Inside the Trump super PAC struggles

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President Donald Trump

A few numbers stick out on the public spending report for Donald Trump’s flagship super PAC, America First Action.

There’s the $33,000 spent last year on a single event at the Prime Rib, a swanky DC steakhouse, the $120,000 paid to two firms tied to former Milwaukee sheriff (and Trump super-fan) David Clarke, and the more than $460,000 spent over two years at Trump-owned properties.

This kind of spending is only part of why some Republicans are angry over what’s going on at America First. Two years after it launched, the group has gained a reputation, not as a financial powerhouse for a sitting president, but as an aimless operation struggling to deliver for Trump politically.

Interviews with six GOP operatives and donors reveal a deep frustration, not just over the group’s spending habits, but also its lackluster fundraising. In the 2018 cycle, chairman and president Brian O. Walsh told CNN that America First and its affiliated non-profit together raised about $75 million, well short of its $100 million goal. About $39 million of that went to the super PAC, Federal Election Commission records show.

By comparison, the Republican National Committee raised more than $233 million in individual contributions in the same cycle. While America First’s operating expenses appear to be within the normal realm for super PACs, critics say the money the group has raised has been misspent on large consulting contracts and high-cost events with little payoff.

Last cycle, as Republicans were on their way to losing their House majority, America First was paying the equivalent of annual salaries to firms attached to Trump associates such as Sean Spicer, Katrina Pierson and Corey Lewandowski (a former CNN contributor), not to mention Clarke, fueling the perception that the group has become a safe harbor for various Trump cast-offs and family friends.

“There’s a perception that people who got fired from the administration or couldn’t get administration jobs were just dumped there,” says a Republican operative aligned with the President’s re-election effort who has spoken with potential donors to America First. “What fundraising they have done they’ve squandered on parties and other stupid things.”

As Trump prepares to officially kick off his re-election campaign this month, Republicans around Washington have started asking the same question: What, exactly, is the President’s top super PAC doing?

New leadership

After years of the President dismissing super PACs as a “scam,” the Trump campaign in a May 7 statement endorsed America First as the “one approved outside, non-campaign group.” The embrace reflected the view among his political apparatus that Trump needed to point donors to a single independent vehicle, but some Republicans are questioning whether America First is up to the task.

“It’s been a disaster,” said one GOP operative close to the Trump campaign. “I mean, totally lackluster leadership.”

Brad Parscale, who helped launch America First’s non-profit policy arm in late January 2017, left a year later to manage Trump’s 2020 campaign, taking Pierson with him as the campaign’s senior adviser.

In February, America First’s chairman, longtime Trump family friend Tommy Hicks, left to join the RNC as its co-chair. In April, Linda McMahon, the Small Business Administration chief, resigned her Cabinet post and came aboard as America First’s chairwoman.

The selection of McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment and a two-time Republican senate candidate, is viewed by some skeptics as an acknowledgment of its past troubles. But so far the move has been welcomed by a number of donors.

“Linda McMahon joining America First marked a reset for them as they reload from the disastrous midterms to be Trump’s wingman for a successful 2020 campaign,” said Dan Eberhart, an Arizona-based oil investor, Republican donor, and Trump supporter who gave $5,000 to America First in 2018.

“Linda was brought in to see how to build confidence with the donor community and also to build a war chest to re-elect the president,” says one Republican source.

Asked how fundraising has been going since she came on board, McMahon was upbeat about her conversations with donors. “You have conversations, then you have follow-ups, then people come to the table,” she told CNN. “But all the initial responses that I am getting is that they are very delighted.” The next fundraising report to the FEC is due next month.

Limited influence

As a super PAC, America First cannot contribute directly to a candidate’s campaign or a party committee. It is limited to making “independent expenditures” — advertisements, polling, and get-out-the-vote infrastructure — and cannot coordinate with those candidates or campaigns.

But America First can also accept donations of any size from individuals, corporations, and other non-political organizations. That’s what gives groups like it the chance to be “super,” and why some Republicans fear America First is failing to live up to its potential.

In an interview with CNN, Walsh acknowledged the criticism that’s been leveled at the group, but he pushed back on the idea America First hasn’t delivered for the President.

“We were active in ’17 during the health care debate, and then we were active during tax reform. We did a lot of polling,” Walsh said, pointing to 26 events with Vice President Mike Pence promoting tax reform.

But its influence was limited. Trump’s tax cuts remain underwater in public approval. And Congress was unable to pass the White House-backed health care proposals while Republicans controlled the House.

America First also paid for ads during the 2018 midterm elections on behalf of GOP congressional candidates, some of whom were in likely 2020 battleground states and others that were what Walsh called “Trump Champions,” or candidates who were particularly supportive of the President.

The group had a winning record in 2018 — four of the six Senate candidates and seven of the 13 House candidates it backed won their races, including two House seats that flipped to the GOP, according to America First. Still, for the super PAC of a sitting president, America First wasn’t much of a factor, a point that Walsh acknowledged. “We were a supporting entity in the midterms, we will be a principal entity in the presidential,” he told CNN.

“Branding mechanisms”

The biggest concern among Republicans is the super PAC’s “warehousing” (as one Republican donor to the group put it) of figures from the broader Trump orbit.

America First has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in “communications consulting” to firms linked to people affiliated with Trump, including Lewandowski, Spicer, Clarke, and Pierson, according to the group’s public filing with the FEC. Spicer’s public relations firm RigWil received more than $53,000 in the last six months of 2018, while Pierson’s consulting firm was paid $60,000 between October 2017 and February 2018 before she left to join Trump’s 2020 campaign.

Two firms tied to Clarke, DAC Enterprises and Ranger Zuke, received a total of $120,000 from the super PAC between September 2017 and November 2018. Clarke had been turned down for multiple positions in the Trump administration before being named a senior advisor and spokesman for America First in September 2017. Clarke’s association with the group ended last year.

Lewandowski’s firm Green Monster Consulting, meanwhile, was paid $75,000 for “strategy consulting” over the nine months he was America First’s senior advisor. He left in March 2018 to join Vice President Pence’s Great America PAC. (“Let Trump Be Trump,” the book Lewandowski wrote with fellow Trump campaign veteran David Bossie, is displayed behind the front desk of America First’s 8th floor suite in a shiny new office building in Crystal City, Virginia.)

Asked about their work for America First, Spicer, Clarke, and Pierson referred CNN to the group’s spokeswoman, Kelly Sadler. Sadler said these associates of the President were employed as “branding mechanisms” to help “establish ourselves as the Trump official PAC” by making media appearances, signing small-dollar donor letters, and appearing at events.

Walsh told CNN the super PAC does not plan on signing on any new surrogates. “Now we only have Spicer,” Walsh said. “Spicer’s kind of our principal person.”

Lewandowski did not respond to a request for comment.

What have they been doing?

A month before McMahon took over, America First spent $100,000 on television ads defending two stalwart Trump allies, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Both hail from strongly Republican districts and are in no danger of losing in 2020.

It’s this kind of spending on safe candidates that has some Republicans around Washington scratching their heads. The GOP operative close with the Trump campaign called it “general incompetence” and a signal that a change in focus was necessary.

Republicans are hopeful that under McMahon, America First can transform from an open joke in GOP circles to the juggernaut it will need to be to help Trump win reelection. “It’s just been a real junior varsity operation, and the President sorely needs the help,” said the operative.