During the commercial break on Monday’s “Morning Joe” talk show on MSNBC, an ad from veterans group VoteVets.org , a 501(c)4 political action committee that “primarily focuses on nonpartisan education and advocacy on behalf veterans and their families,” sent a strong message to the White House.
Against a video of a one-legged veteran doing squats on a smith machine, a voiceover makes a plea to President Trump not to kill the Affordable Care Act, which covers some veterans who do not qualify for VA benefits, and temper his stance on the Muslim ban.
“President Trump, I hear you watch the morning shows. Here’s what I do every morning. Look, you lost the popular vote. You’re having trouble drawing a crowd, and your approval rating keeps sinking,” the veteran, who has remained anonymous due to safety and privacy concerns said. “But kicking thousands of my fellow veterans off their health insurance by killing the Affordable Care Act, and banning Muslims won’t help. That’s not the America I sacrificed for. You wanna be a legitimate president, sir? Then act like one.”
— VoteVets (@votevets) February 6, 2017
The message went viral and was viewed by millions online through Facebook and Twitter, where it racked up over 30,000 retweets in addition to the viewership it paid for. But only one viewer really mattered—the president.
He most likely watched. Trump’s morning routine has been well documented and generally involves reading the New York Times and turning on the television to “Morning Joe” and “Fox & Friends” before firing up Twitter to opine on the day’s stories. Frequently, reporters have traced back Trump’s tweets precisely to comments and moments from cable shows, which are now required viewing for people looking to understand the White House.
“Trump’s telling everybody what he’s watching. It makes it really easy to message to him and know where to show the ad,” VoteVets.org co-founder John Soltz, a former Major in the Army who spent two terms in Iraq, told Yahoo Finance. “All of a sudden you can microtarget and knock on his door. We’d say in the military a ‘tight shot group.’”
In the past, VoteVets.org has supported candidates—mostly Democrats—in elections rather than sending a message to a specific person, making this ad a marked break with the PAC’s standard strategy.
“It’s different from the millions we’ve spent on election cycle—we’re trying to reach him,” said Soltz. “He’s met with billionaires, but hasn’t met with veterans groups [as president].”
In December, Trump met with a young and relatively unknown veterans group, funded by the Koch brothers, over traditional groups, a move that angered the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America. And on Monday, after the ad had aired, Trump held a special listening session with veterans groups, which excluded American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The groups found out the next day, according to MilitaryTimes.
Even the White House comments phone line, Soltz noted, has not been functional this week, and a veterans hotline Trump promised has not yet materialized, and an old one set up for the 2016 campaign bounces to voicemail. “Our members have been very vocal about wanting to challenge him. We didn’t sacrifice for this country so [Trump] can ban Muslims.”
For Soltz and the 500,000 VoteVets.org supporters, the ad felt like the only way to reach the president. And for anyone looking for the president’s ear—a company, lobbyist, or special interest group—it would be difficult to find a more efficient means.
“Why spend $1 million in 5 states when there’s three or four shows?” said Soltz. “Why go out and pay $1 million and hope he’s watching when he’s basically telling you what he’s going to watch? That accomplishes two things. It keeps members engaged—you’re giving vets a voice—but you’re telling somebody ‘you’re listening to sounding boards but American vets aren’t with you.’”
With this secret out, cable channels have increased ad rates for the shows Trump watches, according to Politico. For Soltz, it would still be worth spending the extra money for the ad. “It doesn’t matter if ‘Morning Joe’ raises the rate. You’re better off spending the extra $2,000,” he said.
VoteVets.org reckons the president saw the ad, but hasn’t quite taken the bait, publically. “He hasn’t directly responded to the veterans so I’d argue that we’re not done,” said Soltz. “If he can’t respond to an Afghanistan vet with one leg, he shouldn’t be our president.”