The Woman Behind Trumps Empire of Swag

By Christl Mahfouz’s accounting, the one-millionth official Donald Trump hat will ship this summer from her company’s warehouse in Lafayette, La. Ace Specialties Inc. is the official merchandise distributor for the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising effort of the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee. That means virtually every Trump-sanctioned hat, yard sign, button, or T-shirt in circulation has passed through her facility. Since August 2015, Trump entities have sent Ace checks for more than $21 million, Federal Election Commission records show.

While Trump didn’t invent campaign swag, he used it as well as any candidate in recent memory—not only as a source of revenue but also to connect to voters and build a database of donors. Keeping an online store active between elections is crucial these days. “You build new supporters and you collect that data, so when you run for reelection you have a larger grass-roots organization,” says Steve Grubbs, who ran the online store for Senator Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential bid. “Even though the campaign is over, they have continuing costs that need to be covered.”

Two years ago, Mahfouz, 39, was running a business on the verge of collapse, selling uniforms to oil and gas workers after the 2014 crash in oil prices. She was desperate to avoid bankruptcy. A devout Catholic, she says, “I turned to God and said, ‘Please help me.’ ” The answer to her prayers, it turns out, was Trump. In July 2015 she was watching his campaign announcement on TV and noticed people wearing campaign hats and T-shirts. She figured he’d need help in merchandising and put together a presentation complete with prototypes of hats and T-shirts and a mocked-up website. She also had the phone number for Eric Trump’s secretary, from the time she spent on the board of his charity foundation.

A week later, Mahfouz was in Trump Tower, setting up her gear in a conference room and pitching Trump staffers. Eventually, Trump stopped by. He liked the website she’d built—and her pledge to make all the gear in the U.S. While Trump already had a manufacturer in California lined up for hats, Mahfouz promised she could find her own vendors to make items including yard signs, decals, and Christmas ornaments. Trump asked how long it would take to get the whole thing up and running. A week, she said. That was good enough. She hasn’t stopped hawking the swag since: Five months after he was sworn in, she was at a Trump rally in Iowa to sell more stuff.

Under her agreement, Mahfouz gets reimbursed for shipping and handling costs for everything that goes through her facility, plus a fee, which she declines to disclose, on certain items. All sales are through the official Donald J. Trump online store and go directly to consumers; no other retailers are involved. The official red hat, still the best-seller, is $25. While foreign-made knockoffs go for less than half that, Mahfouz says true Trump fans want something American-made. During the campaign, she sent employees to rallies to set up official booths that were given prime locations. Still, plenty of business was lost to nonsanctioned sellers setting up in the parking lots. The Trump campaign has sent cease-and-desist letters to some sellers, but that hasn’t dried up the bootleg market.

    BOTTOM LINE – Mahfouz, the only official distributor for Trumps campaign gear, will soon sell the one-millionth official Trump ball cap.

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