Trump's America Online
Why you should think twice before joining Donald Trump's proposed social media network and always read the fine print.
I’m releasing this one from behind the paywall because it seems like a story that deserves as many readers as I can attract. However, only subscribers can comment. If you’re not already subscribed, please considering signing up.
There is a new development on the horizon of Donald Trump's post-presidency: a social media network built around and for the former president.
In a recent Newsmax interview, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski announced the project's development. "This is going to be launched in the next 3 to 4 months, and it's going to be an interactive communication tool, whereby the president will be able to post things to it, and people will be able to repost and communicate directly with him," Lewandowski said.
Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told Fox News' "#MediaBuzz" something similar on March 21, albeit with a different timeline. "I do think that we're going to see President Trump returning to social media in probably about two or three months here, with his own platform," he said. "And this is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media, it's going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does."
Lewandowski's comments suggest that this project may take longer than Trump's team had anticipated. They've also considered a handful of social media networks for a partnership because, as Jonathan Swan and Sara Fischer explained, "Trump is famously averse to putting his own money into companies, preferring to license his name and use other people's money to fund his ventures."
On February 5, BuzzFeed News reported that then-campaign manager Brad Parscal floated the idea of Trump "taking an ownership stake in Parler during a meeting last year at the White House, according to a source familiar with the negotiations."
"The president was never part of the discussions," Parscale told BuzzFeed News. "The discussions were never that substantive. And this was just one of many things the campaign was looking into to deal with the cancel culture of Silicon Valley."
Jared Kushner replaced Parscale with Bill Stepien in July after the former's profligacy drew unwanted attention to the Trump campaign's finances. Business Insider reported in late December that Kushner "approved the creation of a campaign shell company that secretly paid the president's family members and spent almost half of the campaign's $1.26 billion war chest." Though there was an effort to blame spending problems on Parscale, most of that money—$415 million—was spent after Kushner replaced him with Stepien.
Parscale fell back into Trump's orbit recently, joining Kushner confidants Stepien and Miller among the "top political lieutenants” of Trump's post-presidency.
Talks with Parler would resume once more. A leaked document showed Parler offered a 40 percent stake in the company during negotiations with the Trump Organization in December. "Upon completion of that deal, half of that stake would have been given immediately to the Trump Organization, while the other half would have been doled out in tranches over the 24-month period of the agreement," journalists Ryan Mac and Rosie Gray reported.
But things fell apart after the Capitol Building incident on January 6, when Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores and Amazon booted the platform from its web hosting service. With Parler going dark, an alternative platform presented itself in Gab. And as was the case with Parler, Kushner's representatives requested equity in exchange for Trump's presence on Gab—a proposition flatly rejected by CEO and founder Andrew Torba.
Torba told me that his platform's skyrocketing traffic—in other words, its data—attracted Trump's team, led by Kushner's representatives, to Gab. "As we told Mr. Kushner's aides, Gab has no plans to sell our business or to compromise in any way our mission to defend free speech online for all people," he said. "We fully expect the president's entry into the arena to accelerate alternative technology growth trends and wish the president and his tech team well."
Torba said the motive became transparent after a call with Kushner's aides. "They said that they were in 'make money mode' and were focused on how they could financially benefit from Gab and change our free speech stance," he told me. "All I wanted to do was give the president his voice back, but Kushner and others in the president's orbit expected me to hand the keys to the kingdom over to them and change the core mission of Gab," Torba added. "I wasn't going to let that happen."
The latest platform in the sights of Trump's team appears to be an obscure social media network called FreeSpace, which claims 20,000 combined downloads between the Apple and Google app stores.
Everything that has happened up to this point contradicts Lewandowski's recent comments and highlights a cutthroat approach by Trump's team. "The platform that the president is building is not going to rely on Amazon, or Amazon servers," he told Newsmax, seemingly disparaging Parler. He claimed Trump's platform is "going to be completely built from scratch, from the ground up." But the focus so far seems to be not on building but acquiring an existing product.
According to Lewandowski, this platform is "going to give [Trump] the opportunity to control not only the distribution of it, but also who participates in it.” Therefore, it does not appear intended to be a forum for free expression—like Parler and Gab—but more like a direct marketing app, which, in politics, usually means fundraising.
If free expression were, in fact, the objective, then Trump would have jumped on and boosted an existing alternative to continue communicating with his supporters directly. But Kushner reportedly advised Trump against getting on either Parler or Gab after Twitter permanently suspended his account—and Trump listened. Further, a recent Republican National Committee survey also appears to connect Trump's social media dreams with fundraising.
"Big Tech isn't even pretending to care about protecting free speech anymore, and President Trump has announced plans to go around them by starting his very own social media platform," an email from the RNC reads. The attached survey asks respondents: "Should President Trump start his own Social Media Platform?"
Trump attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to the RNC in early March, demanding the organization stop using his name and likeness in fundraising efforts. It's unclear whether Trump consented to this survey. Regardless, it raises awareness of his proposed platform.
In a similar vein, a recent story revealed how Trump supporters, including a cancer patient, were unwittingly enrolled in recurring donations that quietly drained their bank accounts. When they demanded their money back, funds raised from supporters after the election to "stop the steal" effectively subsidized the refunds to other supporters.
So much of what Trump does tends to devolve into a distracting grift, and this proposed platform has the look of that before even launching.