On Monday, a New York Times report revealed that the Trump campaign set up their 2020 donation page to take recurring payments out of donors' bank accounts, often without their knowledge. First-time contributors who attempted to make a donation to the Trump campaign reported having thousands of dollars extracted from their accounts on a daily and weekly basis. The page, which was set up and hosted by WinRed — the Republican Party's donation platform — funded millions of dollars for Trump's presidential campaign by bombarding the site with confusing fine-print details and text. But by November and December, team Trump had refunded donors a staggering $122 million USD.
In the months since the alleged scam, several campaign donors described having to call their banks and numerous credit card companies to report what they believed was fraud. In reality, they just didn't read the very fine, purposefully hidden print. One donor, a cancer patient from Kansas City, Missouri living on less than $1000 USD a month, had his entire bank account drained as a result of the multiple donations. Another retiree had almost $8,000 USD taken out of his savings.
So, how exactly did the president manage to make millions off of his unwitting donors? Trump's underhanded attempt at raising millions fast first began in March 2020 when the form to donate to Trump's campaign included a pre-checked box to make all donations a monthly charge. To avoid that charge, users had to uncheck the box manually. Months later, in June, a second pre-checked box was added just below the first one for the purpose of breaking a "fundraising record on President Trump's birthday!" Despite Trump's birthday coming and going on June 14, both boxes became "a fixture for the rest of the campaign."
In September, as the presidential campaign ramped up and President Joe Biden campaign began to earn well over $150 million USD more than what Trump's campaign had raised, The Times reports that Trump not only changed the language of the pre-checked recurring donation boxes on the site from "monthly" to "weekly," but they also bolded words and phrases and put them in all caps to overwhelm the eye.
Harry Brignull, a user-experience designer in London who spoke with The Times, described the "deceptive design" of the donation page — called a dark pattern in the marketing world — as one that "should be in textbooks of what you shouldn't do."
After losing to President Joe Biden in November, Trump's campaign spent the next two months returning donations back to donors. He ended up giving back 10.7% of what he earned through WinRed, compared to Biden's 2.2% of funds earned through ActBlue, the Democratic Party's donation platform. The amount of refunds Trump issued during this time, according to political experts, outpaced "every federal Democratic candidate and committee in the country combined."
The reported scam also revealed that the ten of millions earned by the Trump campaign's failed attempts that fighting nonexistent voter fraud were used "to help cover the refunds he owed."
In the classic Trump fashion of brushing serious issues off, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller deflected from the negative reports of fraud in The Times report. Instead, he harped on how small the number of credit card fraud complaints had been: 0.87% of the WinRed transactions.
"The fact we had a dispute rate of less than 1 percent of total donations despite raising more grass-roots money than any campaign in history is remarkable," he said, ignoring that that still equates to $19.7 million USD. He also said that "our campaign was built by the hardworking men and women of America" and that "cherishing their investments was paramount to anything else we did."
Trump's former campaign team has yet to make an official statement on the report.