2021-04-05 11:23:16 UTC
How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations
Online donors were guided into weekly recurring contributions. Demands
for refunds spiked. Complaints to banks and credit card companies
soared. But the money helped keep Donald Trump's struggling campaign
By Shane Goldmacher
April 3, 2021
Stacy Blatt was in hospice care last September listening to Rush
Limbaugh's dire warnings about how badly Donald J. Trump's campaign
needed money when he went online and chipped in everything he could:
It was a big sum for a 63-year-old battling cancer and living in Kansas
City on less than $1,000 per month. But that single contribution --
federal records show it was his first ever -- quickly multiplied.
Another $500 was withdrawn the next day, then $500 the next week and
every week through mid-October, without his knowledge -- until Mr.
Blatt's bank account had been depleted and frozen. When his utility and
rent payments bounced, he called his brother, Russell, for help.
What the Blatts soon discovered was $3,000 in withdrawals by the Trump
campaign in less than 30 days. They called their bank and said they
thought they were victims of fraud.
"It felt," Russell said, "like it was a scam."
But what the Blatts believed was duplicity was actually an intentional
scheme to boost revenues by the Trump campaign and the for-profit
company that processed its online donations, WinRed. Facing a cash
crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the campaign had
begun last September to set up recurring donations by default for online
donors, for every week until the election.
Contributors had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually
uncheck a box to opt out.
As the election neared, the Trump team made that disclaimer increasingly
opaque, an investigation by The New York Times showed. It introduced a
second prechecked box, known internally as a "money bomb," that doubled
a person's contribution. Eventually its solicitations featured lines of
text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.
The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists -- retirees,
military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives.
Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud
complaints from the president's own supporters about donations they had
not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.
"Bandits!" said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a
$990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It
recurred seven more times -- adding up to almost $8,000. "I'm retired. I
can't afford to pay all that damn money."
The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In
the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the
Republican National Committee and their shared accounts issued more than
530,000 refunds worth $64.3 million to online donors. All campaigns make
refunds for various reasons, including to people who give more than the
legal limit. But the sum the Trump operation refunded dwarfed that of
Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees,
which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6 million in that time.
The recurring donations swelled Mr. Trump's treasury in September and
October, just as his finances were deteriorating. He was then able to
use tens of millions of dollars he raised after the election, under the
guise of fighting his unfounded fraud claims, to help cover the refunds
In effect, the money that Mr. Trump eventually had to refund amounted to
an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important
juncture of the 2020 race.
Mr. Trump's hyperaggressive fund-raising practices did not stop once he
lost the election. His campaign continued the weekly withdrawals through
prechecked boxes all the way through Dec. 14 as he raised tens of
millions of dollars for his new political action committee, Save America.
In March, Mr. Trump urged his followers to send their money to him --
and not to the traditional party apparatus -- making plain that he
intends to remain the gravitational center of Republican fund-raising
The small and bright yellow box popped up on Mr. Trump's digital
donation portal around March 2020. The text was boldface, simple and
straightforward: "Make this a monthly recurring donation."
Even that was more aggressive than what the Biden campaign would do in
2020. Biden officials said they rarely used prechecked boxes to
automatically have donations recur monthly or weekly; the exception was
on landing pages where advertisements and emails had explicitly asked
supporters to become repeat donors.
But for Mr. Trump, the prechecked monthly box was just the beginning.
By June, the campaign and the R.N.C. were experimenting with a second
prechecked box, to default donors into making an additional contribution
-- called the money bomb. An early test arrived in the run-up to Mr.
Trump's birthday, June 14. The results were tantalizing: That date, a
seemingly random Sunday, became the biggest day for online donations in
the campaign's history.
Ronna McDaniel, the R.N.C. chairwoman, crowed to Fox News about the
achievement without mentioning how exactly the party had pulled it off.
"Republicans are thinking smarter digitally," she said, and were poised
to "outwork, outdo, and outmaneuver the Democrats at every turn."
The two prechecked yellow boxes would be a fixture for the rest of the
campaign. And so would a much larger volume of refunds.
Today, the websites of various Republican Party committees and top
congressional Republicans, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, the
House minority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority
leader, include prechecked yellow boxes for multiple or recurring
And after Mr. Trump's first public speech of his post-presidency at the
end of February, his new political operation sent its first text message
to supporters since he left the White House. "Did you miss me?" he asked.
The message directed supporters to a WinRed donation page with two
prechecked yellow boxes. Mr. Trump raised $3 million that day, according
to an adviser, with more to come from the recurring donations in the