Parler, the social media utopia for people born too late to sign up for Vichy France, reportedly tried to entice Donald Trump into joining by offering him a hefty taste of its operation. Now the House Oversight Committee is investigating.
Parler billed itself as a “free speech” alternative to mainstream sites for conservatives obsessed with the idea Facebook and Twitter were out to censor them. Or at least it was, until the barely-moderated site lost its Amazon web hosting and was booted from Apple and Google’s app stores after Parler failed to do anything about rampant death threats and numerous members were implicated in the January 7 assault on the Capitol.
According to a recent report by BuzzFeed News, over the summer of 2020 Parler began negotiating a deal with Trump proxies that would give the president a 40% slice in the company in exchange for him opening an account. They resumed in November, after Trump went down in the elections. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed show that Parler’s representatives were the ones who first put the prospect of equity on the table. Trump was president at the time, meaning the arrangement would have likely been tantamount to a bribe. (BuzzFeed identified Trump campaign officials as negotiating on behalf of the Trump Organisation in yet another example of how Trump’s White House, campaign, and business interests have always been part of the same grift.)
This would have also covered the time period where Trump reportedly considered registering a Parler account under the cringeworthy handle “Person X,” because he’s been censored so much as leader of the free world or whatever.
According to Ars Technica, House Oversight and Reform Committee chairwoman Representative Carolyn Maloney has roped the potential bribery attempt into the committee’s ongoing inquiry into Parler’s role in the Capitol insurrection and made a request for an FBI investigation.
Maloney demanded in a letter addressed to the company’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wernick that the company disclose its ownership, adding that the discussions between Trump proxies and Parler “reportedly occurred while President Trump was still in office, which experts have warned raise legal concerns regarding anti-bribery laws.” She also demanded a list of documents and records by Feb. 22, including anything related to the proposal:
- A capitalisation table showing individuals and entities with direct or indirect ownership interests in Parler, and a shareholder register maintained by you or any third-party on your behalf;
- A list of all individuals and entities who have or had any control over Parler;
- A list of Parler’s creditors which hold or held a debt of at least $US10,000 ($12,944), including the type of debt funding, amount owed, maturity, and applicable interest rate;
- All agreements, including but not limited to consulting, service, or business agreements, that Parler has with any Russian individual or entity;
- All documents and communications referring or relating to proposed or completed financing, gifts, or investment in Parler directly or indirectly by any Russian individual or entity; and
- All documents and communications referring to [or] relating to a proposal to provide President Donald Trump with an ownership stake in Parler.
Maloney’s letter is, as of right now, a request, but the committee could later issue subpoenas obligating Parler’s owners to hand the documents over.
The never-consummated deal was reportedly the brainchild of former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who was demoted in July 2020; he was later arrested in a standoff with police over allegations of domestic abuse and suicide threats. Four sources confirmed to BuzzFeed that Parscale and Alex Cannon, one of Trump’s campaign lawyers, met with now-ousted Parler CEO John Matze and two of the company’s shareholders: NRATV host turned Facebook windbag Dan Bongino and Wernick. Parscale told BuzzFeed that Trump “was never part of the discussion” and the meeting was “just one of many things the campaign was looking into to deal with the cancel culture of Silicon Valley.”
Talks were quickly shut down by White House lawyers who recognised it could put the president in legal jeopardy, according to BuzzFeed. But they were renewed in November, after Trump lost the election. A December document obtained by the site outlined the 40% deal as providing half of the equity up front to the Trump organisation and the remainder maturing over the course of two years of awful Trump posts. Parler, always a bastion for unconditional, unquestioning Trump fealty, then sought to entrench its darling status among his supporters by having the president give it most-favoured status among his social accounts. BuzzFeed reported:
As part of the agreement, Parler wanted Trump to make it his primary social network. According to the documents, Trump would have had to post all his social content — including daily posts, video, and livestreaming — on Parler for at least four hours before putting it on any other platform.
As part of the deal, Parler also asked that Trump link back to Parler when posting to other social media sites or emailing his supporters, and to allow the company to use his email lists to promote its platform. In addition, Parler wanted Trump to make introductions to any potential investors or advertisers.
However, discussions became untenable and dissolved after Parler was wiped off the web by Amazon, Apple, and Google, which coincided with Trump’s bans on Twitter and Facebook as well as his rapid spiral into political toxicity.
Wernick told BuzzFeed that its reporting was inaccurate, but he didn’t specify any specific factual error.
Parler’s promotional strategy has relied heavily on conservatives with huge social media audiences like Bongino (who has 4.35 million Facebook followers) spreading the word that mass censorship of right-wingers is imminent. It’s also toyed with greasing palms at least one time prior: Parler offered a $US20,000 ($25,888) prize to any liberal pundit with at least 50,000 followers willing to join the site and engage in debate with its horrible users, but the pot never appears to have been paid out.
Parler has yet to return in the form of anything other than the digital equivalent of a “Get well soon!” card. Navigating to its URL shows a “Technical Difficulties” page featuring messages of support from various conservatives. Matze was fired last week in some sort of feckless power struggle, with him on the one side and Dan Bongino and billionaire investor Rebekah Mercer on the other. Matze said he encountered “constant resistance” to his vision of “product stability” and was turned down by Mercer in his suggestion to purge the site of domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
In a Facebook video, Bongino said anyone who believed Matze’s assertions was an “imbecile,” and that the former CEO had made bad decisions which delayed the site’s return. Last week, Bongino said the site could be operational again as soon as Feb. 8, a date that came and went without any apparent change in the situation.
Matze is trying to distance himself from Parler’s negotiations with Trump, despite filing court documents in the company’s lawsuit against Amazon Web Services asserting their account was only terminated to prevent Trump from joining.
The ex-CEO claimed in an interview with Axios on Sunday that he didn’t want the equity deal with the president to go through because Trump “might have bullied people inside the company to do what he wanted,” which of course overlooks that fawning loyalty to Trump was kind of Parler’s whole thing. Matze also suggested that Trump could have sought revenge by leading an exodus of his supporters from Parler if the deal didn’t go as planned.