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NYT: Trump Cunningly Collected Large Election Donations From His Supporters

Online donors made weekly recurring contributions without realizing it. Since then, the demand for refunds has skyrocketed. The number of complaints to banks and credit card companies has also increased. This money helped keep Donald Trump's campaign headquarters afloat, writes New York Times.

Photo: Shutterstock

Last September, Stacey Blatt was at the hospice listening to the news about how badly Donald Trump's campaign team needed money. He went online and laid out everything he could: $ 500.

That was a lot for a 63-year-old cancer-fighting man living in Kansas City on less than $ 1000 a month. But this single contribution began to grow rapidly. Another $ 500 was withdrawn the next day, then $ 500 the next week and every week until mid-October without his knowledge - until Blatt's bank account was depleted and frozen. When Blatt was unable to pay utility bills, he called his brother Russell for help.

The Blatt soon discovered that the Trump campaign had withdrawn $ 3000 in less than 30 days. They called their bank and said they considered themselves to be victims of a scam.

This was a deliberate scheme to increase the revenue of Trump's campaign headquarters and the commercial company WinRed, which handled his online donations. The fundraising campaign began last September to set regular donations by default for online donors every week prior to the election. To stop donating, people had to notice the fine print terms of refusal and manually uncheck the box.

As the election approached, Trump's team made the refusal increasingly opaque, an investigation by The New York Times showed. The people were given a second pre-checked box, known internally as the "money bomb," which doubled the person's contribution.

This tactic has caught the attention of many unsuspecting Trump supporters - retirees, military veterans, nurses and even seasoned politicians. Before long, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraudulent complaints from presidential supporters for donations that people weren't willing to make, sometimes thousands of dollars.

“Bandits! Said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old California resident who made a $ 990 online donation to Trump via WinRed in early September. This was repeated seven more times - for a total of almost $ 8000. - I retired. I can't afford to pay all this damn money. "

The huge sums are mind-boggling. Over the past two and a half months of 2020, Trump's campaign headquarters, the Republican National Committee and their joint accounts have issued more than 530 online donors in refunds worth $ 000 million. All headquarters return money for various reasons, including people who give more than is allowed by law. But the amount reimbursed by the Trump team surpassed that of Joe Biden's campaign and equivalent Democratic committees, which returned 64,3 online payments totaling $ 37 million during that time.

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Periodic donations boosted Trump's coffers in September and October as his financial situation deteriorated. He was then able to use the tens of millions of dollars he collected after the elections, under the pretext of allegedly fighting fraud, to help cover the back claims.

In essence, the money Trump had to pay back amounted to an interest-free loan from unsuspecting supporters at the most important stage of the 2020 race.

Marketers have long used tricks like pre-selected checkboxes to nudge American consumers into unwanted purchases like magazine subscriptions. But consumer advocates said that applying this practice to voters in the midst of the presidential campaign - to this extent, and with the refusal to vote every week - had far more serious consequences.

“This is unfair, unethical and inappropriate,” said Ira Reingold, executive director of the National Consumer Protection Association.

Harry Brinnull, a London-based user interface designer who coined the term "dark patterns" for manipulative digital marketing techniques, said the Trump team's methods were classics of the "deceptive design" genre.

“It should be in the textbooks about what not to do,” he said.

Political strategists, digital operators and campaign finance experts said they couldn't recall ever seeing refunds on this scale. Trump, the RNC, and their shared accounts have returned online donors far more money in the last electoral cycle than every federal Democratic candidate and committee in the country combined.

Thus, the Trump operation returned 10,7% of the money raised on WinRed in 2020 (the reimbursement rate for Biden's operations on ActBlue, a parallel democratic platform for processing donations online, was 2,2%). At first glance, this figure may seem small, but financial experts said it was a shockingly large percentage, given that political donations make up a tiny fraction of the overall United States economy.

In its investigation, The Times analyzed documents submitted to the FEC on the Trump and Biden campaigns and their joint accounts with political parties, as well as donation processing sites ActBlue and WinRed, compiling a database of refunds issued by the day. The Times also interviewed two dozen Trump donors who made regular donations, as well as campaign officials, campaign finance experts and consumer advocates. About a dozen bank and credit card executives from the country's leading financial institutions spoke out on condition of anonymity for this article.

A clear pattern has emerged. Donors usually stated that they intended to donate once or twice, and only later, in their bank statements and credit card accounts, they discovered that they donated over and over again. Some, like Blatt, who died of cancer in February, have demanded injunctive relief from their banks and credit cards. Others sought reimbursement directly from WinRed, which usually provided them, in order to avoid costly formal disputes.

WinRed said every donor receives at least one additional email in advance about pending repeat donations and that the company is making it "extremely simple" by providing XNUMX/XNUMX customer service so people can request their money back. Gerrit Lansing, president of WinRed, noted that Democrats and ActBlue also used repetitive programs.

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Jason Miller, Trump's spokesman, downplayed the number of fraud complaints and the $ 122,7 million total refunds issued by Trump's headquarters. He said internal records show 0,87% of WinRed transactions were the subject of formal credit card disputes.

“It is notable that the controversy is less than 1 percent of the total donation, despite the fact that we have raised more funds at the bottom level than any campaign in history,” he said.

That still amounts to about 200 controversial transactions, which Miller said totaled $ 000 million.

When asked if Trump knew that his team was using recurring payments, headquarters representatives did not answer.

Trump's hyper-aggressive fundraising practice did not stop after he lost the election. Headquarters continued to withdraw funds weekly through pre-marked slots until December 14, when it raised tens of millions of dollars for its new Save America Political Action Committee.

In March, Trump urged his followers to send their money to him rather than the traditional party apparatus, making it clear that he intends to remain the center of gravity for Republican Internet fundraising.

Small yellow block

A small bright yellow block appeared on Trump's digital donation portal around March 2020. The text was bold, simple and straightforward: "Make a monthly recurring donation."

There was already a flag in the block. This was just the beginning.

By June, headquarters and RNC were experimenting with a second pre-selected checkbox so that donors would make an additional contribution by default - the so-called money bomb. The early test took place on the eve of Trump's birthday, June 14. The results were overwhelming: This seemingly random Sunday became the biggest online donation day in headquarters history.

Ronna McDaniel, chairman of the RNC, told Fox News of the achievement without mentioning exactly how the party accomplished it.

"Republicans are smarter digitally," she said, "and were willing to outsmart Democrats at every turn."

The two pre-marked yellow boxes will be an integral part of the remainder of the campaign. As well as a much larger volume of refunds.

Until then, Biden's and Trump's operations had nearly the same recovery rates for WinRed and ActBlue in 2020: 2,18% for Trump and 2,17% for Biden. But from Trump's birthday to the end of the year, Biden's refund rate remained nearly unchanged at 2,24%, while Trump's refund rate soared to 12,29%.

In early September - just after it became known that the Biden operation in August exceeded it by more than $ 150 million - Trump's campaign became even more aggressive.

They changed the caption in the first yellow box to withdraw recurring donations every week instead of every month. Suddenly, some sponsors unwittingly made half a dozen donations in 30 days: an estimated donation, a money bomb, and four more weekly withdrawals.

Around the same time, officials filing fraud lawsuits with banks and credit card companies saw a spike in complaints about the Trump and WinRed campaign. Unexpected payments have violated credit card limits. Some donors have canceled their cards to avoid duplicate payments. Others paid their banks overdraft fees.

All banking officials said they have withdrawn only a small number of complaints against the Democratic donation platform ActBlue, although there are online review sites that include complaints about unwanted payments and customer service.

Soon, according to archived versions of President Trump's website, the fact that donations would be withdrawn on a weekly basis was removed in bold and moved to a box under a different bold text.

Even political scientists have fallen prey to these yellow blocs.

Default checkboxes

The use of preset checkboxes is not unprecedented in politics, and WinRed said it was simply adopting a tactic that ActBlue implemented many years ago. Several prominent Democratic groups, including both congressional election committees, continue to tentatively mark duplicate cells regardless of these directives. Yet Democratic interest rates were only a small fraction of Trump's campaign last year.

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In total, the operation of Trump and his party raised $ 1,2 billion on WinRed and returned about 10% of it.

Whatever return they got, they didn't stop at WinRed. Shortly after the end of the November elections, two incumbent Republican Senate representatives in Georgia, David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler, deployed pre-vetted weekly recurring blocs ahead of the January elections. As you would expect, reimbursement rates have risen sharply.

Today, the websites of various GOP committees and leading Republicans in Congress, including MP Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, have pre-marked yellow blocks for multiple or recurring donations.

And after Trump's first public appearance in honor of his post-presidency, his new political headquarters sent its first text message to supporters since he left the White House.

"Did you miss me?" - was asked in a post that directed supporters to a WinRed donation page with two pre-marked yellow boxes.

Trump raised $ 3 million that day, the adviser said, and he will receive even more through regular donations in the coming months.

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