Donald Trump has spent the last year and a half on the campaign trail arguing that he isn’t a politician—or, at the very least, that he’s not a typical one. And his new campaign rally cry, to “drain the swamp” in Washington, takes direct aim at mega-donors who have propelled Hillary Clinton’s political ascent.
But according to newly released FEC disclosures, Trump and the most prominent super PAC boosting him are swimming deep in the muck. They’re both contracting with the same no-name, Establishment-friendly media buying outfit. It’s an act that not only skirts federal laws governing campaigns and highlights just how little information about the big business of politics is available to the public.
The Trump campaign disclosed late last week that in September it paid $16 million to American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG), a company that buys airtime for candidates and organizations to run TV ads.
Unlike its client, AMAG keeps a very low profile; the company doesn’t even have a website. But its lawyer confirmed that it’s affiliated with a company called National Media Research, Planning & Placement (also known as National Media). The two affiliated groups have the same address in Alexandria, Va., just south of Washington D.C. Their lawyer, Jim Kahl, didn’t detail the nature of their relationship. The process of figuring out when and where to air the pricey TV ads that suck up so much of a campaign’s budget is a complex one, and takes a special set of skills. So campaigns hire outside firms, like National Media and AMAG, to do it for them.
And according to separate FEC disclosures, National Media works with a pro-Trump super PAC called Rebuilding America Now. From July through the end of September, the PAC paid the group more than $120,000 for political consulting and fundraising services, as its disclosures for that window of time show.
Now here’s where things get especially swamp-like. Rebuilding America Now is helmed in part by Alex Castellanos, a principal at the consulting group Purple Strategies. Castellanos vehemently opposed Trump during the Republican primaries, arguing his presidency would be dangerous and his candidacy would undermine Paul Ryan. But when the mogul got the nomination, Castellanos hopped aboard the Trump Train.
Jim Kahl, the attorney for National Media who confirmed its affiliation with AMAG, said the company has taken steps to prevent coordination between employees working for the pro-Trump super PAC and the Trump campaign. He didn’t give The Daily Beast any details on the steps the company has taken to prevent coordination and he didn’t detail the nature of their relationship.
And he doesn’t have to. Current campaign finance laws require only minimal disclosures regarding the work that companies like National Media do for the campaigns with which they contract.
Larry Noble, who heads the Campaign Legal Center, said this set-up points to weaknesses in American campaign finance law. As long as political consulting companies can give the FEC some sort of write-up saying they have a firewall in place to prevent coordination, they’re good.
“All they have to say is they have a firewall,” he said. “How effective they are is anybody’s guess.”
And the coziness this allows means that deep-pocketed donors can give massive massive sums to super PACs that are as close to campaigns as is humanly, legally possible.
“It shows the weakness of the whole concept of independent expenditures,” Noble said.
It also shows the extent to which the mechanics of Trump’s campaign pull him deep into a world to which he claims moral superiority and independence.
While Trump spent the Republican primary lambasting his opponents for being the puppets of billionaire donors, his campaign and allied super PACs are staying afloat thanks to mega donors’ largesse. Robert and Rebekah Mercer, a father-daughter duo who have over the past few years started pouring millions of dollars into conservative candidates and causes, have substantial influence in his campaign.
In September, Trump’s campaign paid $5 million to their data-management firm, Cambridge Analytica. The Mercers also help fund a pro-Trump super PAC, Make America Number 1, that previously backed Cruz until he lost to the flaxen-haired real estate mogul in the primary. That super PAC also contracts with Cambridge Analytica, to the tune of about $200,000 in September, according to its disclosures. Erik Prince, who founded the Blackwater, is a generous donor to the Mercers’ PAC. He recently started making frequent appearances on Breitbart News, a media outlet the Mercers reportedly help fund.
There’s an old line that goes like this: Politicians come to D.C. thinking it’s a cesspool, and find out it’s a hot tub. If the spending, connections, and affiliations that propel Trump’s (struggling) candidacy are any evidence, that’s something he would learn right quick.