WASHINGTON — As Republicans sought to build support for a big tax cut last summer, the head of President Trump's biggest outside political group told donors he wanted funds for a $30 million advertising push, according to a person on a private conference call.
But only a fraction of the money materialized, and the ads never appeared at such a grand scale.
In the fall, the group, America First, offered another ambitious plan to push the tax cut and support Republicans in Congress. The goal was trumpeted in a November Politico story that ran with the banner headline: "Trump super PAC launches $100 million blitz."
The spending hasn't come close, with about $2.3 million spent from the super PAC part of the group touting Republican candidates and $4.2 million supporting the tax cut from the nonprofit part of America First. The nonprofit has spent an additional $10 million pushing the president's agenda over the past year.
Outside groups like America First, which rake in unlimited campaign contributions and operate somewhat independently of elected officials, have become an essential, and potent, weapon for presidents, parties, and candidates. But Trump's has been sorely lacking, say numerous Republicans.
Trump does not have direct control over America First, which is positioned in the panoply of GOP fund-raising organizations as the president's main political arm, second only to his own reelection campaign committee. Instead, under federal election rules, it operates in parallel, run by his allies.
Its weak performance is a source of frustration to Trump backers who've been hoping America First would provide more leadership in an environment that's increasingly hostile to the GOP, according to 11 Republicans who are strategists or close to the Trump administration. Each of the 11 would only discuss their concerns when granted anonymity, to avoid creating further tensions within Trump's fund-raising orbit.
These operatives, many of them veterans of Washington finance circles, say America First's ineffectiveness is robbing the president of the strong voice an outside group can provide to amplify his victories and punish his enemies.
"Their mindset has been: 'How do I check the box?' Not how can we proactively fight for the president and go to war for him," said one Republican close to the Trump administration who was critical of the group.
That Republican applauded the group's decision Tuesday to buy a flight of TV ads attacking Senator Jon Tester, the Democrat whom Trump has recently criticized for helping torpedo his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It's a good sign, but they need to do more than one thing before people are like: "Wow, they're really great,' " the person said.
Another source of frustration was a relatively mild America First effort on behalf of Trump's nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, according to four Republicans who were close to the confirmation process. The Senate approved Pompeo's nomination last week.
Public records filed with the Federal Communications Commission show the group bought TV ads in Missouri during the Pompeo confirmation battle to pressure Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill to support Trump's nominee. Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for America First, said the group spent "six figures" on the total effort, which also included ads in West Virginia and Indiana.
By contrast, 45Committee, an outside group backed by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, waged a more rigorous battle on Pompeo's behalf.
That group's total spending on the effort reached $1 million. In addition to TV ads in Alabama, Indiana, and West Virginia, it sponsored digital ads and robocalls in seven other states, according to two people with knowledge of the organization's efforts.
Montgomery said America First has placed radio ads supporting the nomination of Gina Haspel to run the Central Intelligence Agency, and is considering doing more.
But Trump's allies are used to hearing promises and seeing little action from the group.
"They were supposed to come in with all of this money after the tax cut," said one Republican operative, who didn't want to be named for fear of offending the president's allies.
The tax package is by far the biggest legislative accomplishment of Trump's term and the central element of the Republican campaign platform of the mid-term congressional elections this fall. But the scandal-plagued White House struggles to promote it in a disciplined and consistent fashion, leaving an obvious gap for outside groups to fill.
The operative added that staff at various GOP outside groups were polling one another after the legislation passed: "We were asking 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' Everyone was expecting [America First] to come in big, but they really haven't."
Montgomery, the spokeswoman for America First, said the group never pledged to spend $100 million in the cycle, and said she was not aware of the Nov. 2 Politico story that reported the claim until The Boston Globe brought it to her attention. She said the group had actually pledged to raise $100 million, not spend that amount, and there'd been a miscommunication of some kind.
But so far America First's super PAC, called America First Action, which can accept contributions of unlimited size, has only spent $2.3 million on elections of the $8.7 million it has raised since it was created in early 2017, according to federal disclosures.
The group also has a nonprofit arm called America First Policies, which is allowed under tax laws to keep its donor lists secret. It's done better, raising about $21 million, according to a spokeswoman. That group went through about $14 million in 2017, including roughly $4.2 million pushing for the tax cut, Montgomery said.
She also disputed the account of the conference call with the head of the group, Brian O. Walsh, saying he was referring to an overall plan by multiple GOP groups to spend $30 million on the tax cut — not just America First.
One area where America First is winning praise from other Republicans is the program it's running with Vice President Mike Pence, where they've invited him to star in a series of town hall meetings focused on tax reform. So far the vice president has been to 13 meetings, largely in politically important states.
America First was the source of grumbling last year after its founding by former Trump campaign staffers and operatives including Nick Ayers, who left to be Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff in June.
It underwent a staff shake-up in April 2017, according to media reports. That's when Walsh, a Washington strategist with deep experience in congressional campaigns, was hired to take over by the group's board, which included Tommy Hicks Jr., a friend of Trump's adult sons, and Roy Bailey, a Dallas-based financial executive who is the managing director of Giuliani Partners LLC. (The management and security consulting company was founded by former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, who was recently named to Trump's team of outside lawyers representing him in the Russia probe.)
Walsh has had top roles at the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Moreover, the number of former Trump aides on the payroll has earned America First a reputation in Washington as a landing pad for Trump allies who are between gigs. America First's ads have featured former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and spokeswoman Katrina Pierson. They are not well-known to the public, but both have received sizable checks from the group.
Other names that have been on the payroll include Brad Parscale, Trump's digital guru during the campaign, who did $184,000 worth of work for the super PAC arm of the group. He left when the president named him campaign manager for the 2020 reelection effort.
At the affiliated, nonprofit organization, there was Rick Gates, who helped found the group and was the deputy to Trump's second campaign manager Paul Manafort. Gates left America First in March 2017. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and financial fraud (for work unrelated to America First) and is cooperating with the special counsel's probe into the Trump campaign.
Montgomery said there should be no surprise that Trump's main outside group would be staffed with Trump allies.
"The fact that we would hire pro-Trump people who worked their tails off to elect him, the fact that we would hire them and pay them to continue their hard work, is not news," she said.
"The fact the mainstream media thinks that's news is laughable."
The super PAC spending, regularly disclosed in keeping with federal rules, has attracted plenty of media attention, with the highlights including the roughly $96,000 spent at various Trump properties.
But the taste in high-end hotels isn't limited to the president's brand. The super PAC also spent cash at The Pierre Hotel in New York ($7,000), the Waldorf Astoria ($2,000), the Four Seasons in Houston ($1,800), and the Beverly Hills Plaza ($1,300).
Then there are the goodies described by Montgomery as "end-of-year donor gifts."
They bought $8,500 worth of items at L.L. Bean. They spent nearly $10,000 on items from The Tiny Jewel Box, a high-end jeweler not far from the White House on Connecticut Avenue. And there's the $28,500 spent at Ann Hand LLC, a jewelry company based in Georgetown and run by a woman who describes herself as "a longtime member of the Washington DC power structure."
"We're wooing billionaires,'' said Montgomery. "We wish to respect their contributions and spend their money as wisely as possible."
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.