Trump's top campaign strategist, Jason Miller, is hiding payments from Steve Bannon

Miller's child-support battle with the mother of his son has raised many questions about his murky finances

Published November 3, 2020 5:00AM (EST)

Jason Miller (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jason Miller (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Trump's top campaign strategist, Jason Miller, has been paid tens of thousands of dollars a month through a third-party campaign vendor rather than taking a salary from the campaign, obscuring the flow of money and apparently concealing how much he makes — an arrangement campaign finance experts say is illegal.

Miller, a 2016 senior adviser who joined the re-election campaign in early June, additionally appears to have been paid as recently as July by Citizens of the American Republic (COAR), a nonprofit founded by Steve Bannon which is currently part of a federal fraud and money laundering investigation into the former Trump campaign chief, as a vehicle used to fabricate invoices in furtherance of that scheme. (Salon first reported that COAR had paid Miller $20,000 a month.)

Miller also appears to have taken monthly payments of several thousand dollars from a firm co-founded by two Trump officials — one of them being Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. Salon was first to report that the campaign does not report any salary payments to Stepien, either.

The question of the campaign payments, and Miller's mysterious and varying monthly income, is important not only for reasons of public transparency, but for determining how much Miller, who is married, should pay for child support in a contentious custody case with a 2016 Trump campaign adviser which has dragged out for years in Florida family court.

Prior to re-enlisting on the Trump campaign, Miller worked over the last two years as a consultant and, for about six weeks this spring, a lobbyist, reporting monthly incomes ranging between $27,000 and $99,000, including side payments from his old firm, Teneo, where he had collected a $500,000 salary.

During this time Miller paid the mother of his child as little as $500 a month, one-sixth of what a courts had demanded. That sum of $500 would also the minimum monthly amount required by the state for a parent who makes $2,300 a month. Miller spends $2,300 a month just on expenses related to his cars, according to a financial affidavit filed in August, which states that he made more than $600,000 last year.

After Trump's 2016 victory, Miller expected a White House post, but had to withdraw when news broke that he had fathered a child with fellow 2016 campaign adviser AJ Delgado, who is not his wife.

Delgado, who joined the transition team and expected a job in the administration or cable news before news broke of the affair, alleges that Miller, a staunch conservative who once worked for Sen. Ted Cruz, told her at the time that he was separated from his wife, and twice asked her to have an abortion. Delgado also alleged in a court filing which later leaked to the press that Miller had slipped an abortion pill into the smoothie of another woman he had gotten pregnant.

Miller denies that accusation and has sued the outlet, Gizmodo, for $100 million. In a 2019 sworn deposition for that suit he admitted to hiring prostitutes and receiving sexual favors at multiple "Asian themed" massage parlors, an industry known to have connections to sex trafficking rings.

Throughout his professional political life, Miller has been known as an attack dog, someone "not beyond throwing binders," a former colleague of his told Salon.

In recent months he has become the Trump campaign's preferred media presence, the 2020 answer to Kellyanne Conway. On television, comes across as a deft but maddening dissembler, sailing through the Sunday shows on currents of lies and backtalk — the exact personality that Trump wants to put out front.

"He sort of failed his way up," Rick Wilson, longtime Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, told Salon. "He's got a certain shamelessness about him that media bookers can't get enough of."

Miller has built those skills over the last 20-odd years, working for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — who officiated what a longtime friend of the Miller family described as the Millers' "shotgun" wedding — as well as Cruz and former Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican whose extramarital affair scuttled his political ascent.

Like many Cruz-backing conservatives, Miller was initially anti-Trump. The Millers' longtime friend recalled Miller's wife, Kelly, going out of her way to compliment his social media posts blasting Trump during the 2016 primary, going so far as to put their conversation on speakerphone and calling Jason in to the room to take part. A few months later, the Millers cut that social tie.

In 2003 and 2004, Miller joined Jack Ryan's ill-fated Senate campaign in Illinois against then-state senator Barack Obama. He was brought on as a PR specialist, a known dirty player who in his first weeks onboard allegedly fought not to fire an Obama tracker who had been so aggressive he followed the then-candidate with a camera to a bathroom, and waited outside the door.

When Miller arrived on the Ryan campaign, Chicago media outlets were trying to unseal custody documents which later revealed that Ryan pressured his wife to perform sexual acts with him at strip clubs, a scandal that ended his campaign. According to a person who worked on the campaign, Miller himself enjoyed strip clubs and was frequently seen in "obvious embraces with women who were not his fiancée."

"Women in particular got a lot of his wrath," the person said, adding that Miller was "uneven towards women."

Ryan, who now runs a real estate business, briefly hired Miller as a lobbyist this spring, Salon previously reported.

Other people who knew Miller characterized him as "untrustworthy," and that his behavior around women had made them nervous.

"I can handle being around assholes at work. All my life. But not this guy," said one person, who described Miller as pugnacious, especially when he'd been drinking: "Get a little liquor in him, and you get the sense he's not somebody totally in control."

Miller has invoked substance abuse and mental illness multiple times in his custody case, including multiple stints in rehab. Delgado, herself a graduate of Harvard Law, has expressed suspicion about the timing and forthrightness of these check-ins, which have coincided with court dates.

A few years before he joined the Ryan campaign, Miller had a central role in a Washington Post article about the party scene at George Washington University, where he was a fraternity member:

The frat brothers show off for the girls and the cameras, ripping off shirts and chugging beers. ...  Jason Miller surveys the crowd like a proud father. "It's my senior year so I'm going to party," he says. Miller says he's got a 3.0 average, a major in political science and a job as a staff assistant in Sen. Slade Gorton's (R-Wash.) office on Capitol Hill. He will become a lawyer and probably a politician some day. Life is good.

"He wants you to know he's there, that he's the guy with the rolodex," the Ryan campaign colleague said. "He kicked the campaign director out of his office and just took it. Demanded a personal driver. Now, this is Chicago. We don't put on airs. But he had a tailor come into the campaign office once, to work on his suits."

"The attitude he brought into every room — the attitude fit him, but it didn't fit the room," the person added.

"You'd think he would have burned his bridges," the person said. "But Jason knows how to play nice."

Salon reviewed communications that illustrate those two sides today.

In an email last January, Miller's attorney wrote that Delgado, who often drags Miller on Twitter, acted out as a jilted and jealous ex who couldn't process that Miller's interest in her did not range beyond the sexual:

She cannot accept that the relationship was simply just sexual encounters and Mr. Miller's decision not to have any emotional commitment or future involvement with Ms. Delgado made your client launch a venomous campaign designed to publicly harm and humiliate Mr. Miller.

(A Page Six piece that ran shortly after their son's birth in 2017, and which Delgado alleges Miller planted, describes their relationship in similar terms, as "a wild night in Vegas.")

Miller later admitted in court, however, that the relationship was not just a one-night stand, an implication echoed by multiple voicemails reviewed by Salon, which Miller left on Delgado's phone early in their relationship.

"Hey beautiful, it's me. I just wanted to call, say I miss you," Miller says in one, his voice smooth. "Hope you're having a nice Thanksgiving with Nancy. I miss you so much. Just want you to know I'm thinking about you. I'll try you again tomorrow. Bye."

In two other voicemails Miller expresses the same concern, endearment and attention to detail. Delgado says that he later had a D.C. gossip website remove the only existing picture of the two of them together, taken at a media party during the campaign. ("That is actually, to make it even weirder, the night things 'started,'" Delgado told Salon.)

Miller's mother-in-law has repeatedly and publicly weighed in on the custody case, which the judge has told Miller is not helpful. At one point, for instance, she accused Delgado in a since-deleted tweet of being "ALL about the Benjamin's. ... No doubt about it!!"

In a 2018 Daily Mail article Miller accused Delgado broadly of a "pattern of harassment," which later was more narrowly defined in court as Delgado's filings and critical tweets.

"First, he falsely portrays me as a drunken one-night encounter in Vegas, only to then privately admit in a deposition the involvement was months-long," Delgado told Salon. "His false narrative will harm [their son] in the future. It was completely unnecessary and done for his wife's benefit. Then, as if it that isn't bad enough, he goes to the Daily Mail in 2018 and ... heavily indicates I'd been harassing him only to then admit in the family-law matter that that wasn't true, either."

Delgado was fired from her position at America First Policies after that article ran. She claims no specific reason was given.

"Jason doesn't understand how all of this is playing out in the public square," said a former Miller colleague. "He doesn't seem to have that fatherly instinct."

Miller's parenting plan, which he submitted to Florida family court in May 2019, when his son with Delgado was not yet two years old, did not express any desire to see his son: "This parenting plan does not contain any time sharing between the child and the father."

Delgado, a former journalist and political analyst — she shared with Salon a 2016 email from a top Fox News executive saying that one day she would "have her own show" on the network — says she believes Miller and his allies have tried to block her professional opportunities.

"My career? There is none of which to speak," she told Salon, claiming that her former media go-tos dropped her after the affair. "As an example, after my tweets disclosing I was pregnant and, essentially, complaining about Miller still being promoted — I don't know if Jared [Kushner] called up Fox News, but I was suddenly never invited on again."

"I don't think people realize how degrading it is to have to beg for money from strangers doing a GoFundMe just to be able to keep up on costs of the litigation, and not even then," she said.

"There is a reason she is sitting home, unemployed and blackballed from the political arena," reads one recent email that Miller's attorney sent Delgado's attorney in the custody case. "She has nobody to blame besides herself."

It is unclear who "blackballed" Delgado.

"Jason is a problem child," said Wilson, whose never-Trump group of former Republicans raked in nearly $40 million last quarter. "If you're a real campaign, you cannot justify giving this guy fiduciary responsibilities of any kind, or putting him out there any sort of public-facing role. He is leaving the mother of his child out in the cold."

But even Miller couldn't successfully ride out the smoothie allegations, after which his CNN contributor gig vanished. He had ducked into the private sector and landed the Teneo job. Last June, Teneo severed public ties with Miller, reportedly as a result of crass insults he tweeted at Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., over what Miller saw as Nadler's rude treatment of Hope Hicks, another 2016 Trump campaign aide who has now returned to the White House.

Delgado alleged in court that Miller's apparent split with Teneo was fraudulent. Citing Miller's financial disclosures, Delgado asserted that in the month after Miller's departure Teneo began paying him through a corporation called SHW Partners tat Miller had set up for that purpose, and which Delgado characterizes as a "ruse" for Teneo to keep working with him.

In the months after leaving Teneo, Miller decreased his child support payments, citing an inability to pay, which, according to Delgado's court filing, appears fraudulent and the fruit of his private arrangement with Teneo (which has not replied to Salon's request for comment).

Indeed, Miller has pulled in a remarkable amount of money for a man who paid $500 in child support — between $27,000 and $60,000 a month over the last year, court documents show. In July, communications reviewed by Salon show, his income hit $99,000.

But none of those payments came from the Trump campaign — or at least none did so officially or directly.

As Salon previously reported, though the campaign does not list payments to Miller, it does pay a firm called Jamestown Associates, a media company founded in New Jersey which specializes in campaign publicity, and which lists Miller as an executive and partner. The campaign attributes all the disbursements to "video production services."

According to Salon's analysis of court documents, FEC filings and other communications, as well as a senior campaign source who confirmed the arrangements, Miller has been paid $35,000 a month through Jamestown Associates. That would be $420,000 annually — a larger salary than the president. 

Salon previously reported that FEC filings show that the Trump campaign made a number of payments to Jamestown from January and June, each somewhere between approximately $7,500 and $45,500. In July, however, those expenditures increased significantly, including a $78,394 payment on July 13 and a $133,800 payment on July 28 — at the time the campaign's single largest payment to the firm.

Communications reviewed by Salon show that the next day, Miller received $70,000 in a single payment from Jamestown. In a public court document from the child support case, Miller reported an unattributed $35,000 monthly payment, exactly half the amount Jamestown paid him in late July — which was apparently two months' pay.

Jared Kushner personally signed off on the payment arrangement, according to the senior campaign source, who added that the president was typically aware of such decisions.

Trump campaign chief spokesperson Tim Murtaugh did not respond to Salon's multiple requests for comment.

"If the Trump campaign is paying Jason Miller for consulting services, but disclosing the payments as disbursements to Jamestown Associates for 'video production,' then the campaign would be violating its legal reporting requirements," Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center (CLC), an organization that advocates for fairness and transparency in elections, told Salon.

In July, CLC filed an FEC complaint that alleged the Trump campaign hid the true recipients of at least $170 million in payments through the scheme Fischer described above, most specifically through American Made Media, a consulting firm co-founded by top campaign officials.

"These campaign finance violations would be in addition to, and separate from, the violations that arise from the Trump campaign routing its spending through LLCs created and managed by senior campaign officials," Fischer said.

Campaign finance experts say that FEC advisory opinions dating back to the 1980s have held that political committees only have to report expenditures to the primary vendor, but do not have to report expenditures to subvendors. The FEC has held, however, in a series of enforcement cases, that the initial vendor cannot simply act as a conduit for payments to subvendors.

In short, experts say, the arrangement is illegal.

In recent weeks, Miller and his attorney have refused to tell Delgado whether he is being paid by either Jamestown Associates or the Trump campaign. In an email and court filing, Miller's attorney no longer refers to Jamestown CEO Larry Weitzner as a "former" associate of Miller, but has refused to clarify the current relationship.

Over the course of the last year, court documents show, Miller has dramatically and inventively reduced his child support payments. While reporting income of between $27,000 and $99,000 a month, he made six monthly support payments of $500, often in immediate proximity to mandatory court dates.

While his creative accounting in court documents somehow reduces the monthly sums to around zero, the court has recently ruled those arguments invalid. In March, for instance, Miller paid $500 to his child's mother, yet spent more than $4,000 on guns. At one point he argued that he did not have enough money for a plane ticket.

And while Miller has paid the full mandated $3,167 the last two months — since taking the campaign job for no official salary — he ignored a July 22 court order to pay more than $11,000 to make up for the payments he ducked earlier this year. Delgado has requested that the court hold him in contempt.

It is unclear why Miller's income structure over the last year has been so opaque, and why in recent months he has fought to keep the details secret. It's also not clear why Miller's most lucrative month of the last calendar year — July, when he earned $99,000 — was the same month he dedicated himself to working for the campaign without taking a paycheck.

However, one source of Miller's income over the last year has recently become the subject of federal scrutiny: Bannon's nonprofit, COAR, which prosecutors alleged in a charging document this August was a vehicle that Bannon and his collaborators used to create fake invoices as part of a money laundering scheme.

In an Aug. 23 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Miller told host Chuck Todd that although he had worked for COAR, he had not been interviewed by government investigators: "I have not, and from public reports it looks like this investigation was going long before the podcast even started, the podcast and the radio show that I co-hosted with Steve."

The indictment says that a financial institution had alerted Bannon and his collaborators that they were under federal investigation around October 2019, after which group members began communicating via encrypted messaging apps.

Miller co-hosted a podcast with Bannon for COAR, reportedly beginning in October 2019, the month after he left a stint in rehab. Ordinal invoices that Miller references in his custody filings suggest that COAR began to pay him around that time.

Those filings, obtained by Salon, along with additional communications, show that Miller appears to have been paid tens of thousands of dollars a month for his work at COAR, from October 2019 through as late as July — nine months after Bannon's group allegedly took steps to conceal communications after learning they were under investigation.

At the time of that July payment, of $10,000, Miller had been working on the Trump campaign for at least a month, and had recorded his last COAR podcast in May. It is unclear whether the Trump campaign is aware that Miller was being paid by Bannon's nonprofit while working for them.

Communications reviewed by Salon also show that Miller received $7,500 in July from a group called National Public Affairs, a consulting firm cofounded by former White House official Justin Clark and Trump's current campaign manager, Bill Stepien. Miller received at least one other payment from the firm in that amount, communications show.

Stepien joined the campaign in December, but FEC filings do not disclose a salary. Reports have suggested that Stepien took a 33% pay cut through another firm, Revolution Strategies LLC, when he took the campaign manager job. But it is unclear what work Stepien's other firm paid Miller to do while he worked for the campaign for free. FEC filings also show that National Public Affairs had several high-dollar candidate clients who also did spots on Bannon's podcast, featuring Miller, around the time of some of those payments.

"The fact that Jason Miller is being paid by Bannon is completely unsurprising to me," Wilson remarked. "Stepien seems caught in the wheel of history here, kept as one of Jared's pets. But the Bannon connection illustrates exactly the shocking but yet unsurprising nature of the whole thing."

Miller's COAR income for podcasts and radio was effectually an annual salary of around $200,000. By comparison, COAR's 2018 tax returns, the most recent available, show that the highest-paid official made $55,000 a year.

Federal prosecutors say in the Bannon indictment that they are seeking to seize assets belonging to the nonprofit.

"These allegations are very serious and I hope that Steve has some good answers for the things he's been accused of," Miller told Todd. "It's not something I worked on. I don't know anything about the financial dealings of this organization or how it worked, and I hope Steve has an opportunity to tell his side of the story."

"It's TrumpWorld played out in real-life," Delgado said. "Mediocre white men fail upwards and are given every leeway in the book, while women, minorities — and heaven forbid one is both — and children don't matter."

Delgado has passed through a series of events that she experiences as a bitter personal irony. Today a brassy, albeit jobless, Trump critic, Delgado had been one of the Trump campaign's earliest architects, advocating for him since fall 2015 and playing a surrogate role until she came on board as a senior communications adviser the following August. That path tracks the opposite of Miller's, who spent months trying to stop Trump, but has since dug himself into the president's inner circle — and been paid handsomely. 

Wilson said the saga is a reflection of the larger culture Trump has conjured over the last five years.

"Jason Miller's terrible personal reputation is appealing to Trump, in a strange kind of way. And that's because Donald likes to be around people who are as broken as he is," Wilson said.

"This is why there is no bottom in TrumpWorld. There is no standard," Wilson added. "And at the end of the day, at the end of the campaign, the end of the presidency, you see it — that people like this are the types who have survived."

Miller directed Salon's questions to his attorney in the custody case, Sandy Fox, who did not reply.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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