Trump’s Repeating Donation Tactics Led to Millions in Refunds Into 2021
Aggressive fundraising tactics former President Donald J. Trump deployed at the end of last year’s presidential campaign continued to spur an avalanche of refunds through 2021, Mr. Trump, the Republican Party and their pooled accounts returning $ 12.8 million to donors in the first six months of the year, according to recently released federal records.
Refunds were among the biggest expenses Mr. Trump made in 2021 as he racked up his $ 102 million political war chest – and amounted to about 20% of the $ 56 million he and its committees have collected online so far this year.
Lagging in the polls and facing a cash shortage last September, Mr. Trump’s political operation began opting for online donors for automatic recurring contributions by checking a box on his digital donation forms for make a withdrawal every week.. Donors should notice the box and uncheck it to opt out of the donation. A second pre-checked box removed another donation, known as the “money bomb”.
The Trump team then obscured that fact by burying the fine print under several lines of bold and all-caps text, a New York Times investigation found earlier this year.
The move boosted short-term earnings – allowing Mr. Trump to spend money ahead of the election – and then sparked a cascade of credit card fraud complaints and demands for reimbursement from supporters. The repaid donations amounted to an involuntary interest-free loan from Mr. Trump’s supporters in the weeks when he needed them most.
New files from the Federal Election Commission of WinRed, the Republican donation processing site, show the full extent of the financial impact. In total, more than $ 135 million was repaid to donors by Mr. Trump, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts during the 2020 cycle through June 2021, including about $ 60 million after election day.
“It’s pretty clear that the Trump campaign was engaging in deceptive tactics,” said Peter Loge, director of the Ethics in Political Communication Project at George Washington University. “If you have to return that much money, you are doing something very wrong or very unethical.”
The Trump campaign has already defended its online practices, with Jason Miller a spokesperson saying only 0.87% of transactions were the subject of formal credit card litigation last year, which would be roughly 200,000 transactions. Mr Miller did not answer questions this week about Trump’s refunds.
Of the refunds issued this year, $ 8.1 million came from Mr. Trump’s shared account with the RNC, records show. An additional $ 2.2 million came from his re-election committee and $ 2.5 million was issued by the party itself. The party ceased to operate in tandem with Mr. Trump earlier this year but still owed repayments from 2020; most of his returned donations came in January and February.
The Times investigation previously revealed that Operation Trump and the party repaid more than 10% of the $ 1.2 billion it raised online through the end of 2020. President Biden’s equivalent committees refunded 2.2% of what was collected online last year. ActBlue, the Democratic donation processing site, according to records.
The Federal Election Commission has since unanimously recommended that Congress prohibit campaigns from pre-checking the boxes for recurring donations, and legislation to that effect has been introduced in both the House and Senate. The state attorneys general of New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and Maryland have also opened investigations into the practices of WinRed and ActBlue.
WinRed has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the investigation claiming that federal law takes precedence over any state investigation. Last week, attorneys general sought to dismiss the action against WinRed, arguing in court that consumer protection laws gave them jurisdiction.
The recurring pre-ticked box has become increasingly prevalent among Republicans using WinRed, including burying the disclosure under foreign text; Democrats have decided to stop using such boxes altogether.
The two Republican senators who lost the January second round in Georgia, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, used pre-checked boxes to trick donors into making weekly withdrawals, leading to a wave of refunds. Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue together repaid $ 10.4 million from November 24 to the end of June 2021, out of a total of $ 68.5 million collected online during that time.
The Democrats who defeated them, Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, raised tens of millions more online – and repaid less than a fifth, around $ 2 million, over the same period.
Overall, WinRed issued refunds that totaled 12.7% of what it collected in the first six months of the year; ActBlue’s refunds represented 3.3% of what it collected.
The disparity was even more pronounced in January this year, when reimbursements increased for Mr. Trump and Republicans in the Georgia Senate. This month, refunds issued by WinRed were equivalent to nearly 28% of what the platform collected in contributions, according to records. There was even a day where WinRed issued more refunds than it said it received contributions.
WinRed said there was simply a greater volume of repayments immediately after the election, and noted that repayments had slowed in recent months. In the first quarter of 2021, records show that refunds issued on WinRed were equivalent to nearly 20% of what was collected; that figure fell to 5.7% in the second quarter.
Mr. Trump’s new political action committee, Save America, continues to pre-check his “money bomb” and recurring donation box, withdrawing new donations each month. In addition to the $ 12.8 million repaid by Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and party committees linked to him, his new PAC issued nearly $ 800,000 in repayments in the first six months of year, or 3.75% of what he collected.
ActBlue, which previously gave campaigns great latitude to choose donors to repeat their contributions, cracked down on the tactic. In July, the site implemented new rules essentially prohibiting candidates and political groups from pre-checking a recurring box unless the link to the donation page explicitly states that there will be repeat withdrawals.
Digital experts said many donors don’t notice the additional contributions for several months, if at all. Some people decide that the pursuit of repayments is too expensive or complex. Older contributors are seen as particularly vulnerable to such aggressive digital tactics, according to campaign strategists.
For Republicans, pre-checking is something some strategists advocate as a useful tool to reduce the traditional Democratic advantage of online fundraising.
The Republican Party’s three main committees – one dedicated to the House, one to the Senate, and one to the RNC – nearly matched parallel Democratic groups in online fundraising, raising $ 68.8 million to $ 70.8 million for Democrats in the first six months of 2021..
At the same time, these Republican Party groups issued more than $ 5 million in additional WinRed refunds compared to Democratic groups – 11.2% of what they collected online versus 3.7%, according to records. .
Rachel Shorey contributed reports.
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