Supporters of former President Donald Trump sometimes dug deep into their finances to answer their candidate’s call for financial assistance in the run-up to the presidential election. What many of them found though is that they were unwittingly signed up to give recurring donations that sometimes depleted bank accounts. And the people who fell prey to these schemes weren’t just people who weren’t tech savvy, even veteran political operatives found that they were tricked into giving more than they wanted, reveals the New York Times in an investigation into the former president’s fundraising practices.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact number of how many people were duped, there is a figure that suggests lots of people ended up donating more money than they intended. Trump’s campaign refunded 10.7 percent of the money raised on the Republican Party’s fundraising platform WinRed. That amounted to around $122 million in online donations in 2020, sharply higher than the $21 million that President Joe Biden’s campaign returned to donors during the same period. And while the Biden refunds were pretty steady throughout the year, the New York Times shows how the refunds started to soar when the Trump campaign ended up increasing the use of pre-checked boxes that often unwittingly led supporters to donate more money.
The Times takes a look at how the pre-checked boxes evolved from simple statements that pushed donors to turn their donations into recurring gifts. What started out as a simple box to set up a recurring monthly donation ended up evolving into a mass of confusing text. Eventually all donors were met with two pre-checked boxes, one to set up a recurring weekly donation and another to authorize an entirely separate donation. Many of the donors were so confused about what was happening that they filed fraud claims at their banks and credit card companies, convinced their information had been stolen.
Even though those who complained did get their money refunded, it meant that the Trump campaign received “an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race,” notes the Times. Trump later raised money after the election, claiming he would use it to pursue his unfounded claims of voter fraud when it was actually often used to refund donors.
Although the practices used by the Trump campaign are legal that doesn’t mean they’re ethical. “It’s unfair, it’s unethical and it’s inappropriate,” said Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Another expert said that the Trump campaign’s tactics “should be in textbooks of what you shouldn’t do.”