How Trump plowed through $1 billion, losing cash advantage

Election 2020 Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s sprawling political operation has raised well over $1 billion since he took the White House in 2017 — and set a lot of it on fire.

Trump bought a $10 million Super Bowl ad when he didn’t yet have a challenger. He tapped his political organization to cover exorbitant legal fees related to his impeachment. Aides made flashy displays of their newfound wealth — including a fleet of luxury vehicles purchased by Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager.

Meanwhile, a web of limited liability companies hid more than $356 million in spending from disclosure, records show.

Now, just two weeks out from the election, some campaign aides privately acknowledge they are facing difficult spending decisions at a time when Democratic nominee Joe Biden has flooded the airwaves with advertising. That has put Trump in the position of needing to do more of his signature rallies as a substitute during the coronavirus pandemic while relying on an unproven theory that he can turn out supporters who are infrequent voters at historic levels.

“They spent their money on unnecessary overhead, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous activity by the campaign staff and vanity ads,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who advised John McCain and Jeb Bush and is an outspoken Trump critic. “You could literally have 10 monkeys with flamethrowers go after the money, and they wouldn’t have burned through it as stupidly.”

For Trump, it’s a familiar, if not welcome, position. In 2016, he was vastly outraised by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton but still pulled off a come-from-behind win. This time around, though, he was betting on a massive cash advantage to negatively define Biden and to defend his own record.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien insisted money was no issue. “We have more than sufficient air cover, almost three times as much as 2016,” he told reporters Monday.

Biden, Stepien added, was “putting it all on TV,” as he eschewed most door-knocking because of the pandemic, while Trump has roughly 2,000 field staffers across the country knocking on doors and making calls for his campaign.

“Where we have states that are sort of tipping, could go either way,” Trump told campaign staffers Monday, “I have an ability to go to those states and rally. Biden has no ability. I go to a rally, we have 25,000 people. He goes to a rally, and he has four people.”

Advertising spending figures, however, offer a bleak picture.

While a half-dozen pro-Trump outside groups are coming to the president's aid, Biden and his Democratic allies are on pace to dump $142 million into ads in the closing days of the campaign, outspending Republicans by more than 2-to-1, according to data from the ad tracking firm CMAG/Kantar.

On Monday, the firm Medium Buying reported Trump was canceling ad buys in Wisconsin; Minnesota, which Trump had hoped to flip; and Ohio, which went for Trump in 2016 but now appears to be a tight contest.