Trump aides’ disclosures reveal explosion in lucrative political work
Donald F. McGahn, now President Donald Trump’s White House counsel, made $2.4 million as a lawyer with a client list loaded with deep-pocketed conservative groups, from Americans for Prosperity, backed by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch, to the Citizens United Foundation.
Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, earned $78,000 from Freedom Partners, a Koch-linked group where he once served as president, plus nearly $380,000 for consulting work, listing clients such as the Club for Growth and Susan B. Anthony List, both right-leaning activist groups, as well as the presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
And Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, reported earning more than $1 million tied to conservative-oriented work, with at least $500,000 of that from entities linked to the conservative megadonor Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, including the Breitbart News Network and Cambridge Analytica, a data mining firm partly owned by Mercer that worked for the Trump campaign.
Those disclosures, contained in 92 personal financial statements of Trump administration staff members released starting Friday night, offer a hint of how an explosion in spending has expanded the lucrative array of private political work in Washington, enriching even the anti-establishment activists and operatives who sided with Trump.
Much of the new business has come through super PACs and political nonprofit groups whose fundraising has soared since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. While such groups were once a modest sideline to campaign and lobbying work, the new campaign spending rules have allowed wealthy donors and their entourages to displace campaign managers and party leaders as the leading political power center.
More such business has come from private foundations and ideologically oriented media companies linked to donors like the Mercers, who have invested in websites, documentaries and other endeavors to battle traditional news organizations. They have also formed political advisory operations to steer their giving and promote their influence.
The figures reveal the extent to which private political work has bolstered the financial fortunes of Trump aides, who have made millions of dollars from Republican and other conservative causes in recent years, according to an analysis of the disclosure forms by The New York Times after they were transformed into a computerized database by the Center for Public Integrity.
“It has been a bonanza for the consulting class,” said Walter Shapiro, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where he studies political spending and campaign finance. “And in this era of dark money, people have gotten very, very rich.”
To be sure, Democrats take care of their own as well. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his senior adviser, David Axelrod, reported an income of more than $1 million, listing consulting services for Democratic candidates and other political clients. Others, like Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, reported income from working on the Obama campaign.
For the Trump aides, one potential drawback is that they will now take government salaries, which for many will amount to a cut in pay as they refrain from outside work to avoid conflicts. When their time in the administration ends, however, they could find even more riches waiting for them.
The arrangement has been especially lucrative for insiders and key operatives with ties to the biggest donors, and those closest to Trump, despite his campaigning on an anti-establishment message and his disparagement of business as usual in Washington.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment from the aides included in this article.
The list of income sources for those in Trump’s White House reads like an encyclopedia of conservative wealth and influence. Many of Trump’s aides have earned money from right-leaning media organizations like Breitbart and Fox News, or from a firm set up by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, to manage his speaking and television appearances.
Several aides received payments from organizations backed by major conservative benefactors such as the Kochs or the Mercers. Others were paid for work on Republican campaigns, including Trump’s or that of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a onetime rival.
Few Trump advisers are as plugged into the old and new worlds of political money as Kellyanne Conway, counselor to Trump. As a Republican strategist and pollster who ran a consulting firm, Conway earned more than $800,000 from her firm and reported 75 sources of income.
Among the clients that paid her at least $5,000 were the Tea Party Patriots, a group founded in 2009 to oppose Obama’s health care and spending initiatives, and the Judicial Crisis Network, a nonprofit group that has spent millions of dollars, raised from wealthy donors, in an effort to reshape the federal court system.
She advised nearly a dozen candidates on their campaigns, including Trump and Mike Pence, now the vice president. Conway also earned money from speaking appearances at conservative think tanks like the Alabama Policy Institute and the John Locke Foundation.
Like many of her colleagues, Conway also profited from at least two Mercer endeavors: A super PAC called Keep the Promise, as well as Cambridge Analytica, which claims to provide “psychographic” profiles that can predict the political leanings of each American adult.
By contrast, Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, who toiled in the party machinery as chairman of the Republican National Committee, reported a more conventional, if still lucrative, financial picture. In addition to earning $396,000 from his law firm, Priebus earned a salary last year of $225,000 from the RNC and an additional $175,000 in bonuses. (The party did appear to offer Priebus at least one perk: rent payments totaling $57,000.)
Stefan C. Passantino, a top White House ethics lawyer, disclosed 70 income sources for his legal services, including groups like the Texas Conservatives Fund, along with more traditional corporate clients like Delta Air Lines and Icahn Capital, the investment firm headed by the billionaire Trump adviser Carl Icahn.
K.T. McFarland, an aide in three Republican White Houses who was appointed deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, reported $64,000 from Fox News, where she served as a security analyst.
And Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, took in tens of thousands of dollars for his book “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War,” as well as his work for Fox News and Breitbart.
The Mercers are major investors in Breitbart News, and the filings provide a kind of map to the family’s sprawling influence in Trump’s White House.
Those who have worked with the father-daughter donor powerhouse have described their charity as having a political bent: to fix what they see as the mistakes of the Obama presidency. That has meant providing funding to institutions, nonprofit organizations and businesses that promote small government, lower taxes and undoing the welfare state.
Breitbart has functioned as a platform to spread a right-wing vision around the world. In addition to Cambridge Analytica, the Mercers have also spent millions on the Media Research Center, a conservative group that says its sole mission is “to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the left.”
According to records, the Mercers’ foundation also donated at least $2 million to the Government Accountability Institute, an organization founded by Bannon and the writer and political consultant Peter Schweizer.
With his own links to Breitbart and the Government Accountability Institute, as well as other ventures, Bannon has especially close ties to the Mercers. He reported a financial stake worth $1 million to $5 million in Cambridge Analytica, a stake he is now seeking to sell.
Citizens United, a conservative group that was the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case of the same name, and is run by the political operative David Bossie, received $3.5 million from the Mercer Family Foundation between 2012 and 2014, according to the most recent public records. Bannon, Conway and McGahn all disclosed receiving pay from the group or its affiliates — in the case of Bannon, totaling $100,000.
The disclosures also, for the first time, provide some visibility into how much Trump has been paying some of his most loyal employees, who have now moved with him to the White House.
Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer at the family company who now serves as the White House special representative for international negotiations, was paid $1 million by the Trump Organization, the filing says.
Keith Schiller, who now oversees Oval Office operations, reported income totaling $294,000 for his security work for the Trump Organization, the campaign and a separate security firm, which worked for the campaign, too.
Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group that advocates changes in campaign finance laws, said the large payouts were yet another reason that Congress needed to revamp laws to require greater disclosure of political fundraising and spending.
“This is an industry, a Washington industry, that is embedded into the political system, and the consultant class is making a fortune regardless of what views or candidates they represent,” Wertheimer said. “And it is a major factor in the cost of campaigns, and it is a group of people who are probably the biggest opponents of campaign finance reform in the system.”
Alexandra Stevenson, Nicholas Confessore, Jeremy Bowers and Sarah Cohen contributed reporting.