Updated on June 21 at 11:23 a.m.
Donald Trump hates disclosure: He won’t release his tax returns, asks volunteers to sign non-disclosure agreements, and fights the release of depositions. And looking at his most recent Federal Election Commission disclosure, it’s not hard to see why. The report is brutal for the presumptive Republican nominee.
Trump closed May with just $1.3 million cash on hand. That’s down from $2.4 million at the start of the month. The campaign raised just $5.6 million, even though the Trump campaign signed a major fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee in the middle of the month, and spent $6.7 million. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has $42.5 million on hand, up from $30.2 at the start of the month. She spent $14 million but raised $26.4 million. That doesn’t include bodies like Priorities USA, a super PAC that is backing Clinton and has $52 million. Pro-Trump super PACs are far behind.
The Republican Party, which has picked up some functions Trump has dropped, raised around a third of what it did in May 2012. Over the same stretch in 2012, Mitt Romney raised $23.4 million and closed with $17 million cash on hand—during a period in the campaign in which he was already getting outspent by his opponents.
One possible excuse for Trump’s lag is that small and cheap is better than big and expensive. In a statement Tuesday morning defending the numbers, Trump said, “Our campaign is leaner and more efficient, like our government should be.” It’s certainly true that the campaign is leaner, but there’s less proof of efficiency. Trump’s campaign team numbers 69, according to filings, which is about a tenth of the Clinton staff. But they’re not coming cheap (senior adviser Stephen Miller made $10,000 in May, suggesting a $120,000 salary), nor are the results especially good: Trump is trailing in every recent poll, and he’s lacking in crucial campaign functions, like building teams in battleground states.
Another excuse for poor fundraising is that Trump is wealthy enough to self-fund, so that his shortcomings in collecting other people’s money matter less. “If need be, there could be unlimited ‘cash on hand’ as I would put up my own money, as I have already done through the primaries, spending over $50 million dollars,” Trump said in his statement. In theory, that is true—though doubts persist about how much money he really has, and will continue until and unless he releases tax returns. Trump loaned his campaign more than $2 million to cover expenses, but that’s classified as a loan, rather than giving the money. In fact, one the most striking things about the report is how much money the campaign is paying to Trump-affiliated companies. The Mar-a-Lago Club, which he owns, received more than $432,000 for catering. Tag Air, which Trump also owns, got $350,000 for use of planes and helicopters. Even Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing pulled in $4,000. Trump Tower received rent for office space.
On occasions like this, it’s hard not to think of Trump’s comment in 2000: “It's very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Politico points out that Trump spent $208,000 on hats, while “by comparison, the campaign spent only $48,000 on data management and $115,000 on online advertising.” Those “Make America Great Again” hats are great merchandise, and useful for spreading the Trump brand. Data management? Not so much. But Trump has loaned himself more than $40 million now, and if he can’t ramp up his fundraising, he’ll never be able to pay himself back.
What the FEC report shows is how Trump has chosen perhaps the worst possible fundraising compromise. On the one hand, he has reversed course on his pledge to self-fund, a crucial primary-election talking point that allowed Trump to argue he was untainted by owing any donors. Yet even as he surrenders his purity, he’s not successfully raising much money. Hillary Clinton can’t claim any moral high ground on donations either, but she has $42.5 million in the bank to show for it.
Trump has shown signs that he understands the fundraising problem, at least in theory. The campaign is more aggressively sending out email fundraising pleas, including a solicitation on Tuesday morning in which Trump promised to match donations up to $2 million. “This is the first fundraising email I have ever sent on behalf of my campaign,” he wrote. “That’s right. The FIRST ONE.” (Overemphasis original.) Trump argues that the May report doesn’t tell the whole story, since he didn’t hold a fundraiser until May 26. That amounts to begging the question, though. He could have hosted fundraisers earlier; that he chose not to do so doesn’t really help his case.
He’s been hitting a series of fundraisers over the last couple weeks, which have sometimes drawn him away from swing states but, he claims, are bringing in much-needed cash. Trump is also leaning on bundlers like hedge-fund honcho Anthony Scaramucci. (Scaramucci’s sell to donors, according to BuzzFeed, is more of a veiled threat: “What if he wins? Do you want Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs to be the secretary of state and Gary Busey to be on the Supreme Court?”)
The bad report was filed Monday evening, capping a day of drama within the Trump campaign. At the start of the day, Trump fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a controversial figure who had battled with other members of the team. Over the course of the next few hours, reports began to suggest that Lewandowski had been shoved out as a result of intervention by Trump’s family. Meanwhile, another Trump aide, Michael Caputo, resigned from the campaign after an overly exuberant reaction to Lewandowski’s firing. Lewandowski has been seen as the leader of the “let Trump be Trump” faction within the campaign, battling against a faction that thinks the candidate needs to adapt his style to a general election. It’s not clear how much difference his departure will make, or whether a change in style will change Trump’s results. In the meantime, perhaps there’s a silver lining to the firings of Lewandowski and Caputo: Trump’s campaign may not be raising much money or producing good polling results, but at least the departures will cut down on payroll a bit.