His aides are wooing bundlers, and his campaign this week openly embraced a super PAC that is racing to collect millions.
As President Donald Trump gears up for a re-election battle in 2020, Team Trump is deploying all the instruments of a traditional campaign apparatus that he mocked during his first, unconventional bid for the White House.
In 2015, for instance, Trump tweeted that the “whole super PAC scam is very unfair to a person like me who has disavowed all PAC’s & is self-funding.”
This week, in sharp contrast, his campaign backed a super PAC, declaring in a statement that “there is one approved outside, non-campaign group, America First Action, which is run by allies of the President and is a trusted supporter of President Trump’s policies and agendas.”
In his first race, the real-estate mogul also was highly critical of deep-pocketed donors. “I don’t need anybody’s money,” Trump said in 2015 during his campaign launch speech. And in 2016, he told CNN that candidates become “psychologically” beholden to donors: “They owe them.”
Trump won the White House despite trailing far behind rival Hillary Clinton in fundraising, a deficit the campaign does not intend to run this time.
“The people who were on the 2016 campaign, they like to say that they were building the airplane while it was in flight,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communication director, told CNN. “To their everlasting credit, they landed that airplane.”
“The main difference between 2016 and 2020 is President Trump is the incumbent President of the United States, and we are building a campaign befitting an incumbent president,” he added.
The campaign is already amassing a historically large war chest in preparation for the battle. A senior campaign official said the campaign is on track this quarter to outpace its haul from the first three months of this year year, when it took in more than $30 million.
At the same time, the pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, and its nonprofit arm are planning to raise and spend $300 million during the 2020 election cycle – far exceeding the $78 million the groups plowed into the 2018 midterm elections.
On May 20, the nonprofit group, America First Policies, will kick off a tour of key electoral battlegrounds with an event in Jacksonville, Florida, featuring Vice President Mike Pence. The tour is aimed at building public support for Trump’s update of the North America Free Trade Agreement.
This week, Trump’s top aides huddled with roughly 200 potential fundraisers at the President’s hotel in downtown Washington as they worked to woo establishment figures who could tap their friends, family and business associates to “bundle” together donations to support what could grow to a $1 billion operation.
The six-hour event rolled out a bundling program aimed at tapping into the GOP donor class that partly avoided Trump during the last presidential cycle.
The prospective bundlers heard from campaign manager Brad Parscale, Pence, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, and other party leaders, who spelled out a strategy for raking in what the Trump team hopes will be roughly three times the amount raised in 2016.
The new bundling program already has about 200 enrollees and others who attended the kick-off this week have signed up or referred friends, a senior campaign official said.
One donor who joined the gathering this week said he went into the meeting skeptical that it would be a good use of time by the campaign’s top brass.
But he said he left impressed with the level of organization and detail in the presentation, including tips on how to raise money and a rundown of how the fundraising team would function.
Veteran GOP fundraiser Jack Oliver, who created former President George W. Bush’s bundling operation, is helping to structure the Trump bundler program.
“The Trump campaign has done a great job of working to capture people who might have sat out during the last cycle, or gave to other people,” Oliver told CNN.
Campaign officials and people familiar with the operation said Parscale and Todd Ricketts, finance chair of the RNC, have targeted donors who declined to open their checkbooks for Trump during the last presidential race.
“The Trump campaign in 2016 was like a startup,” Oliver said. “2020, the President’s campaign, led by Brad, recognizes that this is a very large operation, to take on what will be the best-funded Democratic attack machine in modern American history.”
Under an agreement announced earlier this year, Trump’s campaign and the RNC merged their field operations and fundraising efforts – giving the President a re-election machine unprecedented in modern politics.
Draining the swamp?
In 2016, Trump “ran on the idea that he was some sort of reformer, that he could drain the swamp and would not be beholden to the big-money donors and lobbyists,” said Larry Noble, the former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission and a CNN contributor. “He seems to have forgotten that. He’s pulling out all the stops.”
The campaign is taking other cues from traditional fundraising operations. Bundlers working on the Trump 2020 effort, for instance, will unlock an increasingly lavish set of perks as they climb the ladder of fundraising levels established in the Trump Victory program.
People who bring in at least $25,000 in donations will reach the “Trump Train” level and gain access to a retreat, two leadership dinners and a quarterly conference call, according to fundraising documents obtained by CNN.
The highest tier – the “Builders Club,” whose members must collect at least $100,000 – will score “commemorative Trump Victory gifts” and invitations to a host of campaign events.
Throughout his first White House bid, Trump argued that his wealth allowed him to avoid relying on special-interest groups and establishment donors for contributions.
“I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich,” Trump said the day he kicked off his 2016 campaign in the Trump Tower lobby.
Indeed, Trump plowed a significant chunk of his own money – more than $66 million – into his first White House bid. Much of it went into the primary campaign as he battled a crowded field of Republicans for the nomination.
A campaign official said it is “not the expectation” of the team that Trump will need to self-fund his re-election effort.
Super PAC power
The campaign’s embrace of America First this week was no surprise.
Trump’s allies made no secret that it was the campaign’s official outside vehicle by stocking it with key allies since its inception. Trump has been a guest of honor at events raising money for the group. Linda McMahon, a longtime Trump ally, recently left her Cabinet-level post as the head of the Small Business Administration to help oversee the organization.
But the campaign’s move to publicly embrace America First came as Team Trump worked to implicitly shun the political operation of another longtime ally, David Bossie, who served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager in fall 2016.
Bossie runs a political organization, the Presidential Coalition, that raised millions while purporting to support Trump. Trump was “livid” when he found out Bossie’s group was soliciting funds from Trump supporters and only spending a fraction on direct political activities, several people familiar with the President’s reaction told CNN earlier this week.
Bossie did not respond to interview requests, but has dismissed questions about his activity – reported by Axios and the Campaign Legal Center earlier this week – as “fake news.”
The Trump campaign’s embrace of America First prompted a Federal Election Commission complaint on Thursday from the Campaign Legal Center and End Citizens United, groups that support more limits on campaign spending.
They argue the campaign’s statement amounted to an improper solicitation of unlimited donations for the super PAC. Federal rules bar candidates from asking donors to contribute more than $5,000 to such groups.
A Trump campaign official said there was no solicitation of funds in the statement naming America First Action, and said the team ran the statement by its legal counsel before releasing it.
In the 2016 race, all outside groups spent a little more than $100 million to elect Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The $300 million fundraising goal set by the America First groups underscores the enormous growth of Trump’s money machine since his victory.
The America First groups will target six key states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, America First spokeswoman Kelly Sadler told CNN on Thursday.
The buildup, Sadler said, shows that Trump “is serious about re-election, that he’s serious about continuing the economic prosperity that he’s unleashed with his policies, and that’s he’s going all in.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.