As you can see, the news of the day is Donald Trump’s firing of war-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski never actually functioned as a campaign manager – more like what the modern campaign calls a body man or traveling press secretary. In recent months, Paul Manafort has, supposedly, been filling that role. So it’s not clear what effect his dismissal will have other than signaling to worried Republicans some desire for change and steadying Trump himself with an act of demonstrative dominance.
My real interest is in a different question: where’s the money?
I got onto thinking about this when I saw John McQuaid’s short piece in Forbes. As McQuaid notes, this is the gaping hole, the burning question at the center of Trump’s campaign. Reports suggest that Trump has been unwilling to undergo the ego effacement of calling high dollar Republican donors and asking for money. His campaign has virtually no money in the bank ($2.4m at last count).
Even if Trump can’t not be Trump, the damage of being Trump could at least be off-set by pouring money into advertising in key swing states and field work. But at this moment, the Clinton campaign (and pro-Clinton superPACs) is rolling out a barrage of targeted swing state advertising focused on solidifying and embedding the highly negative image Trump has built for himself over the last year and especially the last eight weeks. That advertising is going entirely unanswered by the Trump campaign. Trump’s been reduced to making emergency appeals to raise $100,000. And running ads like this which a reporter covering the campaign got in her Instagram feed.
— Ali Vitali (@alivitali) June 20, 2016
As the Instagram campaign suggests, the Trump fundraising apparatus appears to be working at the Ginsu knives level of marketing. But that’s likely unfair since that decades long campaign for the schlock iconic cutlery must have netted a huge sum of money – and I hear they’re actually decent knives.
So it all comes down to, where’s the money? We tend to look at Trump’s threadbare campaign as a product of epic disorganization or the candidate’s mercurial personality. But as the mammoth tv ad campaigns ramp up unanswered and field operations fail to materialize, those explanations are really no longer sufficient.
Trump may be unwilling to abase himself by dialing for dollars and his digital fundraising may be anemic. But at the scale of Trump’s purported wealth, the sums in question are actually paltry. It may take a billion dollars to run a presidential campaign. But at this moment Trump is in dire need of a few million dollars. To go back to cash on hand, Trump currently has $2.4 million and Clinton has just over $30 million. Remember, Trump is allegedly worth $10 billion, which at the risk of stating the obvious means he is worth ten thousand million dollars. Someone in that position might be hard pressed to quickly produce billions of dollars or even hundreds of million in actual cash. But we’re talking tens of millions or even just a few million dollars he needs right now.
Trump may be stingy. He may be saying that the RNC should take responsibility for fundraising, which is something it’s clearly not capable of doing. (The RNC has massive fundraising capacity but it can’t simply take on singlehanded what the candidate was expected to raise.) But as big a disaster as Trump’s campaign is at the moment he stands a real shot at being the next president of the United States. It is simply not credible that he is standing on principle in not giving his campaign any more money at such a critical moment when his bid is being so deeply damaged.
The only credible answer is that it is difficult or perhaps even impossible for him to produce these comparatively small sums. If that’s true, his claim to be worth billions of dollars must either be a pure sham and a fraud or some artful concoction of extreme leverage and accounting gimmickry, which makes it impossible to come up with actual cash. It’s true that he’s already loaned his campaign over $40 million, which at least suggests a substantial amount of liquid assets to draw on. But we’ve never really known where that money came from or whether it needs to be repaid to some other party. Indeed, Trump’s unwillingness to give up his right to be repaid, essentially reimbursed for the primary campaign, by GOP high rollers has always been a telling but largely ignored detail.
It’s been a subject of endless fascination for many to try to make sense of Trump’s business empire and a producer of schadenfreude on an epic scale for those poking holes in his account of his billions. Perhaps later this week he’ll prove me totally wrong and announce he’s loaning himself another $100 million or $200 million. But I doubt it. If he could, why would he have allowed himself to get into this money crunch? This is now perhaps the critical question in the campaign: what happens if Donald Trump is effectively broke and can’t produce critical funds for his campaign at make or break moments let alone self-fund the whole endeavor?