Last weekend, the New York Times published an article investigating some of the disturbing fundraising practices of the former U.S. president’s 2020 campaign. Part of the piece, by Shane Goldmacher, told the story of a terminally ill Kansas City man, Stacy Blatt, 63, who made the first political donation of his life in September of last year, $500, to Donald Trump’s reelection effort. l
Blatt was living on less than $1000 a month, so the donation was a luxury he couldn’t really afford. Soon after, further withdrawals were made from his bank account, including one the following day, always in the same amount as the first one. In less than a month $3000 had been taken, which led to his account being frozen, and the cancer stricken man found himself without the funds to pay his rent and bills.
What Blatt and thousands of others missed in the hyperbolic appeals contained in the Trump campaign’s fundraising messages was a box underneath the main text, which got smaller as the November election approached. This opted donors in to regular contributions, first on a monthly and later weekly basis, at first in the same amount initially pledged.
Rather than asking that supporters check a box to opt in on further donations, a tactic that’s commonly used by most fundraisers, one would have had to uncheck the box to opt out. The same box in at least some of the appeals obligated donors to a separate $100 payment at a later date. Some of those making donations also found that they had unwittingly agreed through yet another small box to have the amount of their initial payment doubled in what the campaign internally called ‘money bombs’.
The platform that allowed the campaign to do this is called WinRed and it’s basically a copy of the successful ActBlue platform that has helped Democratic candidates at all levels, as well as progressive and liberal organizations of all kinds.
These practices resulted in the Trump campaign receiving 3% of all credit card fraud claims in the United States in 2020 and having to return well over $120 million to supporters, some of whom had closed their bank accounts or cancelled credit cards to stop the financial bleeding. On top of this, there’s no way of knowing how many people didn’t notice the extra charges, especially the forced promise to provide $100 dollars at a future date, and simply paid them.
Trump reacted to Goldmacher’s expose in a statement on Monday, calling it a “one sided attack piece” and later saying, “Many people were so enthusiastic that they gave over and over and in certain cases where they would give too much, we would promptly refund their contributions. Our overall dispute rate was less than 1% of total online donations, a very low number. This is done by Dems also.”
There are a number of problems with this statement besides the fact that Blatt, who passed away in February and others have said they felt they’d been scammed out of their money.
First of all, acting as if his supporters were uniquely financially irresponsible and his campaign would altruistically provide refunds when they gave “too much” is absurd. Second, while it’s true that the Biden campaign also returned some donations, the amount was less than one sixth of the amount returned by the former president’s campaign.
Part of the explanation for this objectively predatory behavior was probably the fact that Trump’s campaign that had burned through almost a billion dollars under the leadership of Brad Parscale, who saw his role curtailed last summer before leaving the campaign a few months later following a domestic incident at his home in Fort Lauderdale.
A Los Angeles Times piece from late October of last year detailed some of what the money was spent on and shows how it seems to have done double duty, funneling cash to the ex-president and his family. These ‘expenses’ included $100,000 spent on copies of a book by Trump‘s eldest son and almost $39 million spent on legal and “compliance” fees (much of it probably related to his first impeachment trial rather than the election).
Still, these practices, which are said to be legal, show that Donald Trump had found a new way of doing what the failed casino magnate has always done: use large loans, in the past mostly supplied by financial institutions that sometimes seemed to view him as the human embodiment of ‘too big to fail’, to keep himself and his ventures afloat. The main difference in this newer scheme is that the ‘loan’ provided by his unwitting supporters was interest free.
The campaign kept asking for donations long after the election had been lost, telling supporters their money would pay for the ridiculous legal battles that they assured the more credulous would overturn the result of the vote and return their idol to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By the time Joe Biden took office on January 20th, more than $200 million raised for the campaign was rolled into Trump’s personal Save America PAC.
The PAC itself, even more so than most other ones that in this writer’s opinion are little more than vehicles for legalized bribery, seems like another way to keep the money flowing in as there are few rules around how these groups spend their funds. This would explain why the former president recently demanded that supporters donate exclusively to Save America rather than the Republican Party he supposedly leads.
Trump even went on to somewhat hilariously claim that the GOP was unfairly using his name and likeness in its own fundraising appeals.
Hinting at what we have now learned, a February report in Forbes claimed that the former president, who often bragged in 2016 that he was funding his own campaign and thus was free of the kinds of conflicts of interest that often dog candidates (he actually loaned it $43.5 million), had moved $2.8 million dollars from his fundraising into his own private businesses, a small amount of it after the election had already taken place. Much of the money, in this case, was used to pay for office space in Trump properties and on stays and meals in his hotels and resorts.
As we might expect, it wasn’t just the Trump campaign that was engaged in the practices described by Goldmacher in the Times. As explained by Heather ‘Digby’ Parton on the liberal web-site Salon, many GOP candidates including those running unsuccessfully for Georgia’s all important Senate seats had engaged in what could become one of the Trump campaign’s legacies. Further, as Vanity Fair reported later in the week, the party itself has continued the use of the boxes opting donors into recurring donations, going so far as to include language warning that they would let the former president know about “defectors” who opt out!
There is a good chance that the scandals ensnaring some of his more odious political supporters like Matt Gaetz and sheer exhaustion with Trump himself on the part of many people will overshadow this story and allow him to continue bilking his marks of their money. Perhaps it’s the slowness of the courts that is at fault and charges will eventually be brought in Georgia or New York for various allegations of criminal conduct on his part, but it increasingly seems that the former president is truly above the law.