“It’s been a disaster,” said a person close to the campaign.
Trump’s political operations have never been displays of calm efficiency. But the first two weeks of his third run for the White House have laid bare how Trump’s freewheeling approach — and the chaos that follows — remains a defining feature.
As word began emerging about the dinner with Ye, Trump’s own team was given conflicting information about whether or not Fuentes had joined the former president too. The scramble to get accurate information about who was with Trump was due to the fact that so few aides were with Trump over the holidays. And there were suspicions that Trump was being set up by Ye’s attention hungry advisers.
Trump has since put out several statements saying he did not know who Fuentes was. But he has not condemned the views Fuentes has repeatedly articulated. Fellow Republicans believe the entire episode has been damaging for him, with allies and Republican lawmakers being asked to respond to Trump’s dinner and offer their own condemnations of Fuentes’ hate speech.
“It’s never as bad as it seems or as good as it seems,” said a senior GOP campaign official. “But man, it’s pretty damn bad for him right now.”
Trump aides stress that the former president continues to dominate in 2024 primary polling and he is no stranger to controversial news cycles. They note millions tuned in for his announcement and he has continued to fundraise and now sells 2024 merchandise on his website. And they’re working to right the ship, with plans to formalize his surrogate operation, shift the focus to claims that the Biden administration has weaponized the justice system against Trump, and to accusations that Biden himself is not tough enough on China. They also plan to put Trump back in the spotlight with appearances and interviews — two things he has mostly avoided in the days since his campaign launch.
“The headlines matter less for him, because everything involved with Trump is already baked in,” said former Trump adviser Bryan Lanza. “Trump has universal name I.D. and there are no persuadable [voters]. And unlike a new candidate, he doesn’t have to go through building out a ground game or grassroots — he already has it. So the weekly campaign benchmarks are different. Who is he going to persuade days before Christmas?”
Trump is expected to appear at an “American Freedom Gala” on Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, and he and Melania Trump are expected to be special guests at a charity event on Sunday in Naples, Fla.
But even as those steps are taken, others remain, as Trump utilizes a small team and has yet to make the type of traditional investments that usually follow the announcement of a presidential bid.
Neither Trump’s campaign nor his main fundraising operation, the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, are currently spending money on ads running on Meta platforms (the rebranded Facebook), and have not run any meaningful amount of ads since he launched his latest run on Nov. 15. His operation did not launch any new creative content on the advertising platform — which includes both Facebook and Instagram — looking to capitalize on him actually announcing his run.
“It’s way too early to be spending on that type of thing, we don’t even know the date of caucuses in each state. A lot of things are in flux with the scheduling, and we’re not just going to spend money for the sake of spending money. We’re going to be good stewards and maximize impact,” said a person with Trump’s campaign.
But his absence from Meta has surprised top digital operatives in both parties, who say it’s a lost opportunity to raise money and gather new contacts. “It’s shocking,” said one Democratic official in that space.
Trump himself remains banned from Meta — a decision the company is set to revisit in January. But his political operation has run fundraising ads and promoted his rallies since last summer. At the time, a spokesperson for Meta said that was permissible as long as the posts were not in the former president’s voice, a policy that is still in effect.
Trump was one of the rare Republicans who ran any sort of meaningful acquisition campaign — building the all-important email contact list that is central to any political organization — on Meta’s services since the 2020 election.
But his spending paled in comparison to when he was actively running for president the second time. Since Trump’s political operation started to again run ads on the platform in June 2021, the joint fundraising committee spent just $2.3 million on ads on Meta’s platform across nearly a dozen pages — compared to over $113 million on just his main page alone from May 2018 until he was banned from the platform in January 2021.
Trump is not entirely absent from digital advertising, however. His fundraising committee spent money on ads on Google, ponying up over $100,000 since the launch.
“Trump News: Donald J. Trump Is Running For President in 2024,” one such recent ad reads. “Donate To Show Your Support.”
Sam Stein contributed to this report.