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Trump’s reelection campaign is on a crusade against leaks

President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale is determined to prevent leaks from damaging the president’s momentum — even if it means blacklisting chatty high-dollar donors from events. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

2020 elections

The president’s 2020 team is taking unusual steps to prevent more leaks, including restrictions on high-dollar donors.

When Naples, Fla., resident Joseph Fogg III, a longtime GOP fundraiser, arrived last month at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for a donor conference benefiting the president’s reelection campaign, he was asked by the organizers to place his phone inside a lockable pouch.

Only after leaving the hotel’s Presidential Ballroom, where top Trump surrogates and Vice President Mike Pence privately addressed well-connected GOP donors, could Fogg retrieve his phone from the Yondr — a magnetic device familiar to high school students who’ve grown accustomed to placing their phones inside before class, but surprising to some of the president’s richest supporters — by tapping it on an unlocking base controlled by the fundraiser’s organizers.

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“We gave $ 1 million last year and we still had to put our phones away,” said Dallas businessman Doug Deason, who has co-hosted fundraisers for Trump and attended an intimate roundtable with him ahead of an April donor event organized by the president’s flagship super PAC, America First Action.

Both the Trump campaign and America First began using the pouches at donor gatherings in recent months to prevent attendees from documenting sensitive strategies that are often discussed, and to cultivate an environment where Trump and his aides feel they can speak candidly. A GOP official familiar with the move said donors were previously asked to place their phones in bins outside fundraising events, but this approach allows them to keep their phones with them.

The strictly enforced ban — even those who’ve made multimillion-dollar contributions to pro-Trump outside groups must obey it — is one of many tactics Trump allies and campaign officials are deploying to ensure the president’s reelection operation is decidedly less leaky than his administration. Their effectiveness, however, came under scrutiny this month when several media outlets obtained internal polling numbers that showed Trump trailing potential Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a handful of 2020 battleground states in March.

Three of the campaign’s pollsters — Brett Loyd, Michael Baselice and Adam Geller — were fired as a result of the leak, despite insisting they had no reason to share two-month-old data or violate their lucrative contracts. A person familiar with the decision, who requested anonymity to speak about previously unreported internal matters, said Baselice and Geller are expected to land deals with America First after a 120-day “cooling-off period” that federal election rules require before someone can jump from a campaign to a super PAC. The pro-Trump outfit plans to start conducting its own polling closer to the general election.

“There was always a conversation that some would end up at the super PAC,” this person said, noting that the pollsters’ firings have been widely discussed over the past week by aides inside the campaign who have raised objections to the reason for which they were dismissed.

Two veteran pollsters who were involved with Trump’s 2016 campaign, Tony Fabrizio and John McLaughlin, were retained by the campaign. Fabrizio was behind the 17-state poll that showed Trump lagging behind Biden in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, and issued a statement describing reports about the leaked data as “misleading” because the poll was conducted using “the most unfavorable turnout model possible.”

Campaign aides and Fabrizio now claim the latest internal polling shows Trump with sizable leads across some of the 17 states they have surveyed. “The president’s new polling is extraordinary and his numbers have never been better,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

Along with officials at the Republican National Committee and America First, Parscale is determined to prevent further leaks from damaging the momentum he believes Trump possesses — even if it means blacklisting chatty high-dollar donors from events.

“We’ve banned some donors from events who we know have spoken to the press,” said Kelly Sadler, a former White House official who now serves as spokeswoman for America First. Sadler declined to identify on the record which donors have been banned.

The same rules apply to staff of the super PAC, who were warned that the mere suspicion of leaking will cost them their jobs.

“When Linda [McMahon] took over in April, she addressed the group and said, ‘If there’s a leak out of this organization, you will be fired. They are damaging to the president and you better believe you will be out of this organization,’” Sadler recalled, adding that America First has “not had a leak since she came on board.”

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, does not have a clear-cut policy set about leaking, although aides have been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, according to an official familiar with the policy.

Part of the reason for the hypersensitivity, several officials said, is that those involved in the president’s reelection effort have witnessed — some firsthand — the reputational damage caused by sensitive leaks out of the White House. The problem has dogged the West Wing since its earliest days, when intentional leaks from warring factions were par for the course and Trump aides repeatedly accused career officials of trying to sabotage the president.

Sadler herself landed at America First after she was quietly dismissed from the White House for making a disparaging joke about the late Sen. John McCain that leaked from a communications staff meeting. And earlier this year, Trump was accused of slacking off and prioritizing TV watching over his official responsibilities when a White House official leaked three months of his private schedules to Axios. Another leak that appeared to come from Trump’s orbit, about a meeting that his eldest son Don Jr. took in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, continues to cause a headache for the president, nearly two years after the story first broke.

Mitt Romney

One Republican said Trump’s unrehearsed style in the presence of donors leaves him susceptible to “a Mitt Romney moment,” when the Senator faced blowback after a damaging video leaked during his 2012 presidential campaign. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

“What a disgraceful breach of trust,” declared White House director of Oval Office operations Madeleine Westerhout when the president’s schedules leaked in February. The daily rundowns don’t show “the hundreds of calls and meetings [Trump] takes everyday,” she claimed.

Unlike the campaign’s immediate dismissal of three of its pollsters, the White House has been slower to identify and punish leakers. Describing leakers as “traitors and cowards” after Sadler’s comment leaked last May, Trump vowed to determine which individuals have been behind the breaches that have caused his administration such embarrassment. Little has come of the effort, and some journalists have even pointed out that Trump himself will often call reporters to share information anonymously.

There are others involved in Trump’s reelection campaign, though, who claim the anti-leaking precautions are mostly in place to protect the president from himself.

One Republican close to the White House said Trump’s unrehearsed style in the presence of donors leaves him susceptible to “a Mitt Romney moment” if steps aren’t taken to prevent people from capturing audio or video of his remarks. Romney faced intense criticism just weeks before he lost to former President Barack Obama when, in a leaked video from his remarks to a private audience, he suggested that 47 percent of Americans would automatically vote for the incumbent Democrat because they did not take responsibility for their lives or pay income taxes.

Trump has raised eyebrows at previous donor events for praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for getting rid of term limits (”He’s now president for life … Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day,” he told GOP donors at Mar-a-Lago in March 2018) and for suggesting at an event earlier this year that Democrats “hate Jewish people.”

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