An account in exchange for an ownership stake in the company. That’s the deal Parler reportedly offered then-President Donald Trump to make the online haven for deplatformed right-wingers and extremists his primary social network.
The Trump Organization, which negotiated on behalf of the president, was offered a 40% stake in Parler if Trump made an account on the platform, though nothing was ever finalized, according to documents reviewed by Buzzfeed News and four sources familiar with the deliberations that spoke with the outlet. The talks began sometime last summer and then sparked up once more in November after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, ostensibly so that he’d have another online soapbox on which to blare (and profit off of) his election fraud conspiracy theories. Per Buzzfeed News, it’s not clear how much Trump personally participated in these negotiations.
But even though nothing ultimately came of the deal, just by entertaining those discussions the Trump Organization could be in for some serious legal headaches. The whole mess almost certainly runs afoul of anti-bribery laws. It’s also triggering flashbacks to when Trump tried to strongarm Microsoft into giving the U.S. treasury a cut of any TikTok deal it made.
Turns out, when you put a corrupt businessman in charge of a country, he abuses his power to try to make a buck. Who woulda thunk?
According to the outlet, Trump’s representatives conspired with Parler to help the platform compete with mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The logic goes that if Trump posted his bullshit on Parler first before sharing it on other platforms, Parler served to profit off that exclusivity while also giving him a direct line to some of his staunchest supporters that had already been kicked off everywhere else online.
Parler bills itself as “the world’s premier free speech platform” unshackled by the so-called censorship and oppressive moderation policies of other platforms. Or at least, that’s what it claimed to be back when the platform was still functioning. It’s been down since early January when Parler was booted from Amazon’s web services, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, for failing to enact meaningful moderation policies that would keep users from posting the kind of violent content that reportedly helped fuel the attack on Capitol Hill last month. While Parler has since found a new web host—Epik, the domain name registrar behind other extremist cesspools like Gab and the Daily Stormer—the site’s remained little more than a bulletin board for a handful of defiant messages from Parler’s admins and their chosen few right-wing pundits.
During a meeting at the White House last year, former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was the first to suggest that Trump get an ownership stake out of the deal with Parler, according to a source familiar with the negotiations that spoke with Buzzfeed News. Four sources told the outlet that Parscale and Trump campaign lawyer Alex Cannon met with then-Parler CEO John Matze and shareholders Dan Bongino and Jeffrey Wernick at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida to discuss a potential deal. According to Parscale, Trump was never in the picture.
“The president was never part of the discussions,” he 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.”
After the election, Trump’s team revisited the idea, according to two people familiar with the matter, but negotiations with Parler soured after pro-Trump insurgents launched a deadly raid on the Capitol Building in an attempt to overthrow the election results. Before the deal fell apart, Parler offered the Trump Organization a 40% stake in the company, according to a December document reviewed by Buzzfeed News and two sources with direct knowledge of the talks. Half of that stake would be forked over immediately after sealing the deal, while the other half would be “doled out in tranches over the 24-month period of the agreement.” In exchange, Trump would agree to post all of his online content on Parler at least four hours before posting it anywhere else. Parler also asked that Trump shout out Parler whenever he posted on other social media platforms or emailed his supporters, give Parler access to his email lists for promotional purposes, and introduce the company to potential investors or advertisers.
Wernick confirmed to the outlet that Parler had been in talks with the Trump Organization about setting Trump up on the platform, but said the former president wasn’t involved in these discussions. He also disputed Buzzfeed News’ reporting, though didn’t go into specifics about what information he claimed was inaccurate.
“We have spoken to several people about potential stakes in the company for producing certain things,” Wernick said.
Scott Amey, general counsel of the nonpartisan watchdog Project on Government Oversight, told the outlet that the news warrants further scrutiny and “an immediate criminal investigation.”
“While then-president Trump bragged that ethics rules didn’t apply to him, bribery laws do apply, and courts have held that Trump’s social media posts constituted official business while he was in office,” he said. “His posts were a preferred method for the White House to communicate with the public. If the offer included anything of value, and Trump planned to post on a social media platform while he was still in office, that would almost certainly be illegal, and he should be held accountable.”
Parler did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Surely you didn’t really expect the Trump drama to be over now that he’s left the White House, right? These likely won’t be the last under-the-table dealings that surface from his tenure, and all we can do is hope that they all see their day in court.