Brad Parscale
Credit...Bobby Doherty for The New York Times

Can the Trump Campaign Rewrite the Story of the Trump Presidency?

Brad Parscale sees a path to victory through discounted Facebook ads and keeping Trump on TV.

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It was late January, and Brad Parscale was sitting in the Trump campaign’s Beltway headquarters, which occupies an upper floor of a glass-box tower in Arlington, Va. The low hum of activity served as a reminder that, for Donald Trump, the 2020 campaign had barely begun. “Right now, we’re doing more prospecting — finding donors from people signed up in our email lists or through their phone numbers,” he explained.

At that moment, Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, had every reason to believe that his operation could deliver another four years to the president. The campaign, in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, would raise more than $60 million by the end of the month, with over $200 million cash on hand. By comparison, the eventual Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden, had only $7.1 million in the bank. Despite, or perhaps because of, his recent impeachment, Trump’s Gallup job-approval rating stood at 49 percent, a personal high for his presidency. Trump is known to devour statistical good tidings and is sometimes briefed on them by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser. Parscale, though, considers approval ratings, and polling in general, to be of dubious value. Fifteen percent of Trump’s votes in 2016, he said, came from people who didn’t approve of the candidate but for a variety of reasons cast their ballots for him anyway.

Other figures were more meaningful to Parscale. The campaign said it had gathered the cellphone numbers of about 35 million Trump supporters since early 2018. More than a million new donors contributed to Trump’s operation and the Republican National Committee throughout the monthslong impeachment inquiry then nearing its conclusion in Congress, which the president’s base viewed as a sham designed to thwart their electoral will. The vastness of Trump’s donor base now afforded Parscale the luxury to design ads for swing voters and even groups like Latinos and African-Americans that did not support Trump during the previous election. Such an effort would have been unthinkable for Trump’s cash-poor 2016 operation, given that it is far more expensive to persuade an undecided or skeptical individual (by one prominent Republican campaign strategist’s reckoning, anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per voter) than to turn out one of your own (roughly $20 to $30). Sitting in his office, Parscale told me that his staff had identified 110 million likely Trump voters in the U.S., and, he added, according to polls he had seen, “we could win this just by getting about 72 million of them to show up. You could in theory win without persuading anyone. But why not do both and win in a landslide?”

“I mean, he’s had a heck of a six months,” Parscale went on, ticking off a few of the accomplishments: a trade deal with China, the killing of the Iranian general Qassim Suleimani, unemployment numbers lower than any president’s in half a century and a soaring Dow Jones industrial average that, he thought, could conceivably reach 35,000 by Election Day. “If it gets to 36,000, he’s doubled the size of the economy in one term,” Parscale marveled. (In fact, the Dow would have to reach nearly 40,000 to double its position when Obama left office.) “Nobody’s ever done that.” That day, Jan. 23, it would close at 29,160 — and this was in spite of jittery reactions to reports hours earlier that Chinese authorities were curtailing travel to and from the city of Wuhan on account of a mysterious new disease.

China had by then been publicly battling the novel coronavirus for nearly a month. Three days before I spoke with Parscale, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first reported case of Covid-19 in the U.S., a 35-year-old man in Washington State who had recently returned from Wuhan. On Jan. 31, after nearly 400,000 travelers had arrived in the U.S. on direct flights from China since the outbreak there became public knowledge, Trump announced a ban on any incoming travelers (with some exceptions, including U.S. citizens and their families) that would take effect in 48 hours.

[The Times analyzed 260,000 words spoken by President Trump during the pandemic.]

In the weeks that followed, as the pandemic swept the United States, its grave effects would call into question nearly all of the first-term bragging points that Parscale had listed to me in late January. That month began with a single known fatality in the U.S. By the end of March, the death toll from Covid-19 exceeded 4,000, with cases in every state, red and blue alike. Two weeks into April, the number of deaths surpassed 25,000, an astonishing figure that would increase by tens of thousands by the end of the month. As of this writing, more than 26 million people have filed unemployment claims. Nearly all of the stock-market gains that took place during Trump’s presidency have evaporated.

The Trump administration remained largely frozen or actively in denial throughout the crucial month of February until the middle of March, at which point Trump seemed torn between the need for a forceful response and the fear of what owning the crisis could do to his re-election chances. He variously blamed Democratic governors for needing so many ventilators, hospitals for squandering protective equipment and the media for everything else. His petulance, obsession with ratings, distrust of experts, affection for conspiracy theories and preference for self-serving lies over uncomfortable truths has stood in sharp contrast to how his two immediate predecessors in the White House, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, comported themselves in the aftermaths of the 2008 financial crisis and 9/11.

Trump has pronounced himself a “wartime president” struggling against an “invisible enemy,” suggesting the hope that he might benefit from the nation’s shared sense of embattlement. The question is whether voters will see him that way or judge him missing in action. The boost in approval he enjoyed early in the pandemic was short-lived and much smaller than other presidents in recent decades have received amid national emergencies; by the middle of April it stood, according to Gallup, at a familiar (for Trump) 43 percent. More ominous, according to a mid-April Morning Consult poll, support for the president’s handling of the coronavirus among senior citizens — a stronghold of his electoral support — dropped 20 points in the preceding month. On the other hand, his approval among Republicans remained as stable, and as high (93 percent), as it has been throughout the rest of his presidency.

ImagePresident Trump speaking about the coronavirus in the White House press briefing room.
Credit...Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

The selling of a president to voters under such circumstances has no precedent in the history of American politics. Herbert Hoover had three years to try to convince the electorate that the Great Depression was a consequence of World War I, that his administration had staved off catastrophe and that his Democratic opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, would usher in a crippling expansion of federal power. (And he failed.) Parscale will have had eight months to persuade voters that the Trump campaign’s official slogan, “Keep America Great,” accurately reflects the state of the country they are seeing with their own eyes.

“I don’t tend to be a person who panics about the future,” Parscale told me when we spoke again in early April. “A good fundamental structure, having people in place, having the right kind of people, understanding what your purpose is, is much more important than worrying about how to do it where.” Parscale, 44, was speaking by phone from his home office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a 3,500-square-foot four-bedroom canal-front residence where he had been confined for much of the past month, along with his wife, his 20-year-old daughter and their two Labradoodles. In some other respects, little had changed. Parscale still maintained that he had absolutely no doubt of his campaign’s superiority to Biden’s. “Right now, if it’s Trump versus Biden, we destroy them,” he predicted. “It’s like we’re rolling in tanks and they’re playing with pellet guns.”

Those who know Parscale have come to expect monologues with equal doses of random data and salesman’s bravado. A Kansas-bred college-basketball player turned San Antonio-based web designer who improbably ascended to his job as, in Trump’s words, “the world’s tallest campaign manager” (6-foot-8), he and his boss seem like a match conceived in Hollywood. Parscale often wears pricey three-piece tailored suits, which, combined with his thinning crest of spiked hair and tufted beard, give him the appearance of a roadie for a metal band coming correct for his grandmother’s funeral.

I had been talking to him intermittently since July 2019, on through the public eruption of the Ukraine scandal and resulting impeachment inquiry in September, and into the new year, when Trump was acquitted in the Senate and it became increasingly apparent that his Democratic opponent would be Biden, the candidate Trump had asked the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on. In our conversations over this period, Parscale affected indomitability, and not without some cause. Of the 18 incumbent presidents who have run for re-election since 1900, only five have lost. Although Trump remains historically unpopular, he managed to prevail in 2016 in the face of such disapproval and today commands the allegiance of his Republican base like no incumbent in recent memory.

Parscale’s digital operation helped propel Trump to victory in 2016 with only a fraction of the resources that the incumbent’s campaign now possesses. Trump won back then with skittish support from the Republican National Committee; today, the two campaign operations share an office. The president’s son-in-law and de facto campaign chairman, Jared Kushner, has seen to it that there is no daylight between the campaign and the R.N.C., and that each state party director is a Trump loyalist. This structural commitment to Trump corresponds with the president’s near-total sway over the party electorate — a sway visibly on display at Trump’s rallies.

Parscale and his staff had endeavored to wring every conceivable drop of utility from the events. For a couple of days before a rally, the campaign would stage other events in the area — a Women for Trump gathering hosted by the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a visit to a local business by Vice President Mike Pence — so that the attenuated presence might result in up to tens of millions of dollars’ worth of free local media over a week’s time. Those interested in attending the rally would register on the campaign’s website, providing personal information that Parscale’s team would later mine for donations and volunteers.

While standing in line, attendees would be given volunteer training. Inside the arena, Parscale — now a well-recognized figure at such events — often flung MAGA hats into outstretched hands on his way to the stage, where he then exhorted the audience to text the word “TRUMP” to the number 88022. (Doing so invites a steady drip of contact-information solicitations and invitations to “stand with President Trump against the Fake News!”; to enter a raffle for a “Keep America Great” cap autographed by Trump; and to participate in a poll offering two choices for 2020: Trump or “A BIG GOVERNMENT SOCIALIST.”) “I get a lot of information at rallies,” Parscale told me. “It’s a giant focus group. Like when I was in Michigan, I said, ‘How many people are in a union?’ A third of the damned people raised their hands! You think all those voters voted for him in 2016?” More than 10 percent of current rally­goers didn’t, he said.

Credit...Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

On March 2, Trump flew on Air Force One to a rally in Charlotte, N.C. Before an audience estimated at just under 10,000, the president delivered his familiar boasts and insults: Sleepy Joe and Crazy Bernie, the peerlessly great fun of a Trump rally, the Fake News media corralled like livestock in the back, the record-setting stock markets and unemployment figures and the draining of the Washington swamp that proved to be “much more vicious, much dirtier, much deeper than I ever thought, but we are kicking ass, let me tell you that.” He also spoke of the coronavirus, likening it to “the common flu” and assuring the crowd that drugmakers would be producing a remedy “relatively soon.”

A few days after the rally, Trump left Washington and spent an extended weekend playing golf and attending lavish parties at his Mar-a-Lago club in seeming defiance of the rapidly spreading pandemic. Biden and Bernie Sanders would soon begin canceling public events, but the message from the Trump campaign was that business would continue as usual; the next Tuesday, Parscale’s team announced that the president would be attending a Catholics for Trump event in Milwaukee on March 19. “Just stay calm,” Trump said that afternoon. “It will go away.”

Less than 24 hours later, the World Health Organization declared the virus to have reached pandemic status. The stock markets tumbled. That evening, Trump delivered a nationally televised address from the Oval Office and announced a ban on travel from Europe into the U.S. Moments after Trump concluded his remarks, Parscale’s staff announced that the Milwaukee event would be postponed. Parscale flew home to Fort Lauderdale on March 13. He has been running the Trump re-election campaign out of his home ever since.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

For the moment, Trump’s mammoth rallies — the defining feature of his campaign and, arguably, his presidency — are a thing of the past. The closest approximation to them are the president’s daily coronavirus briefings to the press. When I suggested as much to Parscale, he bristled. “I actually completely 100 percent disagree with that,” he told me over the phone. “I think that’s a media talking point. I think that he does not say the things he says at rallies. I think his focus has been completely on the American people. He hasn’t talked about Biden up there.”

In fact, he had — and in his briefing two days later, as if on cue, Trump mocked his likely Democratic opponent again. “He’s probably not even watching right now,” he told the assembled reporters — “and if he is, he doesn’t understand what he’s watching.”

It’s true that the briefings lack the rallies’ theatrics: no soundtrack of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” “Only in America” and “Macho Man”; no red sea of MAGA caps; no supportive audience to boo Trump’s media inquisitors. But the White House briefings represent a different kind of home-field advantage. Trump can brag, on live TV for as long as he wishes, about his administration’s “tremendous” and “great” and “best” response to an “invisible enemy” that no one could see coming, and bully the reporters who suggest that he should have. Parscale was in fact promoting a petition on the campaign’s website demanding that the daily news conferences continue to be covered live by the networks. According to the campaign, the petition had garnered upward of 371,000 signatures. Parscale insisted that this was not a political gambit. He simply wanted “people to see what I see”: a presidential version of Donald Trump.

Of course, the daily spectacle of Trump being only who Trump can be, even as the death toll mounts and the economy craters, has made his monopoly on the media’s attention seem less than all upside for Parscale’s campaign. During a weekly call with Trump surrogates on April 1 that was described to NBC News, Parscale urged them to do more than simply praise the president, saying, according to the source, “This is an opportunity for you to really establish a narrative on Biden.” Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communication director, reminded me that during the 2009-10 swine-flu outbreak, Vice President Biden misstated how the flu might spread. (Biden had suggested it could be easily contracted on airline flights.) This was proof, Murtaugh said, that Biden “has a poor record when it comes to handling a public health crisis.”

Parscale told me that the campaign would also underscore then-Senator Biden’s work on anti-crime legislation during the 1990s. “Joe Biden put more young black men and nonviolent criminals in jail than any person in history,” he said, in the hyperbolized verbiage of a Trump campaign ad. “The president wrote legislation that understood that it was an unfair thing to do and was just showing families in America there’s other ways to deal with nonviolent criminals. And has gotten more out of jail and has done more for young black men and families than any president in history. There’s the contrast.”

But, I asked, if the coronavirus claimed a hundred thousand American lives this spring and summer, would any voter be all that interested in a 1994 crime bill? “I think it’s a little early to make that prediction right now,” Parscale replied. In the meantime, the Biden campaign was already using Trump’s own briefings against him. One ad showed footage of Trump not-so-reassuringly recommending an antimalarial drug whose effectiveness in treating Covid-19 was wholly unproven at best: “Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it. But who knows? I’ve been right a lot.”

It was a reminder that, as David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, told me, “campaigns are only relevant on the margins.” To be sure, margins could be everything in a race. But, Plouffe went on: “Campaigns don’t create atmosphere. They can only take advantage of it. And even then, so much voter behavior is already baked in.” Parscale’s challenge mirrors that of the boss he has not seen in person in nearly two months. Is there any slogan, any story or any campaign that can rescue a president if he fails to rescue his country?

Parscale is an adman at heart. He was promoted to campaign digital director in the summer of 2016, after he sold his acumen to Paul Manafort, who was then the Trump campaign chairman, by describing two different marketing pitches for an early iPod. One showed the device itself, another a woman in silhouette, dancing wildly. The latter ad campaign succeeded, Parscale argued, because “no one cares about the product. It’s about the dance. People buy stories, not things.”

Manafort and Corey Lewandowski, Parscale’s predecessors at the helm of Trump’s 2016 campaign, were political lifers; Parscale had never worked on a campaign before. But neither Manafort nor Lewandowski possessed what Parscale had spent years cultivating. As Lara Trump — the wife of Trump’s son Eric and a top 2020 campaign adviser — put it to me: “He’s such a greatly trusted person in our family. Finding people you can trust is of the highest value to all of us and especially the president.”

Just as likely, Parscale’s long tenure in Trump’s orbit owes something to his understanding of how important subservience is in that galaxy. In the photo on his Twitter account, Parscale’s familiar bearded visage is lowered to give greater prominence to his even more familiar red “Keep America Great” cap. He has fulfilled Jared Kushner’s desire for an efficient, low-drama and (particularly important to Kushner) seldom-leaking operation.

Parscale’s business relationship with the Trump family began in 2011, when he submitted a bid to design a website for some residential real estate properties owned by the Trump Organization. Eric Trump called Parscale, wanting to know if the bid he had submitted was missing a digit. When he replied that that was in fact his actual bid, he was hired on the spot. More Trump contracts to design web pages and marketing campaigns followed: for Melania Trump’s skin-care products, for the Trump Winery in Virginia, for Eric’s foundation that supported terminally ill children. By 2014, Parscale had become, in the words of Lara Trump, “the go-to person in the Trump family when it came to websites. So it was a given, when my father-in-law considered running, that Brad’s the one he would go to.”

Along the way, Parscale had systematically won over the Trump children, their spouses and Melania. As the 2016 campaign’s digital director, he reported directly to Kushner, who had become an ardent believer in Facebook as a marketing tool. Parscale had yet to ingratiate himself with Trump, however. The candidate was famously infatuated with Twitter. None of his wealthy friends spent time on Facebook.

Parscale would occasionally accompany Kushner aboard Trump’s 757 airplane to update the candidate on their digital activities, but the briefings often did not hold his interest. To Trump, only TV ads mattered. Parscale’s interest in Facebook mystified the candidate; he went so far as accusing Parscale of using digital-ad buys to enrich himself at the candidate’s expense.

Credit...Bobby Doherty for The New York Times

But after Parscale was vindicated in November, and after he took care in a “60 Minutes” profile to give the candidate full credit for winning the election, Trump went with the family favorite to run his 2020 operation. Fittingly, the campaign’s press announcement on Feb. 27, 2018, contained effusive quotes by Kushner and Eric Trump but nothing from the president himself. Trump was preoccupied with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “WITCH HUNT!” he tweeted that day, in simpler times.

Throughout the 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Karl Rove, the indispensable consigliere of President George W. Bush, was kept out of all national-security meetings, as Bush maintained he did not want the process to be tainted by political considerations. Similarly, Parscale, who solicits advice from Rove, says he has been a bystander to the most consequential decision-making moments of his only client.

Parscale has instead busied himself with the blocking-and-tackling mechanics of the 2020 operation. From behind the desk of his home office in Fort Lauderdale — which is also equipped with a rowing machine, free weights and a pull-up bar — Parscale says he has, since the Trump campaign became entirely virtual in mid-March, supervised the recruitment of 276,000 new volunteers, more than 13 million volunteer phone calls and the broadcasting of online events (Catholics for Trump, Women for Trump, Black Voices for Trump) that have each garnered more than one million views. The campaign’s digital strategy has the advantages of far more time, money and data than it did the previous cycle. But its chief asset remains the same as in 2016: a compulsively performative, pugilistic and norm-shredding candidate who demonstrably will stop at nothing to win — so prolific a generator of outrageous ad content that one 2016 R.N.C. operative likens working for him to “fishing with dynamite.”

The dynamite, as in 2016, takes the form of Facebook ads with thousands of barely detectable variants, each targeting voting groups in specific locales with specific issue interests and demographic profiles. Turning passive viewers of these ads into small donors is among Parscale’s key objectives, and not only for the money: Every online donor provides personal data for the campaign to use and, according to campaign officials, the investment in Trump makes it almost certain that someone will show up to the polls and vote for him.

The Facebook ads themselves have always been cheap, but as The Atlantic recently reported, they now can cost 40 percent less because of coronavirus-induced market tremors. The Trump campaign has responded to the fire-sale rates by purchasing thousands more of the less-expensive ads and pushing for even more donations.

When I expressed skepticism to Parscale that the average person would want to be contributing money to a political campaign in the middle of an economic crisis, he assured me I was wrong. “I actually think a lot of people know this is a big fight right now,” he said, “and they want to support the president and help him get re-elected and continue the fight.” He added, “I think our numbers show that.”

Parscale told me that he has also been toying with various ideas for in-person but socially distant campaign events to accommodate whatever new normal emerges, though he was coy on the particulars. What he would say was, “The best thing in April is to do a very good digital campaign, be patient, let the president be presidential, and wait.” He acknowledged that he had his eye on a few external metrics in particular. Those metrics, at the moment, constituted at best a mixed bag. On the one hand, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, fully 53 percent of Trump’s supporters declared themselves “very” enthusiastic about his candidacy, while only 24 percent of Biden’s supporters expressed similar sentiments. On the other, polls tracking whether respondents considered the country to be moving in the right or wrong direction had taken a decidedly negative turn: as of April 8, according to a Monmouth University poll, only 30 percent of those surveyed believed that things in the U.S. were going better (down from 39 in March), as opposed to 61 percent believing things were getting worse (from 54 the previous month).

When I asked David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, where this left Parscale, he predicted an onslaught of negative messaging to depress Biden’s support. “If you’re the Trump campaign,” he said, “you look at groups of voters who aren’t going to vote for Trump, and you design communication that makes it intolerable for those voters to vote for Biden. They’ve already done that on climate-change legislation. When Trump says Democrats won’t let you fly in a plane or drive a car or eat meat, that’s not aimed at traditional swing voters — it’s aimed at people whose civic duty is to vote, but Biden stands for crazy things, so they vote for a third party.”

The variable most likely to complicate such a strategy is probably Trump himself. Plouffe noted that the rallies Trump had held on and off for five years were “an outlet for him. If he doesn’t have that outlet, it spills out in other ways that aren’t healthy. It risks them not running as smart a campaign.” The daily White House coronavirus briefings, which have regularly sprawled in excess of two hours, seemed to increasingly exist to fulfill this need. On April 13, Trump claimed that being president granted him “total” authority to close and open businesses whenever he wished. “Everything we did was right,” Trump, speaking of the government’s response to the virus, insisted that same day. The following afternoon, he predicted that “our country’s going to be open soon and our country’s going to be booming” as the death toll passed 26,000 and the International Monetary Fund predicted a global recession the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Depression. On April 23, he suggested that a way to kill the virus might be “disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because, you see, it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”

Parscale the salesman was disinclined to embrace the gloomiest forecast. Americans would quickly adapt, he predicted. Yes, he allowed, things were rough. His rental property in Florida was currently vacant. But no one he knew — either on the campaign or in his personal life — had yet tested positive. “I think we’re going to come out the other side of this,” he said, “and the economy is just going to explode. Once we have a vaccine for this, man, it’s going to be like people are going to throw the biggest party. Vegas is going to be packed and people are going to go crazy, hog wild, and it’s going to come shooting back” — but only with Trump’s help, he added. It was a preview of a campaign talking point: “After all this, who do you want to be there afterward? A guy that knows how to rebuild the economy, or a guy that doesn’t know how?”

In the meantime, Parscale was unworried as far as his personal health was concerned. “Somebody has to sneeze down at me,” he said, “and that’s pretty hard to do when you’re 6-foot-8.”