“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”
This recent statement by religious-right activist Ralph Reed is objectively true, at least when it comes to sloppy kisses for the president. Considered purely as a political transaction, religious conservatives have gotten two appointments to the Supreme Court who set their hearts aflutter. They, in return, have shifted from the language of political realism to the language of love.
Trump has not gone back on the conservative promises of his 2016 campaign. More than that, he has not let up in his attacks against liberal elites who disdain religious conservatives. Reed is correct that Trump has “defended us” and “fought for us.”
But this language itself should raise warning signs. Is this really how most conservative Christians view the political enterprise — as the vindication of their own interests rather than the good of the whole? Were Christian political activists of the 19th century — such as William Wilberforce , Frederick Douglass , Charles Grandison Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe — primarily concerned with the respect accorded to their own religious community? No, they were known for taking the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.
It now seems like a different world. Maybe even a different conception of God.
Religious conservatives are now firmly allied in the public mind with a leader who practices the politics of exclusion. And there is every indication that this community will hold Trump in an ever-tighter embrace. Even if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, the process of securing that nomination will push him further to the left on social issues (which he demonstrated in his about-face support for federal funding of abortion). This will make the contrast between Trump and his eventual opponent all the more dramatic on social issues.
Yet in anonymously trying to exploit the fissures within the Democratic ranks — fissures that ran through this past week’s debates — Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy.
Mr. Mauldin, who has not been previously identified as the creator of the website, said he had built and paid for it on his own, and not for the Trump campaign. But the campaign knows about the websites, raising the prospect that the president’s re-election effort condoned what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.
“We appreciate their efforts in their own time with parodies like this that help the cause,” he added.
Inside the campaign, Mr. Mauldin, 30, is seen as a rising star, prized for his mischievous sense of humor and digital know-how, according to two people familiar with the operation. He also appears to be very much on point in his choice of targets: Mr. Biden is the Democrat polling strongest against Mr. Trump and has been repeatedly singled out on Twitter by the president.
Mr. Biden’s campaign knew about the fake website for months, but had not been of aware of who was behind it, said T.J. Ducklo, a campaign spokesman. “Imagine our surprise that a site full of obvious disinformation,” he said, “is the handiwork of an operative tied to the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Ducklo sought to place the website firmly in the context of Mr. Trump’s own social media habits — such as tweeting doctored videos — and what he said was the president’s lack of interest in measures to ensure the integrity of American elections.
In addition to Mr. Biden, Mr. Mauldin has anonymously set up faux campaign websites for at least three other Democratic front-runners. “Millionaire Bernie” seeks to tar Mr. Sanders as a greedy socialist; “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” mocks her claim of Native American ancestry; and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People” highlights her work as a prosecutor who, the site says, “put parents in jail for children skipping school — and laughed about it.”
None, though, has proved as successful as the Biden website. Mr. Mauldin boasted in the interview that he had fooled people into thinking his Biden website was the real campaign page. Some offered to donate money, he said, and others wanted to volunteer.
Mr. Mauldin insisted there was nothing duplicitous about it. “I don’t make any claims on the site to lean one way or the other,” he said, adding, “Facts are not partisan.”
It is buyer beware, and not just for unwitting Democrats. In 2017, a group of Democrats took a page out of the Russian playbook and posed as conservatives to try to divide Republicans in Alabama’s special Senate election, a race narrowly won by a Democrat. And as the 2020 campaign gets underway, election experts say they see signs that Americans from both sides of the political divide are getting ready to do the same. National security officials are also warning that Russia will again try to disrupt the election by spreading disinformation.
Meddling by foreigners is illegal. But trolling or disinformation spread by American citizens is protected by the First Amendment, and if Mr. Mauldin’s work is any guide, Americans may well do a far better job deceiving one another than any Russian troll could hope for.
A Viral Hit
Unlike much of the Russian disinformation, which often has been crude and off-key — remember the Facebook ad promoting Mr. Sanders as a gay-rights superhero? — the faux Biden site has been a viral hit. Mr. Mauldin even started selling mock Biden 2020 T-shirts through the website to capitalize on its success.
From mid-March, when Mr. Mauldin first began promoting the website on Reddit, through the end of May, it had more than 390,000 unique visitors, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb, a firm that analyzes web traffic. Mr. Biden’s official campaign website had about 310,000.
Of the people who found the websites through search engines, 83 percent landed on Mr. Mauldin’s page, according to SimilarWeb. None of it was paid traffic.
The website’s success was not accidental. Mr. Mauldin put it up well before Mr. Biden’s official website and aggressively pushed it out on Reddit, getting clicks and links and exposure. It had a big boost in May when a handful of media outlets — The Daily Callerand CNET, among others — wrote stories about the fake page beating Mr. Biden’s and linked to it. Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines. The New York Times is not linking to Mr. Mauldin’s websites to avoid further boosting them in search rankings.The Trump consultant, Patrick Mauldin, has built websites featuring a number of candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren.
In recent weeks, as search companies became aware that Mr. Mauldin’s website was fake, it has fallen below the real Biden page. But it remains among the top results, and it already appears to have fooled people.
“I know a lot of Biden supporters were furious when they saw that website,” said David Goldstein, the chief executive of Tovo Labs, a Democratic digital consulting firm in New York. “They suspected other Dem candidates were behind it.”
Then there were the less politically astute. In late April, Mr. Mauldin anonymously took to Reddit to boast that people were confusing his website for the real one. He posted in r/The_Donald, a popular spot for right-wing trolls to trade tips and show off, using the handle NPC_12345.
“How many Democrats can we red pill with my fake Joe Biden site?” Mr. Mauldin wrote in one post.
Another post included messages from duped Democrats. One person wanted Mr. Biden to speak at her son’s school. Another suggested the former vice president look to an old soul group, the Fifth Dimension, for his campaign song.
There were even messages asking Mr. Biden not to criticize other Democrats, Mr. Mauldin said in the interview. “They want it to be all ‘Kumbaya’ with the Democrats.”
He was not having it. “It’s important for everyone to realize aspects of their own side or candidate that maybe they don’t know about or don’t want to look at,” he said.
By “their own side,” Mr. Mauldin meant Democrats. He is not trolling any Republicans.
For decades, conventional wisdom in politics held that trying to undermine your opponent’s base would only motivate that group to vote against you. But in 2016, Russian disinformation and the Trump team’s own targeting of disenchanted Democrats led many campaign veterans on the left and the right to conclude that sowing dissent inside an opponent’s ranks could work. It worked especially well if the criticism appeared to come from their own side.Mr. Mauldin posted on Reddit about his fake websites, helping to drive traffic to them.Credit
With websites like the faux Biden page, “essentially you’re trying to sow chaos and you’re trying to basically do voter suppression,” said Mr. Goldstein, the Democratic consultant.
“You want their supporters to get sad, to get angry, to get turned off from their chosen candidate,” he continued. “The way voters tend to work: They don’t turn off from a candidate and pick up someone else; they turn off from a candidate and turn off politics.”
Mr. Goldstein’s firm, Tovo, tried to prove as much during Alabama’s special Senate election in 2017. With targeted ads, Tovo led conservative Republicans to a website featuring articles by conservatives who opposed the far-right candidate, Roy Moore. Moderate Republicans were directed to a site that suggested they write in a different candidate. The effort relied only on genuine content from conservatives, and it was entirely separate from the Democrats who used Facebook to pose as conservatives.
Tovo later published its findings. It claimed to have driven down moderate Republican turnout by 2.5 percent, and conservative Republican turnout by 4.4 percent.
Unlike Tovo, Mr. Mauldin makes no claims of trying to prove any concepts, and he had no intention of outing himself. When approached by The Times, he argued that he should not be identified because he had not sought the spotlight, and because he feared threats and harassment. He preferred “to work behind the scenes,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Maulden registered the Biden site privately so that his name and contact details would not appear in any public searches. But The Times was able to confirm Mr. Mauldin’s identity because the Biden page shared the same Google analytics tags with a number of other active and defunct websites, including the ones he has made for the three other Democratic candidates. Some of those sites that shared the Google tags were registered under Mr. Mauldin’s name.
Sipping a Crown Royal and Coke at a bar in downtown Austin, Mr. Mauldin bore little resemblance to the boasting troll he played on Reddit. He is slight, and has boyish features. He wore his shirt neatly tucked into jeans, and paused to consider questions before answering. When he did not want to answer, he quietly said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” — even when asked about things it was hard to imagine he had forgotten, like what he told the Trump campaign about his websites.Mr. Mauldin works on President’s Trump’s re-election campaign, which kicked off this past month in Orlando, Fla.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
Mr. Mauldin grew up in eastern Texas, and described his political views as “closest to libertarian.” He studied marketing at Texas A&M, and taught himself digital design skills, building on a childhood love of drawing.
He and his brother founded Vici after helping a family friend win a state representative race. Their big break came in June 2016, when the Trump campaign’s digital operation, short of manpower and scrambling, hired Vici.
Mr. Mauldin quickly impressed. His specialty was making the kind of viral videos that riffed on pop culture and were relentlessly pumped out on social media by the Trump campaign. One came after Hillary Clinton dropped a reference to the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go into a speech, urging voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls.” Mr. Mauldin responded with a video that featured Mrs. Clinton as a Pokemon creature players had to catch, providing the kind of tit for tat needed to feed a day of news stories.
In a testimonial on Vici’s website, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2016 digital director and now his campaign manager, called Mr. Mauldin “an indispensable part of our digital operation” in the president’s first campaign.
People with ties to the re-election campaign, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements, said that Mr. Mauldin was brought back on retainer for the 2020 race.
Mr. Mauldin would not discuss specifics of his role with the campaign, citing his own nondisclosure agreement. He was only slightly more talkative about his websites.
Pressed on whether he thought they were deceptive, Mr. Mauldin complained that people put too much emphasis on identity “instead of examining the facts themselves.” He brushed off a question about whether GIFs of Mr. Biden touching women, devoid of any context, represented facts.
The point, Mr. Mauldin said, was to help Democrats see their candidates for who they were — warts and all — and not try to pretend that they all agreed and were in lock step on every issue.
As he sees it now, “there’s a party line and you either toe it or you’re a traitor,” he said, adding that this applied to both Democrats and Republicans.
But weren’t his sites encouraging Democrats to look for traitors?
“I mean, they could do it themselves,” Mr. Mauldin said with a laugh. “But they’re not. That’s the problem.”
.. By marking the charge as an infrastructure fee, the fund firms may be able to avoid disclosing it to investors... Fund companies that decline to pay the amount will “be subject to a very limited relationship” with the company, the document says. Funds can either pay the fee themselves or push the cost onto investors in the mutual fund. This can increase the overall fees of a fund, causing individual investors to pay more and dent returns... The fee is calculated as 0.15% of a mutual-fund company’s industrywide assets, not just on the dollar amount of assets held by Fidelity customers buying shares on the platform, the document says.
The infrastructure fee appears to be a way for Fidelity to make up for revenue the firm has lost as a result of investors flocking to reduced-cost mutual funds, a situation the firm refers to in the document as “unsustainable economics.” Fidelity also stated in the document that its traditional business model is “broken” and characterized the infrastructure fee as a solution to that problem.
.. The infrastructure fee is levied on lower-cost share classes such as those aimed at retirement accounts. The Labor Department has jurisdiction over retirement accounts that are subject to extra protections and disclosures under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or Erisa.
.. The document outlining the infrastructure fee, “Fidelity FundsNetwork Business & Services Guide,” is “not to be distributed to the public as sales material in oral or written form,” and “may not be shared with any third party.”
.. When a fund pays a fee that aims to result in the sale of fund shares, either directly or indirectly, securities laws require it to be part of what is known as a 12b-1 plan and to be disclosed to investors. Many lower-cost fund share classes don’t have 12b-1 plans—a reason why they are cheaper.
.. The Fidelity infrastructure fee is also the subject of a lawsuit filed last week in a Massachusetts federal court by a participant in a retirement plan offered by T-Mobile US, Inc. In that suit, the plaintiff contends that the infrastructure charge is prohibited under Erisa and that Fidelity incentivizes mutual funds on its platform to “conceal the true nature of fees associated with these funds.”
Three decades ago, Donald J. Trump waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become Mr. Trump’s third Atlantic City casino. Executives at Mr. Trump’s company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.
The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil Mr. Trump fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.
As president, Mr. Trump has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, Mr. Trump has
- insulted adversaries,
- undermined his aides,
- repeatedly changed course,
- extolled his primacy as a negotiator and
- induced chaos.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for Mr. Trump in the 1980s and wrote a book about it. “And it’s only people who have been around him through the years who realize that.”
..Mr. Trump was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception Mr. Trump could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.
He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business. People who worked with him during those years say they see multiple parallels between Mr. Trump the businessman and Mr. Trump the steward of the country’s longest government shutdown.
His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed Mr. Trump’s business ventures only to come up shortchanged.
And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning. Even after his televised proposal on Saturday to break the deadlock, Mr. Trump has no progress to show.
That book, published in 1987, was intended to be an autobiography of Mr. Trump, who was 41 at the time. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of Mr. Trump as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched Mr. Trump seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.
Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, Mr. Trump’s “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.
“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used
- a hammer,
- relentlessness and
- an absence of conscience
as a formula for getting what he wanted.”
In a brief telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Trump was not specific in defending his tactics, but he described himself as successful in his chosen fields of real estate, entertainment and finally politics. “I ran for office once and I won,” Mr. Trump said.
The president’s supporters say he gets an unfair rap as a poor negotiator, saying that his style and unusual approach — and unwillingness to accept defeat even in the worst situations — have often had positive results. And in a Washington that doesn’t like outsiders, he has clearly forced his adversaries out of their comfort zones.
“President Trump’s success in business has translated into success as president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said. “He’s
- ignited a booming economy with
- rising wages and
- historically low unemployment,
- negotiated better trade deals,
- persuaded our allies to contribute their fair share to NATO, and
- secured the release of American hostages around the world.”
.. The bank eventually settled with Mr. Trump, saving him from having to pay the $40 million. Mr. Trump expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill. “He left me with some costs,” said the lawyer, Steven Schlesinger.
From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, Mr. Trump left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.
The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued Mr. Trump for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.
That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. Mr. Trump recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”
Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them.
Mr. Trump has also embraced his business practice of giving the most latitude and trust to family members, no matter their prior experience.
He put his first wife, Ivana, a model, in charge of an Atlantic City casino and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. He put his younger brother, Robert, who had some background in corporate finance, in senior positions at the casinos. Not long after three of his children graduated from college, he vested authority in them over golf courses, hotels and licensing deals.
.. In the White House, Mr. Trump has increasingly leaned on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for guidance on dealing with Congress amid the current stalemate. Mr. Kushner, who like Mr. Trump is the son of a wealthy real estate developer, has not always impressed old hands on Capitol Hill.
.. With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump also has a new set of adversaries, and other old habits from his years in business have re-emerged.
Through his Twitter feed, he has verbally pummeled Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and tried to drive a wedge between Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
.. Barbara Res, who said she enjoyed much about working for Mr. Trump as a construction executive in the 1980s and 1990s, sees in Ms. Pelosi a new challenge to Mr. Trump’s lifelong tactics. One blind spot she observed was that Mr. Trump “believes he’s better than anyone who ever lived” and saw even the most capable of women as easy to run over.
“But there was never a woman with power that he ran up against, until Pelosi,” she said. “And he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s totally in a corner.”
In the interview, Mr. Trump described Ms. Res, Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Schwartz as disgruntled workers whom he had shunted aside, who had experience with him for relatively brief periods and who were simply using his name for attention.
During his years in business, Mr. Trump rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.
Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.
His wealthy father helped bail him out. But Mr. Trump blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.
In describing the border wall, Mr. Trump has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.
Mr. O’Donnell, the casino manager, said long-term consequences never concerned Mr. Trump. He was always willing to pay too much in order to get a deal signed so he could declare victory, he said.
“He just wants to get the deal,” Mr. O’Donnell said.