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Screengrab from an unused Trump campaign ad. Obtained by Axios.

Donald Trump is going on trial tomorrow for outlandish behavior culminating with his alleged incitement of the Capitol riot, but some newly surfaced ads his campaign considered for the 2020 election were so far-fetched even he vetoed them.

Driving the news: One ad portrayed Joe Biden as a predator. Another took aim at his health, showing Biden coughing repeatedly at his podium. A third mocked CNN anchor Don Lemon, showing him slowly morph into a clown.

The big picture: The television and digital ads obtained by Axios ultimately were discarded for being "too hot," according to sources with direct knowledge of their history. The predator spot was a genre of ad that made Trump especially wary, the sources said.

  • It showed clips of women who accused Biden of inappropriate touching, paired with now-Vice President Kamala Harris saying, "I know a predator when I see one."
  • “He never wanted to run the predator or women's-style ads against Biden, because he was afraid he was going to open up his own can of worms,” one source close to the campaign told Axios, a sentiment another source confirmed.
  • The ad targeting Lemon, a favorite punching bag of the former president, focused on his coverage of Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Behind the scenes: During the 2020 campaign, Trump's team made numerous videos — many sparked by young, pro-Trump fans who sent their ideas to former campaign manager Brad Parscale. He would then take them to the president for his approval.

  • A small group of top officials met with Trump a few times a month, usually in the White House dining room from 5 to 7 p.m., a source familiar with the meetings told Axios.
  • Parscale, who also was Trump's digital director, would connect his laptop to the TV above the fireplace. The officials then watched — and waited — for the former reality TV star's reaction.

Some of the ads made Trump "burst out laughing," the source said, but he'd tell the room they were too out there, even for him.

  • “He would wave, kind of wipe his hands with a smile, like, ‘God, guys.’ We would go further than him sometimes.”
  • Some ads didn't mesh well with his image, Trump would argue, while still others he felt weren't worth the backlash.
  • One series that centered on the BLM protests made Trump retort: “God, that's brutal, but I don't know if we can put it up.”

Trump always sat at the head of the table while viewing them, the source said. His social media director, Dan Scavino, sat in one corner, and Trump’s personal aide, Nick Luna, would sit in the opposite corner.

  • Parscale sat next to Trump, often so close it bothered the president, one source familiar with the meetings said.
  • Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, usually stood in the doorway, while White House chief of staff Mark Meadows popped in and out.

A White House butler would bring Trump a Diet Coke “every five minutes" during the viewing sessions, one of the sources told Axios.

  • The former president never ended up paying for the spots he rejected, the sources said.

Go deeper

Feb 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Koch ads urge Biden to pull Afghan troops

Screenshot of forthcoming ad from Concerned Veterans for America. Courtesy photo.

The Koch-backed group Concerned Veterans for America is launching a seven-figure digital ad campaign this week urging President Biden to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The ad blitz comes as Biden's national security team is debating whether to delay the withdrawal, amid fears the wrong decision could lead to a resurgence of terrorism and uptick of violence in the country.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Feb 7, 2021 - Axios on HBO

Ex-Parler CEO John Matze says he didn't want Trump deal

Ex-Parler CEO John Matze tells "Axios on HBO" that the social media company's negotiations last summer to bring President Trump onto the Twitter rival were a lose-lose proposition and never got beyond unsigned, non-binding term sheets.

What Matze says: "I didn't like the idea of working with Trump, because he might have bullied people inside the company to do what he wanted. But I was worried that if we didn't sign the deal, he might have been vengeful and told his followers to leave Parler."

Feb 8, 2021 - Podcasts
How It Happened

Trump's Last Stand Part IV: The Point Of No Return

In this episode of How It Happened: Trump's Last Stand, national political correspondent Jonathan Swan chronicles how President Donald Trump destroyed his most valuable political relationship — his partnership with Vice President Mike Pence — and set the events of Jan. 6 into motion.

  • Swan uncovers the surprising catalyst that drove a wedge between Trump and his most loyal ally, a vice president often described as "subservient."
  • Swan tracks Trump's increasing desperation as December became January and how he turned up the pressure on Pence to refuse to certify the election.

Note: This episode contains some explicit language.

Credits: This show is produced by Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin and Alice Wilder. Dan Bobkoff is the executive producer. Additional reporting and fact checking by Zach Basu. Margaret Talev is managing editor of politics. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’s executive editor. Sound design by Alex Sugiura and theme music by Michael Hanf.

About this series: The reporting in this series is based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to President Trump. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.

This series was reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu.

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