Online donors were guided into weekly recurring contributions. Demands for refunds spiked. Complaints to banks and credit card companies soared. But the money helped keep Donald Trump’s struggling campaign afloat.
Stacy Blatt was in hospice care last September listening to Rush Limbaugh’s dire warnings about how badly Donald J. Trump’s campaign needed money when he went online and chipped in everything he could: $500.
It was a big sum for a 63-year-old battling cancer and living in Kansas City on less than $1,000 per month. But that single contribution — federal records show it was his first ever — quickly multiplied. Another $500 was withdrawn the next day, then $500 the next week and every week through mid-October, without his knowledge — until Mr. Blatt’s bank account had been depleted and frozen. When his utility and rent payments bounced, he called his brother, Russell, for help.
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 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.
“Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It recurred seven more times — adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”
The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final two and a half 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 Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6 million in that time.
The recurring donations swelled Mr. 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 Mr. Trump eventually had to refund amounted to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.
Marketers have long used ruses like prechecked boxes to steer American consumers into unwanted purchases, like magazine subscriptions. But consumer advocates said deploying the practice on voters in the heat of a presidential campaign — at such volume and with withdrawals every week — had much more serious ramifications.
“It’s unfair, it’s unethical and it’s inappropriate,” said Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
Harry Brignull, a user-experience designer in London who coined the term “dark patterns” for manipulative digital marketing practices, said the Trump team’s techniques were a classic of the “deceptive design” genre.
“It should be in textbooks of what you shouldn’t do,” he said.
Political strategists, digital operatives and campaign finance experts said they could not recall ever seeing refunds at such a scale. Mr. Trump, the R.N.C. and their shared accounts refunded far more money to online donors in the last election cycle than every federal Democratic candidate and committee in the country combined.
Over all, the Trump operation refunded 10.7 percent of the money it raised on WinRed in 2020; the Biden operation’s refund rate on ActBlue, the parallel Democratic online donation-processing platform, was 2.2 percent, federal records show.
Total online refunds in 2020,
Several bank representatives who fielded fraud claims directly from consumers estimated that WinRed cases, at their peak, represented as much as 1 to 3 percent of their workload. An executive for one of the nation’s larger credit-card issuers confirmed that WinRed at its height accounted for a similar percentage of its formal disputes.
That figure may seem small at first glance, but financial experts said it was a shockingly large percentage, considering that political donations represent a tiny fraction of the overall United States economy.
In its investigation, The Times reviewed filings with the Federal Election Commission from the Trump and Biden campaigns and their shared accounts with political parties, as well as the donation-processing sites ActBlue and WinRed, compiling a database of refunds issued by day. The Times also interviewed two dozen Trump donors who made recurring donations, as well as campaign officials, campaign finance experts and consumer advocates. Nearly a dozen bank and credit card officials from the nation’s leading financial institutions spoke for this article on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
A clear pattern emerged. 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 Mr. Blatt, who died of cancer in February, sought an injunction from their banks and credit cards. Others pursued refunds directly from WinRed, which typically granted them to avoid more costly formal disputes.
WinRed said that every donor receives at least one follow-up email about pending repeat donations in advance and that the company makes it “exceptionally easy,” with 24-hour customer service, for people to request their money back. “WinRed wants donors to be happy, and puts a premium on customer support,” said Gerrit Lansing, WinRed’s president. “Donors are the lifeblood of G.O.P. campaigns.” He noted that Democrats and ActBlue had also used recurring programs.
Jason Miller, a spokesman for Mr. 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 percent of its WinRed transactions had been subject to formal credit card disputes. “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.
That still amounts to about 200,000 disputed transactions that Mr. Miller said added up to $19.7 million.
“Our campaign was built by the hardworking men and women of America,” Mr. Miller said, “and cherishing their investments was paramount to anything else we did.”
Asked if Mr. Trump had been aware of his operation’s use of recurring payments, the campaign did not respond.
Mr. Trump’s hyperaggressive fund-raising practices did not stop once he lost the election. His campaign continued the weekly withdrawals through prechecked boxes all the way through Dec. 14 as he raised tens of millions of dollars for his new political action committee, Save America.
In March, Mr. Trump urged his followers to send their money to him — and not to the traditional party apparatus — making plain that he intends to remain the gravitational center of Republican fund-raising online.
A small yellow box and a flood of fraud complaints
The small and bright yellow box popped up on Mr. Trump’s digital donation portal around March 2020. The text was boldface, simple and straightforward: “Make this a monthly recurring donation.”
The box came prefilled with a check mark.
Even that was more aggressive than what the Biden campaign would do in 2020. Biden officials said they rarely used prechecked boxes to automatically have donations recur monthly or weekly; the exception was on landing pages where advertisements and emails had explicitly asked supporters to become repeat donors.
But for Mr. Trump, the prechecked monthly box was just the beginning.
By June, the campaign and the R.N.C. were experimenting with a second prechecked box, to default donors into making an additional contribution — called the money bomb. An early test arrived in the run-up to Mr. Trump’s birthday, June 14. The results were tantalizing: That date, a seemingly random Sunday, became the biggest day for online donations in the campaign’s history.
Ronna McDaniel, the R.N.C. chairwoman, crowed to Fox News about the achievement without mentioning how exactly the party had pulled it off. “Republicans are thinking smarter digitally,” she said, and were poised to “outwork, outdo, and outmaneuver the Democrats at every turn.”
The two prechecked yellow boxes would be a fixture for the rest of the campaign. And so would a much larger volume of refunds.
Until then, the Biden and Trump operations had nearly identical refund rates on WinRed and ActBlue in 2020: 2.18 percent for Mr. Trump and 2.17 percent for Mr. Biden.
But from the day after Mr. Trump’s birthday through the rest of the year, Mr. Biden’s refund rate remained nearly flat, at 2.24 percent, while Mr. Trump’s soared to 12.29 percent.
In early September — just after learning that it had been outraised by the Biden operation in August by more than $150 million — the Trump campaign became even more aggressive.
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It changed the language in the first yellow box to withdraw recurring donations every week instead of every month. Suddenly, some contributors were unwittingly making as many as half a dozen donations in 30 days: the intended contribution, the “money bomb” and four more weekly withdrawals.
“You don’t realize it until after everything is already in motion,” said Bruce Turner, 72, of Gilbert, Ariz., whose wife’s $1,000 donation in early October became $6,000 by Election Day. They were refunded $5,000 the week after the election, records show.
Around the same time, officials who fielded fraud claims at bank and credit card companies noticed a surge in complaints against the Trump campaign and WinRed.
“It started to go absolutely wild,” said one fraud investigator with Wells Fargo. “It just became a pattern,” said another at Capital One. A consumer representative for USAA, which primarily serves military families, recalled an older veteran who discovered repeated WinRed charges from donating to Mr. Trump only after calling to have his balance read to him by phone.
The unintended payments busted credit card limits. Some donors canceled their cards to avoid recurring payments. Others paid overdraft fees to their bank.
All the banking officials said they recalled only a negligible number of complaints against ActBlue, the Democratic donation platform, although there are online review sites that feature heated complaints about unwanted charges and customer service.
The Trump operation was not done modifying the yellow boxes. Soon, the fact that donations would be withdrawn weekly was taken out of boldface type, according to archived versions of the president’s website, and moved beneath other bold text.
As the campaign’s financial problems became increasingly acute, the yellow boxes became dizzyingly more complex.
By October there were sometimes nine lines of boldface text — with ALL-CAPS words sprinkled in — before the disclosure that there would be weekly withdrawals. As many as eight more lines of boldface text came before the second additional donation disclaimer.
Even political professionals fell prey to the boxes.
Jeff Kropf, the executive director of the Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation, a conservative group, said he had been “very careful” to uncheck recurring boxes — yet he missed the “money bomb” and got a second charge anyway.
“Until WinRed fixes their sneaky way of adding additional contributions to credit cards like they did to me, I won’t use them again,” he said.
Mr. Brignull, the user-experience designer who also serves as an expert witness in legal cases involving misleading advertising, noted that a Consumer Rights Directive in Europe prohibits companies from deploying a defaulted opt-in tactic for recurring payments.
“It is very easy for the eye to skip over,” he said. “The only really meaningful information in that box is buried.”
The ‘Gary and Gerrit’ operation
By last summer, the Biden campaign had begun outraising Mr. Trump’s team, and the president was hopping mad. For months, years even, his advisers had been telling him how he had built a one-of-a-kind financial juggernaut. So why, Mr. Trump demanded to know, was he off the television airwaves just months before the election in critical battleground states like Michigan?
“Where did all the money go?” he would lash out, according to two senior advisers.
Inside the Trump re-election headquarters in Northern Virginia, the pressure was building to wring ever more money out of his supporters.
Perhaps nowhere was that pressure more acute than on Mr. Trump’s expansive and lucrative digital operation. That was the unquestioned domain of Gary Coby, a 30-something strategist whose title — digital director — and microscopic public profile belied his immense influence on the Trump operation, especially online.
A veteran of the R.N.C. and the 2016 race, Mr. Coby had the confidence, trust and respect of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who unofficially oversaw the 2020 campaign, according to people familiar with the campaign’s operations. Mr. Kushner and the rest of the campaign leadership gave Mr. Coby, whose talents are recognized across the Republican digital industry, wide latitude to raise money however he saw fit.
That meant almost endless optimization and experimentation, sometimes pushing the traditional boundaries. The Trump team repeatedly used phantom donation matches and faux deadlines to loosen donor wallets (“1000% offer: ACTIVATED…For the NEXT HOUR”). Eventually it ratcheted up the volume of emails it sent until it was barraging supporters with an average of 15 per day for all of October and November 2020.
Mr. Coby, who declined an interview request for this article, outlined his philosophical approach when offering advice to other ambitious young strategists after he was named to the American Association of Political Consultants’ “40 under 40” list in 2017: “Asking for forgiveness is easier than permission.”
Mr. Coby’s partner in fund-raising was Mr. Lansing, the president of WinRed, which had been created in 2019 as a centralized platform for G.O.P. digital contributions after prominent Republicans feared they were falling irreparably behind Democrats and ActBlue.
The Trump and WinRed operations had been closely aligned since the platform’s inception — Mr. Trump reportedly helped come up with the firm’s name — and the president’s re-election operation amounted to a majority of all of WinRed’s business last cycle, when it processed more than $2 billion.
Inside the Trump orbit, “Gary and Gerrit” became something of a shorthand term for Mr. Coby and Mr. Lansing, according to multiple senior Trump campaign and White House officials.
The two strategists were already well acquainted: They had worked together at the R.N.C. in 2016, when Mr. Lansing oversaw its digital operations and Mr. Coby was the director of advertising. And they were business partners in Opn Sesame, a text messaging platform, which Mr. Lansing co-founded and served as chief operating officer for; WinRed said he stepped away from its day-to-day operations in early 2019.
Top Trump officials said they did not know specifically who had conceived of using the weekly recurring prechecked boxes — or who had designed them in the increasingly complex blizzard of text. But they said virtually all online fund-raising decisions were a “Gary and Gerrit” production.
“The campaigns determine their own fund-raising strategies and make their own decisions on how to use these tools,” Mr. Lansing said in WinRed’s statement.
Unlike ActBlue, which is a nonprofit, WinRed is a for-profit company. It makes its money by taking 30 cents of every donation, plus 3.8 percent of the amount given. WinRed was paid more than $118 million from federal committees the last election cycle; even after paying credit card fees and expenses like payroll and rent, the profits are believed to be significant.
WinRed even made money off donations that were refunded by keeping the fees it charged on each transaction, a practice it said was standard in the industry, citing PayPal; ActBlue said it does not keep fees for refunded donations. WinRed’s cut of the Trump operation’s refunds would amount to roughly $5 million before expenses. (Archived versions of WinRed’s website show it added a disclaimer saying it would keep its fees around when refunds surged.)
There is another reason Mr. Trump’s refund rates were so high: His campaign accepted millions of dollars above the legal cap, a problem exacerbated by recurring donations. A pianist in New York, for instance, contributed more than 100 times in the months leading up to Election Day, going far past the legal limit of $2,800. She was refunded $87,716.50 — three weeks after Election Day.
While every large-scale campaign winds up accepting and returning some donations above the legal limit, including Mr. Biden’s, the Trump situation stands out. Records show that Mr. Biden’s campaign committee issued roughly $47,000 in refunds larger than $5,000 after Election Day; Mr. Trump’s campaign issued more than $7 million.
Trump officials attributed the excessive donations to enthusiastic supporters and said the surge in postelection complaints was a result of losing the election, not of the recurring donation tactics.
The use of prechecked boxes is not unprecedented in politics, and WinRed said it was simply adopting tactics that ActBlue put in place years ago. ActBlue said in a statement that it had begun to phase out prechecked recurring boxes “unless groups were explicitly asking for recurring contributions.” Some prominent Democratic groups, including both congressional campaign committees, continue to precheck recurring boxes regardless of that guidance. Still, Democratic refund rates were only a small fraction of the Trump campaign’s last year.
Republicans widely hailed WinRed as one of the standout successes of the 2020 cycle, and in a memo last October the company declared itself the “trusted, recognizable platform” for Republican giving. “Scam PACs, shady operators and outright fraud is unfortunately a common occurrence in the online political donation world — particularly on the right,” the memo stated. “WinRed helps civilize the Wild West of the G.O.P. donation ecosystem.”
But for some Trump supporters like Ron Wilson, WinRed is a scam artist. Mr. Wilson, an 87-year-old retiree in Illinois, made a series of small contributions last fall that he thought would add up to about $200; by December, federal records show, WinRed and Mr. Trump’s committees had withdrawn more than 70 separate donations from Mr. Wilson worth roughly $2,300.
“Predatory!” Mr. Wilson said of WinRed. Like multiple other donors interviewed, though, he held Mr. Trump himself blameless, telling The Times, “I’m 100 percent loyal to Donald Trump.”
Trump was just the beginning
All told, the Trump and party operation raised $1.2 billion on WinRed, and refunded roughly 10 percent of it.
Whatever blowback it received, WinRed was not deterred. Soon after the November election ended, the two Republican Senate incumbents in Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, deployed prechecked weekly recurring boxes in advance of their January runoffs.
Predictably, refund rates spiked.
Keith Millhouse, a transportation consultant in California, intended to donate once to Mr. Perdue, with the aim of keeping Republicans in control of the Senate. He wound up a recurring contributor and called the practice “repugnant” and “deceptive.”
“I’m busy like a lot of other people during this Covid era and I just wanted to get in, make a donation, get done and move on to what I needed to do next,” he said. “I thought I had done that. Then I find out that, you know, I’m getting these other charges.”
He canceled the repeating charge when he saw the reminder email. But by then WinRed had already processed his second $100 “bonus” contribution. He figured it was not worth the hassle to protest. “Don’t try to sucker it out of me,” he said.
In the final 2020 reporting period, from Nov. 24 through the end of the year, Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler refunded $4.8 million to WinRed donors — more than triple the amount refunded by their Democratic rivals via ActBlue, even though the Democrats had raised far more money online. The refunds have stretched into 2021 and have been a source of frustration for the Loeffler campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Now WinRed is exporting the tools it pioneered during the Trump re-election across the Republican Party, presaging a new normal for G.O.P. campaigns.
Today, the websites of various Republican Party committees and top congressional Republicans, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, include prechecked yellow boxes for multiple or recurring donations.
And after Mr. 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. Mr. Trump raised $3 million that day, according to an adviser, with more to come from the recurring donations in the months ahead.
Rachel Shorey contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett contributed research.