WASHINGTON – When Brad Parscale was looking for advice about how to navigate Washington after running the digital strategy for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, the brash political newcomer turned to a Beltway power couple.
Katie Walsh and Mike Shields, both former chiefs of staff at the Republican National Committee, advised him on how to make the most of his new perch, he said.
Since then, the three have flourished inside the Republican Party ecosystem, recommending one another’s services to top GOP officials and candidates. Together, the trio has broad influence across the party – drawing millions of dollars from 23 party committees and organizations since the start of 2017, according to campaign finance filings and people familiar with their work.
Their dominance alarms other GOP strategists, who claim the three have a disproportionate amount of sway – and have helped one another sustain that power.
The relationship between Parscale – who as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager regularly attacks the “Washington swamp” – and the low-profile GOP establishment couple speaks to how longtime party figures have acclimated to and benefited from the Trump era.
“Who else do I trust more than myself? The two people that I saw day after day, saying really smart things to me all the time, saying, ‘Hey, Brad, you may think about this,’ and they end up being right,” Parscale said in an interview. “It has nothing to do with money. It was trust.”
Since 2017, three businesses controlled by Walsh and Shields – including two companies formed after Trump’s election – have collected $12.6 million from GOP political committees and politically active groups, according to campaign filings and tax records. The payments include expenses for overhead, staff and ad purchases on behalf of candidates.
Their businesses have been paid by almost every major arm of the GOP, including the Republican National Committee, the 2020 convention host committee, the official pro-Trump super PAC, the party’s House and Senate committees and the party’s designated data broker, according to campaign filings and GOP operatives familiar with the payments.
Walsh draws a monthly $25,000 consulting fee from the RNC, where she is a top adviser to Chairman Ronna McDaniel – totaling $300,000 a year. She has made $180,000 so far as a fundraiser for the 2020 Republican convention committee, records show. Since 2018, she has been paid more than $211,000 from a fundraising committee run by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for which her husband also works as a senior consultant, records show.
Walsh has thrived despite a rocky relationship with Trump. In early 2017, she resigned from her job as White House deputy chief of staff. The president has complained about her as a “leaker” or as disloyal, multiple current and former administration officials said. In a meeting at the White House residence in August, Trump asked McDaniel about the work that Walsh is doing for the party, according to people familiar with the episode.
The White House declined to comment.
Still, Walsh has won backers among members of Trump’s inner circle, some of whom contacted The Washington Post, unprompted, with statements praising her and Shields.
“Katie was one of the unsung heroes of the 2016 campaign and has been a great partner in working toward the president’s reelection in 2020,” said Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser.
McCarthy called Shields “one of the most talented political minds I know.”
Walsh, Shields and Parscale said their actions have been guided by a desire to help the party and Trump succeed.
“I believe I am at the RNC due to my experience as a former RNC chief of staff when we elected President Trump and because of the trust that the chairwoman and Brad have in me,” Walsh said.
Shields noted that he has worked in politics for 25 years in a variety of roles and helped build the party’s current data program.
“Change agents always face detractors,” he said.
Less than three years after coming to town, Parscale is now a major player in Washington. GOP political committees paid his companies $34 million since 2017, campaign filings show. Of that, Parscale said he has retained about $400,000 in fees, while the rest went to ad purchases and expenses.
To longtime GOP leaders, the trio’s reach is emblematic of the party’s overreliance on an elite consultant class.
“A select few people benefit from the way the system is currently run, and the sad part is, it is allowed to exist,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The RNC declined to respond.
The trio’s working relationship began in 2016. When Trump became the GOP nominee, Walsh, then the RNC’s chief of staff, helped Parscale develop the campaign’s general-election strategy, regularly spending four days a week at Trump Tower in New York.
In the 2018 midterms, Parscale also came to lean on Shields, who helped rebuild the party’s data infrastructure after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, according to people familiar with their relationship.
Walsh and Shields met through their work in Republican politics. She was a longtime party fundraiser who became the top staff member to then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. Shields preceded her in the same job after holding senior roles at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He also led the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group supporting the House GOP.
They became engaged on New Year’s Eve 2016 at 10 Downing Street in London, as a result of his connections in England, where he lived as a child. Their wedding in Charleston, S.C., the next year was attended by the party’s upper echelon, including Parscale.
At the time, Parscale – a onetime San Antonio web marketer and Washington neophyte – was handling several roles as one of the new president’s most trusted representatives. He was a point of contact for the RNC, where he had come aboard as a consultant. He was gatekeeper for one of the Trump campaign’s most valuable assets: its data on supporters and donors. And he took a central role in helping to set up two groups that could accept checks of unlimited size to support Trump’s agenda.
“I was serving as an unofficial agent for the Trump family,” Parscale said.
Shields and Walsh guided him along the way.
When it came to setting up the two pro-Trump groups, America First Action and America First Policies, the couple advised the hiring of their close friend and colleague Brian Walsh (no relation to Katie Walsh) as president, said people familiar with the recommendation. Parscale passed the suggestion on to the groups’ board, the people said.
The new groups, under Brian Walsh, then hired the firms of the three operatives.
In 2017, America First Policies paid Katie Walsh’s firm Laymont Group $225,000 for fundraising, tax records show.
Walsh said in a statement that she worked with America First Policies because she thought “it was critically important” to help “fight the liberal media’s effort to derail the president’s agenda.”
America First also paid Convergence Media $25,000, records show, along with nearly $2 million to run ads, for which the company retained a percentage as a fee. Shields said the work was done by Rob Simms, his business partner, noting that their firm was one of nearly 20 vendors the group hired in 2018.
Parscale Strategy received nearly $3 million from the two groups, records show.
Once he became Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Parscale was not allowed to coordinate with the independent groups. But a separate company he owns, Red State Data and Digital, which is legally firewalled off from the campaign, has continued to do work for the super PAC, according to filings and a person familiar with the arrangement.
Brian Walsh, who had previously run the Congressional Leadership Fund, said the trio helped make the organizations successful.
“We hired talented, experienced, loyal people who were committed to our mission, paid them a fair market rate, and the end result is two successful organizations, a winning record in the midterms – and this crappy article,” he said in a statement to the Post.
In 2017, the RNC elected a new chairwoman, McDaniel, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP and a niece of Romney, whom Katie Walsh had recommended for the job, said people familiar with her role. That summer, Walsh became a senior adviser for the party, where she is involved in many major decisions, former officials said.
As she has served in that role, there has been consternation inside the party about RNC contracts that have gone to her allies, multiple former party officials said.
“With Brad and Katie and Brad and Mike, they so often come as a package,” said a Republican operative familiar with their work, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
Months after Walsh rejoined the RNC as a consultant, the party began paying Parscale’s firm to place its ads on digital platforms, according to filings and those familiar with the arrangement.
In all, the national party has paid Parscale Strategy $25 million since 2017, filings show. The vast majority of the money was passed along to buy ads, said Parscale, who said his firm kept a fee of 1.5 percent of the ad purchases.
Parscale’s firm helped the RNC purchase digital ads at a reduced cost, RNC spokesman Mike Reed said. That arrangement ended in August amid scrutiny about how much money was flowing to the firm owned by the president’s campaign manager. All RNC digital buys are now made directly through host sites to “ensure complete transparency,” Reed said.
The RNC also hired Shields’ business partner, Simms, to consult on House races in 2018, paying him through St. James Strategies, people familiar with the deal said.
Public records do not indicate who controls St. James. Simms said that because the RNC was hiring him individually, he set up the separate company “for legal and compliance reasons.”
Walsh told the Post that she had no role in RNC’s hiring of Simms or Parscale.
An RNC spokesman said Walsh had “no oversight or involvement” in the vendor selection process.
“Katie and her years of experience at the RNC are an invaluable asset to our team,” McDaniel said in a statement. “Like all our consultants, she provides advice and makes recommendations, some of which we take and some of which we don’t. Ultimately, my chief of staff and I make all of the RNC’s investment decisions.”
McDaniel also recommended Walsh as a fundraiser for the RNC’s 2020 convention, according to people familiar with the situation, including Louis DeJoy, the host committee’s national finance chair. DeJoy said McDaniel was among many who recommended Walsh.
Walsh has been paid $180,000 for the convention work so far through Red Strategy Group, which is not listed under her name but shares her phone number, as the Center for Public Integrity first reported.
Shields, meanwhile, has taken on a broad range of clients at Convergence Media, the consulting firm he and Simms began in 2017. Since then, it has been hired by two major fundraising committees for House Republicans and independent groups such as With Honor, a super PAC backed by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, filings show. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Some campaigns and candidates have said they felt pressure to hire Convergence to get access to Trump’s list of supporters, which was being rented in late 2018 through Excelsior Strategies, a company set up by a Convergence executive, according to records and people familiar with the situation. Shields said the project helped GOP campaigns nationwide raise money and generated little revenue.
Meanwhile, Parscale and McDaniel urged GOP campaigns to hire Convergence, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Among the clients was the campaign of Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, which first contacted Parscale to see if he could help at a time of deep tensions between the Trump and DeSantis camps, according to people familiar with the situation. Parscale declined, but recommended Shields’ firm, which was then hired to place millions in television and digital ads, filings show.
After the election, Florida state party officials contacted Walsh for fundraising help, and she recommended her husband’s firm, which was hired for a short-term contract in 2019, according to people familiar with the arrangement. Shields said his firm made only $4,000.
Meanwhile, McDaniel and her staff pushed for Convergence to be hired to make television ads for the Senate campaign of Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi, people involved in the discussions said. Campaign officials resisted, and some close to her campaign were concerned about such a specific request by the national party at a time when Hyde-Smith was seeking Trump’s endorsement and RNC support, according to the people.
“I know this is politics, but there is still right and wrong,” said one Republican operative involved in the Mississippi campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Brad White, Hyde-Smith’s chief of staff, said he remembered the RNC request but that he never considered it a threat to the campaign to withhold resources.
“I think it was all about, ‘We want to make sure you have good commercials,’ ” White said.
After Hyde-Smith qualified for the runoff, the RNC transferred $1 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee – along with a specific request that the money be used to hire Convergence to make ads for the race, three people familiar with the conversations said.
The Senate committee ultimately paid Convergence $229,500 for that race, in addition to $1.2 million for other races and consulting, according to public records.
“Convergence was honored to be a trusted vendor for the NRSC on winning races in North Dakota, Tennessee and Mississippi,” said Shields, who said the firm netted about $41,000 for its Mississippi work.
A spokesman for McDaniel said there was no tie between the RNC’s support for Hyde-Smith and the hiring of Convergence, adding that the special election was a “must-win race” for the party.