WASHINGTON — President Trump’s campaign manager and a circle of allies have seized control of the Republican Party’s voter data and fund-raising apparatus, using a network of private businesses whose operations and ownership are cloaked in secrecy, largely exempt from federal disclosure.
Working under the aegis of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, with the cooperation of Trump appointees at the Republican National Committee, the operatives have consolidated power — and made money — in a way not possible in an earlier, more transparent analog era. Since 2017, businesses associated with the group have billed roughly $75 million to the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and a range of other Republican clients.
The takeover of the Republican Party’s under-the-hood political machinery parallels the president’s domination of a party that once shunned him, reflected in his speedy impeachment trial and summary acquittal. Elected Republicans have learned the political peril of insufficient fealty. Now, by commanding the party’s repository of voter data and creating a powerful pipeline for small donations, the Trump campaign and key party officials have made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to mount modern, digital campaigns without the president’s support.
The process has not been exactly frictionless, shot through with accusations of empire-building and profiteering by the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and his allies. Mr. Parscale’s flagship firm, Parscale Strategy, has billed nearly $35 million to the Trump campaign, the R.N.C. and related entities since 2017 — the vast bulk of it, he says, passed along to advertising and digital firms.
What’s more, the move to consolidate voter data came at the expense of a competing data vehicle developed by the conservative activist Koch brothers, provoking resentment from Koch allies, especially in the Senate. And a fierce pressure campaign to centralize fund-raising on the new platform, a for-profit company that Mr. Trump branded WinRed, brought dissent from candidates initially reluctant to sign on, as well as competitors who believed they were being pushed aside without a fair hearing.
For all that, WinRed, created last summer, has given the party an overdue counterweight to ActBlue, the Democrats’ small-donor fund-raising juggernaut. With WinRed, donors could contribute with a few clicks, and candidates could reap windfalls through joint appeals with the president. In its first six months, capitalizing on the Republican base’s outrage over impeachment, WinRed raised $100 million, a fast start, though still well behind the roughly $1 billion raised last year by ActBlue.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
“It is completely, thoroughly ironic that Trump, who ran against anything to do with the R.N.C. and the establishment, is the guy who is breathing new life into the party,” said WinRed’s chairman, Henry Barbour. Perhaps no one better represents the new outside-in reality than Mr. Barbour — nephew of the former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour — who once said it would be “very hard” to vote for Mr. Trump.
The younger Mr. Barbour is also chairman of the other central pillar of the Republican machine, Data Trust, a storehouse of personal, commercial and demographic voter data collected from state parties and voter files or bought from data brokers (or from WinRed, itself a vital source of donor information). Data Trust, a private company controlled by a board of Republican grandees, provided much of the raw material behind the Republicans’ digital-messaging advantage in 2016 — a deficit that the Democrats, after leading on tech during the Obama years, are now struggling to close amid the divisive funk of this primary season.
The Parscale-led group — including Katie Walsh Shields and her husband, Mike Shields, both former R.N.C. chiefs of staff; and the party’s former digital director, Gerrit Lansing — has also presided over the creation of a number of other political tools, from the president’s affiliated super PACs to a forthcoming party-controlled news app intended to produce cheerleading content.
Mr. Parscale declined to comment in detail for this article. But he and his associates have said that private companies give them greater operational flexibility, given the constraints of campaign-finance laws. (ActBlue, by contrast, is a nonprofit. Both entities, though, are required to disclose individual donors.) Still, the millions moving through opaque private businesses have left even the president perpetually concerned that Mr. Parscale and his team are making too much money, according to campaign and White House staff members.
The Trump family looms over the whole operation, starting with Mr. Kushner. While his White House portfolio has variously encompassed everything from immigration to the Middle East, his most consistent assignment has been informal campaign chairman, overseeing the most vital arm of the new family business: politics.
According to two people with knowledge of the matter, Parscale Strategy has also been used to make payments out of public view to Lara Trump, the wife of the president’s son Eric, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., who have been surrogates on the stump and also taken on broader advisory roles. Their presence makes for an odd dynamic between a campaign manager and a candidate’s family.
During a campaign appearance last summer in Orlando, Ms. Guilfoyle confronted Mr. Parscale: Why were her checks always late? Two people who witnessed the encounter said a contrite Mr. Parscale promised that the problem would be sorted out promptly by his wife, Candice Parscale, who handles the books on many of his ventures.
A Data Arms Race
In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential run, the Republican Party released a 100-page report that many considered an autopsy. Reince Priebus, then the R.N.C. chairman, offered this blunt assessment: “Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital.”
While Mr. Trump’s team shredded its core recommendation — a tolerant immigration policy and outreach to women and minorities — it embraced the call for technological change.
Previously, parties had spent heavily on television advertising, but now the R.N.C. moved to rebuild around Data Trust, which it had recently helped establish. The idea was compelling: If state and national party committees and campaigns fed information into one place, it could create a deeper understanding of voters. If that place were outside the party, fund-raising limits would not apply. Contractors were fired, and much of the R.N.C.’s data staff was moved into Data Trust, which effectively became an off-campus arm of the party.
“Naturally we faced opposition from a lot of the entrenched interests who had business models that benefited from the old way of doing things,” said Mr. Shields, the R.N.C. chief of staff in 2013 and 2014.
That included the Koch brothers and their data vehicle, i360, which built personality profiles of millions of voters and was used by a number of campaigns. They weren’t the only skeptics who worried that the committee was steering business to its pet company. Aides to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, believed that Data Trust was inferior to its competitor, and Mr. McConnell gave senators the option of using either.
The battle came to a head in mid-2016, when Mr. Priebus and Ms. Walsh-Shields, who had become R.N.C. chief of staff the previous year, visited the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She accused the committee of working against the interests of the party and its presumptive presidential nominee, Mr. Trump. From there, the meeting devolved into shouting, several Republicans with direct knowledge of the clash said.
While Ms. Walsh-Shields said in a statement that she did not recall the specific meeting, she added: “I have found that quite often when a woman in a position of power disagrees with a man, it is later referred to as a bad meeting.”
She said the Senate committee’s staff was “bizarrely very beholden to using i360 and the Koch brothers’ system,” while Mr. Priebus’s general position was that the party would help pay campaigns’ staff expenses only if those aides were “going to be using — and gathering — data that would help elect the president.”
In the end, some Senate Republicans continued to use the Koch data.
Money was another point of contention. Some Senate committee staff members chafed at a consulting contract given to Mr. Shields by Data Trust, given Ms. Walsh-Shields’s influence, though she had briefly left the R.N.C. in 2017 during the period when it was awarded. (Mr. Barbour said Mr. Shields “provided tremendous value.”) Data Trust also chronically needed to purchase new state voter files and pay its staff and vendors like Mr. Shields. The party has pumped nearly $15 million into the company since 2016, filings show.
Building relations with Senate Republicans became secondary after Mr. Trump secured the nomination. Ms. Walsh-Shields struck an unlikely alliance with Mr. Parscale, then the Trump campaign digital director, when the two began sharing a Trump Tower office.
Mr. Parscale, now 44, was a small-time San Antonio web entrepreneur with a gift for salesmanship. Ms. Walsh-Shields, 35, had worked her way up through the political ranks on the strength of her fund-raising abilities and knowledge of the party’s internal workings. With Mr. Kushner’s blessing and Data Trust’s information — and some help from the now-defunct, controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica — Mr. Parscale focused on targeting Facebook ads at voters.
Karl Rove, campaign manager and confidant to President George W. Bush, was an early backer of Data Trust and has been informally advising Mr. Parscale. He wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that technology had played a critical role in battleground states, adding, “Data Trust was a big reason why Donald Trump won the 2016 election.”
Building a Cash Machine
Just before the Republicans lost the House in 2018, Mr. Kushner convened a cadre of operatives at the Trump family’s Washington hotel to confront a rising threat to the president.
Republicans had watched with alarm as ActBlue helped Beto O’Rourke, a previously obscure Texas congressman, pull in more than $50 million for his improbably serious challenge to Senator Ted Cruz. Megadonors warned Mr. Kushner that, come 2020, they would not make up for the party’s small-donor deficit.
Republicans had fund-raising tools, but by coalescing around a single vendor like ActBlue, candidates could raise money jointly and more easily share data on contributors. There were several contenders. But to Mr. Kushner and Mr. Parscale, who by then was the 2020 campaign manager, only one vendor was acceptable, according to several people with knowledge of the deliberations: a company called Revv which had already been processing payments for the campaign.
Revv had been co-founded by Mr. Lansing, who was well regarded as a tech-savvy operator and for raising alarms about ActBlue for years. But in 2017, Politico reported that, after taking over as the R.N.C.’s digital director the year before, he had encouraged Republican campaigns to use Revv, earning a $909,000 payout from the company. Some party veterans viewed this as self-dealing.
By the summer of 2019, WinRed was created atop Revv’s platform, but only after negotiations that ended with the Senate campaign committee, and R.N.C. representatives, imposing restrictions that blocked Mr. Lansing from selling WinRed in the future and tightening control of firms he could hire.
Mr. Lansing, in a statement, called WinRed “the work of seven months of lawyering to ensure every major stakeholder would be happy with all data, financial and ownership arrangements.”
The new company was a joint venture between Revv and Data Trust, with 60 percent of profits going to Revv. (WinRed charges campaigns 3.8 percent, plus 30 cents per credit card transaction.) Officials involved would not detail Mr. Lansing’s remuneration. Mr. Parscale, Ms. Walsh-Shields and Mr. Shields do not own stakes, according to financial records reviewed by The New York Times.
WinRed became ascendant, and this time the Trump team and Senate Republicans joined in a pressure campaign to convert holdouts. Mr. McConnell told colleagues at a lunch in mid-2019 that his personal goal was to “shut down all the competitors,” according to one senator who was surprised at the majority leader’s directness. The party even sent a cease-and-desist letter to one of the losing contenders, Anedot, instructing it to remove G.O.P. logos from solicitations.
With or without a stake in WinRed, key aides have positioned themselves at the center of a formidable political machine. Ms. Walsh-Shields’s consulting firm receives a $25,000-a-month R.N.C. retainer and 1 to 5 percent of money it raises for the party’s 2020 convention. Mr. Shields’s firm, Convergence Media, represents clients ranging from the National Republican Congressional Committee to Representative Devin Nunes of California, one of the president’s staunchest defenders against impeachment.
But it is Mr. Parscale who has most often been the focus of Mr. Trump’s complaints that those around him are making too much money from his name and brand. Mr. Parscale has not always discouraged suspicions. A few weeks before the 2016 election, the campaign staff gathered at the Whiskey Trader, a watering hole near Trump Tower, to play beer pong and brace for near-certain defeat. In walked Mr. Parscale, returning from dinner with a new campaign hire.
“I’m making so much money!” Mr. Parscale declared, inserting an expletive, according to two people who were present.
Mr. Parscale, in a statement, called their account “untrue and ridiculous,” but since his appointment as campaign manager, he has bought a $2.4 million canalside home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two condos, owned with his family, together worth $2 million; and a Ferrari. A campaign official attributed the spending to Mr. Parscale’s relocation and divestment from businesses in Texas.
But after a rival aide left an underlined copy of a Daily Mail story detailing his spending on the president’s desk, Mr. Trump summoned Mr. Parscale for a pointed lecture, according to a senior White House official.
Others in his circle have made purchases of their own. Mr. Lansing bought a $1.7 million home in Washington last year, while Ms. Walsh-Shields and Mr. Shields bought a $2 million beach house in the Florida panhandle. Asked about the house, Ms. Walsh-Shields referred a reporter to her mother, who said the down payment and mortgage payments had come mostly from her. Mr. Shields had also recently sold the house he owned before their marriage.
That Ms. Walsh-Shields has endured is noteworthy. While Vice President Mike Pence said, in a statement, that “we are grateful for her hard work, loyalty and professionalism,” Mr. Trump has privately referred to her as a ‘leaker,’ blaming her for unflattering media coverage during her brief tenure as White House deputy chief of staff in 2017. He has pressed Ronna McDaniel, the party chairwoman, about Ms. Walsh-Shields’s role in recent days. And during a meeting last summer, after prodding by his longtime security consultant, Keith Schiller, the president asked if Ms. McDaniel trusted her, according to people with knowledge of the exchanges. “I do,” Ms. McDaniel replied. “She works for me.”
‘We Have the Upper Hand’
Start-ups have proliferated around the Trump campaign.
A company called Excelsior Strategies, run by employees at Mr. Shields’s firm, Convergence, was contracted to rent Mr. Trump’s crown jewel, his list of some 20 million donors; Mr. Shields said that only the campaign profited from the arrangement. And Opn Sesame, a start-up run by Gary Coby, a Parscale protégé, is being paid $200,000 to $300,000 a month through the R.N.C., according to campaign filings.
When the Trump campaign’s digital operation recently moved to its own floor at the campaign’s Northern Virginia headquarters, much of it was being run by Mr. Coby, who recently merged his operations with the R.N.C.’s data team. Opn Sesame’s specialty is texting voters, a burgeoning and lightly regulated field that is expected to be a factor in the 2020 campaign.
To allay Mr. Trump’s concerns, tens of millions of dollars worth of campaign advertising that once ran through Parscale Strategy has been redirected to a new company, American Made Media, which is run by a Parscale lieutenant. There are no public records detailing the company’s financial structure; Mr. Parscale and other advisers said they did not profit from it. Mr. Parscale has declined to provide detailed accounting of his network of interlocking businesses, and has told associates he follows Mr. Trump’s directive, relayed through Ms. McDaniel, that he make no more than $700,000 or $800,000 for his campaign work.
Even to insiders, the campaign’s activities can seem opaque.
Last fall, Mr. Pence’s office scheduled his first visit to the headquarters, to get a firsthand look. But when the day came, Mr. Parscale canceled, even though the visit was already on the vice president’s official schedule. Mr. Parscale, who spends much of his time working from his Florida home — though he recently said he would relocate to Washington — told Mr. Pence’s office that the campaign’s landlord had vetoed the idea, fearing a vice-presidential visit would disrupt other tenants. Mr. Pence was puzzled not to learn sooner, and the visit has not been rescheduled, two officials with knowledge of the episode said.
For the moment, such concerns are muted as the Trump campaign, the R.N.C. and other affiliated committees raised $155 million in the final three months of 2019, a 23 percent increase over the previous quarter that was buoyed by the impeachment proceedings. The digital operation overseen by Mr. Coby and Mr. Parscale has been developing a series of new products, including a news app for volunteers to dole out Trump-friendly content, republish Trump-world tweets and raffle MAGA hats. An arm of the campaign has also hired a company called Phunware, which specializes in tracking cellphone locations; a senior campaign official said the company was hired to develop an app, not track people.
The Democrats are trying to regroup, but their efforts have been scattershot. A year ago, the party installed its former chairman, Howard Dean, to create a Data Trust for the left, but the momentum around the venture has lagged.
“We’re very far behind right now,” said Mikey Dickerson, a former Obama administration official who is chief technology officer at Alloy, a nonprofit tech venture on the left. “They got motivated by the stories from the 2008 and 2012 campaigns saying that the Democrats had an insurmountable advantage,” he said, adding that it “caused our side to be complacent.”
Most Republican officeholders have succumbed to the WinRed pressure campaign. One late convert was Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who learned the power of being linked to Mr. Trump’s money machine when WinRed unexpectedly sent out a joint fund-raising appeal that brought in a “six-figure sum in a single day, which is huge in a down-ballot race,” said Tim Cameron, a Tillis adviser and former digital director at the Republican senatorial committee.
Without Mr. Trump’s victory, “there’d be nothing at the scale of WinRed,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s one election, and we have the upper hand.”