In early April 2021, Snopes readers asked about social media posts and memes that claimed that former U.S. President Donald Trump "tricked" them into making recurring campaign donations. For instance, one such meme said contributors to the campaign who though they were making a one-time donation "were unaware the fine print stated they would be billed the same amount every single week until election day."
In many cases, these claims are rather exaggerated, mean-spirited takes on a New York Times story, as we will explain below. As we previously reported, it's true that the Trump campaign was soliciting recurring donations with a pre-checked box, even after the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election. It's also true that many Trump supporters demanded refunds from the Trump campaign, although it seems mathematically impossible that the number of people who requested refunds was in the millions (as was claimed in social media posts).
The April 3 Times report details the experience of Trump donor Stacy Blatt, a retiree who was in hospice care, suffering from cancer, when he discovered his bank account depleted from those recurring donations.
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 Another $500 was withdrawn the next day, then $500 the next week and every week through mid-October, without his knowledge — until Mr.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.
Contrary to the takes offered in partisan memes and posts, Blatt and others like him were not "low IQ," but instead, fell victim to the complicated and evolving wording in a pre-checked box on Trump's online donation portal, according to the Times. As a result, the Times reported, the Trump campaign and WinRed, a for-profit company that processed the online donations, were forced to issue $122 million in campaign contribution refunds to people like Blatt.
As Election Day neared in November 2020, the Times report described what amounted to a sense of panic that cropped up inside the Trump campaign, as Democrats out-raised and spent them. During that time, the text on the online donation portal for Trump's donation website changed from simply asking donors to make donations a monthly gift, to including a pre-checked box with more complicated text that made donations weekly.
As the election drew closer, text in that bright yellow box went from containing a pre-checked field that in March 2020 simply said, "Make this a monthly recurring donation," to more complicated and emphatic demands by late 2020 that contained fake ultimatums. As of Sept. 30, 2020, the box looked like this:
As the pre-checked box evolved, the result was an increase in refunds issued to donors who had missed the finer print in the box that allowed the refunds to be weekly recurring. The refunds issued by the Trump campaign outpaced and dwarfed the $21 million in refunds issued by his political rival, now-U.S. President Joe Biden. The effect can be seen in a graph posted by Shane Goldmacher, the Times report's author:
The evolution of the text in the box on Trump's online donation portal can be viewed by clicking on various dates via the Internet Archive.
A search for Blatt's name can be found on OpenSecrets.org, a campaign finance transparency tool run by the nonpartisan organization Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. It confirms the Times reporting that Blatt, who listed himself as retired, was billed $500 multiple times by the Trump campaign between mid-September and October 11, 2020. Sadly, Blatt died of cancer in February 2021, according to the Times.
We sent emails to WinRed and the Trump campaign seeking comment, but didn't get an answer in time for publication. We will update if we do. But we note that in their public statements responding to the Times story that neither Trump nor WinRed refute the financial figures or facts laid out by the Times. Instead, the stance taken by both WinRed and Trump is that the Times' report was unfairly negative about their approach to fundraising.
In a series of tweets, WinRed called the Times report a "hit piece" and said WinRed's practices were comparable to that of ActBlue, the fundraising portal that serves Democratic candidates. "So when Republicans do it to stay competitive, it’s nefarious, and when Dems - who created the technology - do it, it’s a 'platform for little experiments that gently squeeze even more money out of donors,'" WinRed tweeted.
In a statement responding to the report, Trump referenced his pre- and post-election disinformation campaign, namely false claims that the 2020 election was beset by a massive-scale voter fraud conspiracy. Like WinRed, Trump said his own fundraising efforts were based on those of ActBlue, and also like WinRed, he claimed that the percentage of donors who formally disputed the charges with their financial institutions was low:
We learned from liberal ActBlue — and now we’re better than they are! In fact, 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
The Times story reported that WinRed "typically granted [refunds] to avoid more costly formal disputes." It also pointed out that while WinRed is a for-profit company, ActBlue is a non-profit organization. As such, WinRed "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."
We reached out to ActBlue for a response to WinRed and Trump's comments. A spokesperson told us by email that the average contribution amount across the platform in 2019-2020 was $38.08. The spokesperson also referred to this portion of the Times report that included a statement by ActBlue:
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.
On April 7, 2021, Timothy Miller, a writer for the political news site The Bulwark, tweeted that he received a fundraising text from the National Republican Congressional Committee with a similar, pre-checked fundraising box:
Despite aggressive efforts to pursue claims of widespread voter fraud, no evidence was ever presented by the Trump camp that widespread fraud occurred in the 2020 election. Biden won by 7 million votes and 74 electoral college points.