How Trump’s team spent most of the $1.6 billion it raised over 2 years

By mid-October, Trump's team had $223 million in the bank, filings show.

October 24, 2020, 11:04 AM

President Donald Trump's reelection team kicked off 2020 with what seemed like an unbeatable cash advantage, boasting a massive fundraising operation, bolstered by the joint efforts of the Republican Party.

Fast-forward 10 months and they've burned through a whopping $1.4 billion of the more than $1.6 billion raised over the last two years, struggling to keep up with former Vice President Joe Biden, more than what former President Barack Obama's reelection campaign and the Democrats had raised and spent by the end of the 2012 cycle.

By mid-October, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party reelection team were left with $223.5 million in the bank. The Trump campaign itself only had $43 million entering the final three weeks of the presidential election.

The revealing figures, released as the two presidential candidates debated on stage Thursday night for the last time before Election Day, came after the campaign blew through $63 million in the first two weeks of October alone -- a critical time when it only brought in $44 million. The vast majority of the money spent during that time -- nearly $45 million -- went to television and online advertising, according to the latest disclosure report filed to the Federal Election Commission, as Biden and pro-Biden efforts ramped up his ad spending.

By comparison, the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party had a total of $331 million in the bank by mid-October -- with the Biden campaign boasting $162 million of that.

At the debate, Trump acknowledged his Democratic challenger has raised "tremendous amounts of money" but said "every time you raise money, deals are made," a similar rhetoric he has maintained during the 2016 election as he poured more than $66 million of his own money into his first White House bid. Back in 2015, he said "by self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists," but later took in six-figure donations during the general election. The president's massive reelection campaign this year, has been funded entirely by similarly small and big donors, with no contribution from the president himself.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at North Coast Air aeronautical services at Erie International Airport on Oct. 20, 2020, in Erie, Pa.
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at North Coast Air aeronautical services at Erie International Airport on Oct. 20, 2020, in Erie, Pa.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Trump's money fortunes have changed dramatically in just a few months: his campaign, the Republican National Committee and their two joint fundraising committees started out $180 million ahead of the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee this spring.

Republican National Committee spokesperson Mike Reed, however, maintained that the Republican Party in a "very strong financial position," comparing Trump's reelection cash on hand to that of presidential campaigns from previous elections around this time, including Trump's 2016 campaign.

"Because we have been breaking fundraising records for years, we were able to build the largest ground game operation in history," Reed said in a statement to ABC News. "This is something the Democrats simply cannot match, no matter how much late money they raise."

Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager also emphasized the Trump campaign had a lead over the Biden campaign on its "massive ground game, travel to key states, and ads on digital, TV, and radio.

"As Hillary Clinton proved when she outspent us 2-to-1 in 2016, no amount of money can buy the presidency -- voters have to be enthusiastic about casting their ballot for a candidate, and that's only happening for President Trump," Zager wrote in a statement to ABC News.

But some of the expenditures have raised eyebrows, including hundreds of millions that have gone to alleged "pass-through" vendors that have been accused of masking the ultimate recipient of the money. A portion of those expenditures have been the subject of a Federal Election Commission complaint.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks while President Donald Trump, shown in reflection, listens during the final presidential debate at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks while President Donald Trump, shown in reflection, listens during the final presidential debate at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

So where has the president's money gone?

Over the last two years, Trump's team has spent the largest portion of that cash on advertising -- more than $204 million on television and radio airtime and at least $286 million on various online, digital and text ads. Another significant chunk -- $208 million -- has gone to the campaign and the Republican Party's direct mail operation, a more traditional form of advertising.

Nearly $90 million was spent just to obtain or rent donor lists. Another $21 million was spent on fundraising consulting. And another $56 million spent on campaign merchandise and donor gifts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on purchasing Donald Trump Jr.'s two books, "Triggered" and "Liberal Privilege."

Reed said the RNC's voter contact operation, including field, data and digital spending, have been a major part of its spending, and that by the end of the cycle, the RNC alone will have spent $300 million on those efforts. "We are knocking over four million doors a week with our 2.5 million strong volunteer army, and reaching millions more on the phones," Reed said.

More than $5 million of campaign cash has also gone to Trump's various hotels, resorts and other buildings over the last two years, according to the records. Just in the last four months, Trump Victory, which raises money from some of Trump's most generous donors spent nearly $900,000 at Trump-branded properties for facility rental and catering. Critics say political spending at Trump properties, including that from the president's own campaign, is a conflict of interest, but the campaign and the Republican Party have maintained that there's nothing wrong with the practice since they pay market rates for venues and report the expenditures as required by law.

Another pricey line-item: legal bills. The president's team has mobilized an army of attorney's preparing for any potential post-Election Day legal battles, which could be costly. Over the past two years, the Trump campaign, the RNC and the shared committees have spent $41 million on legal matters, including battling several big-name legal challenges such as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and the congressional impeachment proceedings.

At least $55 million has been spent on payroll and other associated fees over the last two years, roughly the same amount spent on payroll by former President Barack Obama's reelection campaign in 2012. This includes more than $600,000 -- or more than $24,000 a month -- to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and $372,000 -- or roughly $20,000 monthly -- to Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. DNC Chairman Tom Perez receives about $17,500 a month, while Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield is paid about $9,000 a month.

Questions about staff payments

But it's difficult to glean just how much some of the president's top team members are making. Much of the payments are shrouded in secrecy by a host of obscure LLCs that are hard to connect to specific individuals that receive payments under general descriptions like "consulting," "services" or "research," which is common among many campaigns and groups across the aisle.

For example, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien hasn't received direct payments from the Trump campaign, but a firm connected to him named has. Revolution Strategies received more than $310,000 from the campaign for "political consulting" over the last two years.

Stepien's predecessor, Brad Parscale, received more than $17 million through his firm Parscale Strategy for digital and political consulting over the last two years, but it's unclear how much of that went into his pocket.

Parscale's firm, in particular, was subject of a FEC complaint in July, accusing the Trump campaign of obscuring nearly $170 million worth of campaign spending over the last two years through so-called "pass through" vendors," including Parscale's firm.

In the complaint, Campaign Legal Center claimed Parscale Strategy and American Made Media Consultants -- two companies set up and run by campaign leadership including Parscale -- appeared to provide a variety of services to the campaign, but really served as "clearing house" firms that dole out contracts and payments to various subcontractors and vendors without revealing the ultimate recipients of the donor money. The lack of disclosure of the campaign's payments to subcontractors, Campaign Legal Center wrote in the complaint, is a violation of the FEC rule that requires campaigns to itemize disbursements to its ultimate vendors.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump waves at the end of a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns in Gastonia, N.C., Oct. 21, 2020.
President Donald Trump waves at the end of a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns in Gastonia, N.C., Oct. 21, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

"Trump declared his 2020 candidacy on his first day of office and has been raising money ever since," said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan group. "But it is difficult to assess how the Trump campaign has burned through the money raised because it has disguised hundreds of millions of dollars of its spending."

American Made Media Consultants, which was set up and run by campaign leadership in 2018, is the single biggest recipient of the Trump reelection effort's money, receiving much of the massive advertising and paid media expenditures -- a whopping $453 million over the last two years, mostly for media placement and advertising, including $68 million in just the first two weeks of October.

On the accusations against Parscale Strategy and American Made Media Consultants, Fischer said, "This scheme flies in the face of transparency requirements mandated by federal law, and it leaves voters and donors in the dark about where the campaign's funds are actually going."

At the time the complaint was filed, Parscale told ABC News that "This is just political theater 100 days out." The Trump campaign, on the role of the two vendors and the payments, told ABC News at that time that the campaign complies with all campaign finance laws and regulations.

It's unclear if the Federal Election Commission has taken any action on the complaint.

ABC News' Will Steakin and Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.

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