Donald Trump’s decision to hire his 2016 campaign’s digital strategist, Brad Parscale, to run his re-election bid is a strategic bet that insularity and online virality can, once more, win him four years in the White House.
Parscale is not just a holdover from Trump’s first run. He is the rare adviser whose standing hasn’t been diminished by the first year in office and who retains the admiration of the president. To bolster his position, he is poised to bring in other advisers who check those two boxes. Knowledgeable sources say that among the senior staff Parscale is expected to assemble for Trump’s re-election effort is Katrina Pierson, a Trump loyalist and one of the 2016 campaign’s most prominent firebrands.
Three sources with knowledge of Parscale and Pierson’s relationship described Pierson, a former top spokeswoman for Trump in 2016, as “shoo-in for a position of her choosing” and as someone who could have her “her pick of the litter” for posts on the re-election team. These sources noted that a senior comms position was most likely, though any appointment would not be imminent and likely will be announced after the 2018 midterms.
Aside from having a close working and personal relationship with Parscale, Pierson has maintained her access to Trump’s inner circle. She has shown up at the White House for various events, and remains a TV favorite of President Trump and a friend of the family, despite having turned down an offer, early last year, to serve as former press secretary Sean Spicer’s deputy.
Still, some in Trump-world, even those who like her, cringe at memories from the campaign trail when Pierson made herself the story with headline-ready media appearances, such as her false statement about how President Barack Obama plunged the United States to war in Afghanistan.
Pierson declined to comment on this story. But should she be hired for the 2020 effort, she would join other mainstays of Trump’s political team. Michael Glassner, the campaign’s executive director, will be staying on, and an increasingly influential Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and an employee of Parscale’s consulting firm, will officially sign on with the re-election effort, according to the campaign. John Pence, the vice president’s nephew, is also doing some preliminary work for the campaign, a source close to the administration told The Daily Beast.
The emerging top echelon of the 2020 campaign illustrates the degree to which Trump’s political team remains an insular group. A year into his administration, the people the president trusts to re-elect him are, for the most part, the same individuals who helped propel him to the White House in the first place.
Parscale is one of those trusted few. His firm earned its eight-figure payments during the 2016 campaign when it deployed a Facebook-centric digital strategy and leveraged social media more effectively than arguably any previous presidential campaign. Parscale himself was reportedly one of the few campaign aides entrusted with access to Trump’s Twitter account
That success did not go unnoticed or unrewarded. Since last year, his firm, Parscale Strategies, has worked on behalf of the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, the RNC’s Trump campaign fundraising account, and America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.
That makes Parscale uniquely qualified to prioritize resources and political roles in a more efficient way for the re-election effort. But it also creates some legal pitfalls due to rules barring campaign-super PAC coordination. In order to effectively navigate those rules, Parscale’s firm and its clients will have to set up “firewalls” to ensure that his role on the campaign doesn’t inform the super PAC’s work, as that could be construed as illicit coordination.
But even granting full legal compliance, existing rules are often inadequate to address coordination issues.
“It’s a huge problem, and I think our current campaign finance laws and rules are ill-suited to address a scenario like this, and the FEC as currently constituted appears unlikely to do anything about it,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics group.
Parscale declined to speak on the record about his role on the 2020 re-election effort, underscoring his determination to avoid showboating or any perception that he is overshadowing the president himself. But as he does his best to navigate those legal issues, he also is likely to be plotting out a role for the Trump campaign in this year’s midterm election contests. Though the 2020 re-election is far off, sources say that Trump is likely to adopt a more aggressive political posture as Republicans try to hang out to thin majorities in both chambers of Congress.
“The main task is to activate the grassroots base for the midterms,” a source familiar with the campaign’s plans told The Daily Beast. The campaign can “directly use Trump’s voice” in that effort. “It’s hard for an outside PAC to fill that gap because of all the rules” barring campaign coordination.
The centrality of Trump himself is the key component of that effort. As the source conceded, “the president is really the campaign manager,” prone to trust his own instincts over anyone else’s.
It is for that reason, as well, that Parscale is viewed as a logical choice to run the re-election campaign. Never before has a digital strategist been given such a task. And while doing so reflects Trump’s affinity for social media as a messaging tool—an affinity that has only increased while in the White House—it also underscores the extent to which Trump World views elections as, essentially, an exercise in branding and marketing.
“What’s interesting to me about the Parscale hire is that dude was doing commercial internet stuff, and built the Trump winery website, and had no political exposure at all,” Michael Whitney, who ran digital fundraising for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast. “And then he comes in and runs the biggest small-dollar fundraising operation in presidential history... in just five months. Someone who understands how to rapidly scale a digital driven campaign is going to be the future of campaigns, and it sucks Republicans got to it first.”
Or, as Tim Lim, a Democratic operative and the founder of digital firm Precision Network put it: “It is clear that Republicans value digital experience and communications much more than Democrats do. Democrats treat digital like an ATM.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein