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 Blatt 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.
The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final 2 ½ 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 Joe Biden’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6 million in that time.
The recurring donations swelled 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 he owed.
In effect, the money that Trump eventually had to refund amounted to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.
Donors typically said they intended to give once or twice and only later discovered on their bank statements and credit card bills that they were donating over and over again. Some, like Stacy Blatt, who died of cancer in February, sought an injunction from their banks and credit cards.
Jason Miller, a spokesperson for Trump, downplayed the rash of fraud complaints and the $122.7 million in total refunds issued by the Trump operation. He said internal records showed that 0.87% of its WinRed transactions had been subject to formal credit card disputes.
Top Trump officials said they did not know specifically who had conceived of using the weekly recurring pre-checked boxes — or who had designed them in the increasingly complex blizzard of text.
Unlike Democrats’ Act-Blue, which is a nonprofit, WinRed is a for-profit company. It makes its money by taking 30 cents of every donation, plus 3.8% of the amount given. WinRed even made money off donations that were refunded by keeping the fees it charged on each transaction.
All told, the Trump and party operation raised $1.2 billion on WinRed and refunded roughly 10% of it.
After 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. Trump raised $3 million that day, according to an adviser, with more to come from the recurring donations in the months ahead.