Trump is gone from the White House, but his supporters are still feeling the hurt of his campaign’s insidious fundraising tactics.
A new report from the New York Times shows how the Trump campaign used default “opt-in” checkboxes to eke as much money as possible out of unwitting donors. While the actual amount taken in by this tactic remains unknown, the campaign ended up refunding 10 percent of the $1.2 billion it raised leading up to and after the election. That’s $120 million in refunded donations.
In small print, and dwarfed by surrounding, unrelated bold and all-caps text, the president’s website defaulted to pre-checking boxes that turned one-time donations into monthly and even weekly ones as Election Day neared. Trump’s anger at being out-raised by Democrats reportedly fueled the tactics.
In addition to recurring donations, a second pre-checked box doubled the contribution or added a bonus of $100 to the donation. The all-caps text dwarfing the disclosure of the second amount communicated messages like “CONGRATS!! You’ve been selected as our End-of-Quarter MVP!,” opting donors in to “join the cash blitz now.” One box that appeared in the spring before the election opted users into an additional donation in honor of Trump’s birthday on June 14. Fundraisers referred to these second box events as “the money bomb.”
Donors who spoke to the Times said they were unaware of the recurring donations they were making, and it resulted in drained and over-drafted bank accounts. In some cases, it pushed donors over the legal limit of $2,800 per individual, per election cycle. The Times described the refunded money as “an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.”
A company called WinRed powered the online portal, while Jared Kushner oversaw its efforts on behalf of the Trump campaign. WinRed takes a 3.8 percent fee off of donations, plus 30 cents. Its policy is to keep the fees from refunded donations, which netted the company “roughly” $5 million from refunded contributions, according to the Times.
In the digital ecosystem, pre-checked opt-in boxes are seen as an insidious way for companies to get users to agree to terms and practices beneficial to companies that users might not agree to otherwise. For example, Facebook previously opted users into having their pictures scanned for facial recognition; it changed that policy in 2019 after it lost a court case about the practice. Prohibiting opt-in policies has become a focus for laws in Europe and California to help strengthen user privacy.
The Trump campaign and WinRed apparently stand against the defaulting-to-opt-in tide. The company ran campaigns with the same tactics for Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia’s U.S. Senate run-off races. The Republican National Committee reportedly views the company as the vanguard of the party’s fundraising technology.
One of the WinRed founders said in a 2017 article that “Asking for forgiveness is easier than permission.” That’s a handy philosophy, especially when it makes you millions of dollars.