Trump's campaign has turned impeachment into a fundraising asset with ads on Facebook, Instagram and other social-media platforms
Onstage in the packed, thunderous hockey arena in Sunrise, Fla., President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale urges the crowd to pull out their cell phones and text themselves onto the campaign’s contact list. Their phones are key to helping Trump get re-elected in the face of his likely impeachment by the House. “The way we fight back,” Parscale booms, “is to get online ourselves and get connected, sign up for emails.” A slap shot away from Parscale, voter Alan Huber doesn’t need to sign up. He is already connected and gets Trump campaign messages, most often by scrolling through Facebook. “I don’t have to watch Fox or CNN or read TIME magazine or anything else. I will get anything important from my Facebook feed,” says Huber, who’s in his 60s and drove down the Florida coast from Boynton Beach on Nov. 26 to see Trump in person. “I think that the media doesn’t fully appreciate the power of the Facebook feed.”
The Trump campaign does. In the weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Sept. 24 decision to launch an impeachment inquiry against Trump for using the power of his presidency to press a foreign country–Ukraine–to investigate a political rival, the Trump campaign hasn’t run from Pelosi’s impeachment push or settled into a defensive crouch. Campaign officials instead are leaning into the impeachment threat, using it to mobilize supporters and try to extract a political price–and millions of dollars in fundraising–from the Democrats’ move. One of the single most powerful weapons in the Trump campaign’s arsenal has been Facebook, which–unlike many TV stations and newspapers–does not monitor candidates’ political ads for veracity.
A TIME analysis of publicly available Facebook data, which included the cataloging of hundreds of distinct messages, shows how Trump is using social media to supercharge his pushback against impeachment and add to his considerable $150 million war chest. Ads that many Americans would otherwise never see have been tested and tailored to solicit responses from older voters, deploying Trump’s distinctive use of capital letters and words like scam and witch hunt.
Pelosi’s announcement came on a Tuesday. By the end of that week, the campaign had spent more on Facebook ads than in any week since Facebook began reporting political ad spending in May 2018, topping both the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the massive push in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, according to TIME’s analysis. In the weeks since, the Trump campaign has paid Facebook more than $5.4 million for ad placements, generating well over 100 million appearances on user feeds.
The spending may be paying for itself. Within 72 hours of Pelosi’s announcement, the campaign had raised $15 million in small-dollar donations. On a typical day, it raises approximately half a million in small-dollar donations–those of $200 or under. On Oct. 31, the day the House voted to approve rules for the impeachment inquiry, the campaign raised more than $3 million, around six times the norm, a senior campaign official tells TIME.
Which means that even as White House lawyers have been outwardly blocking access to documents and officials and dismissing the House’s work as illegitimate, the Trump campaign has embraced impeachment as a means of rallying support and donations in an extraordinarily aggressive Facebook campaign that sometimes includes Instagram–which is owned by Facebook–and that is augmented by spending on Google and other digital platforms. TIME’s analysis shows that about two-thirds of the spending goes to ads that either explicitly mention impeachment or unambiguously allude to the House investigation.
The sheer volume of the Trump campaign’s presence on social media, and the money behind it, means that for a substantial number of Americans who thumb through Facebook for personal and national news, the campaign stands a good chance of actually delivering its version of events, no matter the reality. “The campaign has done a good job of telling us what the news is in case we don’t see it on Fox,” Huber says.
That raises issues. Trump is using the fallout from impeachment to reach more voters and donors on a platform that’s come under fire for being a tool of election meddling, especially after Russia used Facebook and other social-media platforms to stir up animosity, spread falsehoods and organize real-life protests against Hillary Clinton in 2016. A Facebook spokesperson did not want to comment in depth but noted that Democratic candidates have also invested heavily in advertising on the platform. Facebook advertising data shows Trump has spent $16.2 million on Facebook so far this year. That compares with $14.2 million spent by Tom Steyer, $5.9 million by Pete Buttigieg, $4.9 million by Elizabeth Warren, $4.8 million by Bernie Sanders and $3.1 million by Joe Biden.
From the White House, Jared Kushner has been convening meetings to coordinate the messaging on impeachment between the White House, the campaign and Congress. A tight group made up of Kushner, Parscale, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy have decided to try to play impeachment to Trump’s advantage, launching a campaign to stonewall Congress and to paint the process as partisan and unfair to Trump–and to voters. They believe impeachment helps the GOP’s chances of winning back the House by putting the squeeze on Democrats who won in the 31 districts that went for Trump in 2016, says a senior Trump aide. “When this first happened, people were running around with their hair on fire saying, ‘He’s gonna be impeached!'” the aide says. “They can be tough, but we can be tougher. They keep making up their own rules because Trump is not natural to Washington. And then when we break the rules back, they get incensed by it.”
That’s not to say Trump wasn’t furious he was being impeached. Trump hates having the I word attached to his legacy. But since it has become all but inevitable that the House will vote to impeach him, even if the GOP-controlled Senate keeps him in office, his campaign has kicked into gear to use the issue. When impeachment news is “whipped up into a frenzy,” campaign officials see a dramatic spike in small-dollar donations, in people clicking on Trump ads, and in voter data collected, the campaign’s director of communications Tim Murtaugh tells TIME. “Every time this happens, the President’s campaign gets bigger and stronger,” Murtaugh claims.
National polls don’t quite back that up, and Democrats have gambled that a high-wattage impeachment trial in the Senate will dampen enthusiasm for the President, ramp up Democratic voter turnout in 2020 and damage Trump’s re-election chances.
Across the country, public support for impeachment is about 5 points higher than opposition in most polls. If anything, polls indicate Republicans and Democrats have dug deeper into a stalemate over impeachment. Following a small dip after the impeachment investigation began in late September, Trump’s job approval has remained virtually unchanged since summer. Gallup polling in the first two weeks of November found that 43% of Americans approve of Trump, identical to his standing before Pelosi’s announcement.
When Trump took the stage in Sunrise, he did not avoid the topic. He accused “the radical-left Democrats” of being “maniacs” pushing “deranged impeachment” and “trying to rip our nation apart.” He said his support is going up because “people don’t like watching a scam.” Then Trump reached for a line campaign officials believe will take the Democrats’ momentum on impeachment and turn it in Trump’s favor. “The failed Washington establishment,” he said, “is trying to stop me because I’m fighting for you.”
Trump’s weaponizing of social media is well known. But interviews with senior Trump campaign staff and TIME’s analysis of more than 325,000 Facebook ad buys lifts the veil on just how Trump has used that weapon since impeachment kicked off. The first wave came during the 28 minutes after Pelosi stepped out of her office in the Capitol and stated that the House would pursue its authority of “the utmost gravity: approval of articles of impeachment.” The time was 5:04 p.m. Four minutes later, shortly after Pelosi had left the podium, Trump responded on Twitter, calling it “Witch Hunt garbage.”
And less than 30 seconds after that tweet, the President’s re-election campaign unleashed a flood of paid Facebook advertising with a defiant message: “The only thing stopping Democrats from carrying out their impeachment Witch Hunt is Patriotic Americans standing with President Trump.”
Over the course of 20 minutes, the campaign spent an estimated $100,000 to target the ad to an estimated 2 million Facebook accounts, hitting every state but weighting the target audience more heavily than usual toward the 45-and-over crowd–the group that according to 2016 exit polls was more likely to support Trump than Clinton. Above photos or videos depicting Trump or his Democratic rivals, viewers were encouraged, in all caps, to Donate to the Official Impeachment Defense Fund Now!, which, if clicked, led to a generic campaign-donation page.
Three days later, the Democratic committees charged with the impeachment investigation issued their first subpoena of the inquiry to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has yet to respond. By that morning, Sept. 27, the campaign had purchased roughly $1.3 million in ads to be displayed at least 15 million times and was well on its way to outpacing the previous most-expensive week in the past 18 months, when it carpeted Facebook with ads supporting Republicans in the midterm elections. (Weekly figures may grow higher because daily reported expenditures tend to lag in reporting.)
The vast majority of ads mimic, to an almost uncanny degree, the President’s distinct wordsmithing on Twitter, down to the frequent capitalization of words or sentences, the vitriol and the uncharitable nicknames for political foes. Beginning on Nov. 13, the first day of open hearings in the investigation, the campaign unleashed a set of ads stating, “The Impeachment Scam hearings begin today! This is a complete Fake Hearing to interview Never Trumpers and a Pelosi-Schiff SCAM against the Republican Party and me.”
When a user shares an ad, it still appears as Trump-sponsored content on the original user’s feed, but not on the feed of the Facebook friend viewing the shared post. And unlike a campaign designed by an ad agency, these messages are cheap to produce. All you need is a message, some visuals and a call to action.
The messages evolve in almost Darwinian fashion as the campaign field-tests them to see which grab voters. “They’re always trying variations of ads, text, pictures, they test everything,” a campaign official said. “They test what color of the donate button works best.”
Just after Pelosi’s announcement, for example, there were two versions of what was otherwise the same fundraising message, nearly word for word. Each stated, “The ONLY thing stopping Democrats from carrying out their impeachment Witch Hunt is Patriotic Americans standing with President Trump,” but one kind suggested a $45 donation and the other did not.
Each was sent to about 80 different groups. Some were small, targeted ad buys in batches of less than $100. Others were big-ticket purchases that reached hundreds of thousands of users and cost at least $10,000. Both kinds of ads continue to appear, but the one suggesting a $45 donation has been promoted more aggressively. Campaign staff test and write Facebook and other social-media messaging from a warren of cubicles on the 14th floor of an Arlington, Va., office building and have field-tested several hundred messages since Pelosi’s announcement.
Social-media companies survive on their ability to allow advertisers to microtarget groups with extraordinary specificity. That’s particularly true on platforms like Facebook, where many users volunteer information about everything from their age and marital status to their interests, hobbies and opinions. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Ellen L. Weintraub, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, warned that the ability to home in on a target audience in such detail lets political campaigns “single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.” In March, Facebook addressed some of these concerns with its expanded Ad Library Report, where anyone–including those who do not have Facebook accounts–can browse ads about any topic and see the aggregate spending over time by those who pay for them. For an individual ad campaign, the site reports the percentage of the ad’s audience in each state, as well as their age ranges and genders. The Ad Library Report provides a range of how much each ad campaign costs and how many times the ad appeared in user feeds, as well as daily breakdowns of a campaign’s spending on Facebook ads. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, the Trump campaign spent $1.97 million on Facebook ads, the report says. By comparing those spending patterns to the appearance of ads, TIME was able to confidently estimate how much the campaign spent for any ad blast.
TIME analyzed hundreds of digital campaign ads and found that nearly all of Trump’s Facebook messages about impeachment fit into three categories: “The Democrats Are Against You,” “The Democrats Are Against Me” and “The Democrats Are Against America.”
The same motifs repeat with such regularity that the messaging, all together, plays like 12-bar blues: three dominant chords on repeat, with the occasional substitution. “The Democrats Are Against You” ads frequently warn that Democrats are intent on “silencing” or “intimidating” Trump supporters. “The Democrats Are Against Me” ads are the most apocalyptic, saying things like “The future of American freedom rests on the shoulders of men and women willing to defend it from these hateful impeachment attacks.” “The Democrats Are Against America” messages are the most personal and frequently cite Democrats by name. For example: “We need to send a Resounding message to the left that big-government socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar don’t represent the views of the American people!” A small percentage of ads propagate widely debunked stories about collusion between then Vice President Joe Biden and the Ukrainian government, with messages like “Joe Biden boasted that as vice president he threatened to withhold $1 billion in foreign aid from Ukraine unless they fired the prosecutor looking into a lucrative contract held by his son, Hunter Biden. Learn the real truth about Democrats!”
With the political trenches getting deeper, the campaign’s social-media blitz alone is unlikely to persuade new voters to cross over to Trump. And there is probably nothing the Democrats could uncover that would change Diane Edwards’ mind about voting again for Trump. Edwards, a retired hairdresser who lives in rural Coin, Iowa, is “sick off all this impeachment crap,” adding, “Our country elected him. Everybody has faults, but I think overall he’s doing a good job.”
“It actually makes me support him more. I don’t like what they are doing to him,” says Jennifer Csaszar, 49, who attended Trump’s recent Florida rally from nearby Boca Raton with a friend. “I want to know what the Bidens did.”
When Democrats first announced the inquiry, they knew amassing bipartisan support would be a long shot. But they held out slight hope that if irrefutable evidence emerged showing the President dangled foreign assistance to the new Ukrainian government as leverage for an investigation into Biden and his family, some Republicans would deem it impeachable. That hasn’t happened.
Consider Carol and Rodney Smith, of Thomasville, N.C. Carol has been glued to the impeachment hearings and screams a lot at the television, she says, sitting with her husband Rodney at a Winston-Salem chicken-stew Republican fundraiser in late November. “The Democrats are trying to crucify him,” Carol says, adding that she doesn’t think Trump’s done “anything that former Presidents haven’t done at some point in time.” Rodney, a pastor at a Baptist church who doesn’t affiliate with a political party, also doesn’t think Trump’s actions justify removing him from office. “I’m not saying what he did was right. I just don’t think it’s impeachable.”
The entire impeachment exercise “has pushed people into their corners, and now you’ve got the jerseys on,” says David Kochel, a Republican strategist. “Republicans are putting on the red jersey, Democrats are putting on the blue jersey, and it’s kind of a polarizing time.” Once the majority-Democratic House votes to impeach Trump–which is likely–it will be up to the Senate to hold a trial and vote on whether he should be removed. The trial is likely to begin in January.
But Trump is resoundingly popular among Republicans, and it is this core strength of support that props up the Republican firewall in the Senate–making it politically risky for any Senator to come out against Trump. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, one of the sharpest tacticians in the Republican Party’s history, has told his conference to pick one consistent reason to oppose impeachment–be it over Democrats’ motives, legislative process or judicial fairness–and stick with it. In poll after poll, GOP voters have rejected impeachment, and McConnell’s insiders says that as long as that number remains above 85%, Republicans’ majority of 53 seats can be preserved–making it very unlikely Trump will be removed from office.
“Abandoning the President is political suicide,” says Matt Beynon, a Republican strategist and alumnus of Rick Santorum’s bids for the White House. “You’re going to get tied to the President no matter what. You’re on the ticket with him. If you abandon him, all you’re going to do is infuriate the base. And that’s a very powerful base.”
There’s even a growing feeling inside Trump’s inner circle that he may emerge from the impeachment process stronger, assuming the GOP firewall in the Senate does not crack and there are no new revelations. (Senate Republicans backed Richard Nixon until audiotapes showed he knew early on about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate.) Coming out the other side, his aides argue, would further strengthen support among Trump’s base and weaken future attempts to undermine him.
At the beginning of Trump’s rally in Sunrise, pastor Mario Bramnick delivered a prayer that echoed the campaign’s strategy to use impeachment as a weapon, likening it to a “demonic storm” that was “coming to try to destroy our nation.” “That which the enemy has designed against our President–and to stop God’s plan for our nation through him–must cease and desist,” Bramnick, who was introduced as a member of the advisory board of Latinos for Trump, told the thousands of Trump supporters, many with their heads bowed. “I declare what the enemy meant for evil, God turn around for good.”
–With reporting by ALANA ABRAMSON and PHILIP ELLIOTT/WASHINGTON and LISSANDRA VILLA/CLARINDA, IOWA