Parscale seems to revel in the combat — at least part of the time. “I barely leave the house,” he says. “We don’t even go to dinner any more. We eat in. It’s not worth it anymore.” The world is now divided among fans who want to pose with him for a selfie and antagonists who’d rather throw things at him. In that way, as in so many others, he has come to resemble his boss.