A Brief Guide to Donald Trump's Deeply Weird Campaign Finance Operation

A new FEC filing revealed that the presumptive Republican nominee has very little money in his campaign war chest—and that the money he does have has been spent in some very strange ways.
June 24, 2016, 9:30pm
Donald Trump arrives at his Trump Turnberry Resort in Ayr, Scotland on June 24, 2016. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

You know that guy running for president who, despite never having held elected office, is actually doing pretty well because he's perceived as a great businessman? As you might have heard, that guy's campaign has been having serious money problems. Earlier this week, in the middle of the night, Donald Trump's campaign filed its Federal Election Commission (FEC) disclosures for June, and everyone flipped out at just how little money the real estate mogul actually has in his campaign war chest. There was a hashtag and everything.

But the baffling, sometimes hilarious, and not-so-secret practices that Trump's filing revealed, along with the analysis that emerged throughout the week, didn't just show us how Candidate Trump was doing business. It also gave us a peak behind the Wizard of Oz-style curtain of Trump's businessman persona, leaving some question as to whether The Donald is really all that great and powerful.

The main takeaway, of course, was that as of Monday night, the Trump campaign had $1.3 million in cash on hand. By contrast, Hillary Clinton's campaign reported a $42 million war chest for the same period. Bernie Sanders, who is still technically running but has, for all intents and purposes is effectively done, has $9.2 million—seven times more than the presumptive Republican nominee. Even Ben Carson, the sleepwalking neurosurgeon who briefly ran for president this year, has more money than Trump.

According to Trump, this is because his campaign is "leaner and more efficient, like our government should be." By implication, the filing should show that the his campaign was shrewd, frugal even, in how it spent what little money it had last month. Instead, it looks like, well, Trump.

The vast majority of spending detailed in June's report went toward "Make America Great Again" swag—$907,000 on t-shirts, mugs, and stickers alone, along with air travel receipts totaling just shy of $1 million according to CNN's analysis of the filing. Those pooled figures dwarf the $150,000 the campaign paid in April and May to Rick Reed Media, the Washington political firm that creates television ads for Trump's campaign.

It's also more than the $115,000 spent on internet ads covered by the June filing—$35,000 of which went to a company called "Draper Sterling." Yes, that name is more or less a Mad Men reference, and appears to refer to a janky advertising company run out of a suburban house. But according to Think Progress, which looked into what the hell Draper Sterling even is, this "advertising" company doesn't actually perform any recognizable advertising services. Thanks to Draper Sterling's apparent efforts at obfuscation, along with legal complaints that have been filed against it, it seems plausible that Draper Sterling is actually just some kind of scam.

Browsing the report for a look at the campaign's day-to-day operations provides some insight into how Trump and his operatives think about his presidential bid. Venue and equipment rental places with names like Wizbang Solutions—which has received more than $2 million over the course of Trump's campaign—Laugh-N-Leap, and Spaghetti Warehouse are listed alongside more mysterious expenditures, like $156,000 to a company with the Reaganesque name of Morning in America LLC that apparently conducts ballot access consulting.

Then of course, there were the significant portions of Trump's spending that went into his own companies, such as Mar-a-Lago, Trump's resort in Palm Beach, Florida. According to an Associated Press review of Trump's June FEC filing, a full 20 percent of the campaign's expenditures listed went to Trump-owned entities—one of which was Donald Trump himself. (An anonymous FEC official told Fox News that those were reimbursements for the candidate's out-of-pocket expenses.)

In light of all this, you'd be forgiven for thinking the likely Republican nominee's presidential campaign is in disarray, with not a whole lot of hope of winning a general election against a better-funded and better-staffed Democrat. In the aftermath of the big LOL-Trump-Is-Broke reveal, the candidate faced familiar questions about whether his campaign was in a "death spiral," and calls from Republicans to prevent his nomination. But it's a little premature for that.

"The establishment left and the media shouldn't be so quick to dance on the grave of Donald Trump's fundraising operation,"said Erik Altieri, a spokesperson for Mayday PAC, the pro-campaign finance reform political action committee founded by Larry Lessig, said in an email on Wednesday. Altieri was hesitant to criticize Trump for his finances, he explained, "given the alternative for a Republican nominee typically is to rely heavily on large contributions from millionaire supporters, Super PAC's, and corporate interests."

But while comparing war chests can be kind of a meaningless pissing contest in US politics—Sanders, for example, frequently made headlines this year for raising more money than Clinton, although it did little to change the end result. But tradition tells us that what little money the Trump campaign has, probably needs to be spent the way Hillary Clinton is spending hers: on TV ads. At this point, the Clinton campaign has budgeted 167 times as much money as Trump has on reserving slots for her campaign commercials going into the general election.

There are signs that Trump is slowly waking up to this reality. On Wednesday, his campaign claimed to have raised $3 million in a single day, after sending out an extremely effective email to supporters. (It's worth noting that on a particularly good day in February, Bernie Sanders raised more than twice that amount.)

Then on Thursday, a Trump campaign donor named Doug Deason tipped off The Wall Street Journal that the candidate had given his semi-official support to a super PAC called "Make America Number I" run by hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. That's a marked shift for a candidate who has spent months boasting about his lack of allegiance to Big Money donors, saying things like "I don't have to give you a website because I'm self-funding my campaign. I'm putting up my own money."

But in a characteristically Trumpian case of mixed messaging, the campaign also announced Thursday that the real-estate mogul had forgiven $50 million in loans to his own campaign. And in an appearance on CNBC to brag about the campaign's new fundraising windfall this week, Trump's national finance chairman, Steve Mnuchin, curiously stated that the fundraising efforts were a "mistake," and "not in line with our marketing."

Of course, this is Trump we're talking about: Being shocked that his campaign finances are a mess is a little like pulling over a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe that's somehow doing 80 on the freeway, opening up the hood, and going "Hey, that's not an engine!" Did you really expect to find a regular old engine when you looked in there?

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