Donald Trump's 2020 re-election campaign tricked its own supporters into making recurring donations, bringing in millions of desperately needed dollars in the final months before election day, according to a bombshell investigation.
The New York Times combed through Federal Election Commission filings from both the Trump and Biden campaigns, along with their related entities, such as the two major political parties' national committees.
It also interviewed "two dozen" Trump donors, plus campaign officials, bank officials and finance experts.
The result was an extensive story published yesterday, detailing the methods used by the Trump campaign and a company called WinRed, which processed its online donations.
The investigation uncovered a "clear pattern" of Trump supporters giving money, intending to make a single donation, only to discover weeks later upon checking their bank statements that they'd actually donated "over and over again".
This ultimately resulted in about US$120 million ($173 million) worth of refunds being issued by the end of last year, though by that point, the cash had already served its purpose.
How did the Trump campaign do it? By using check boxes, pre-filled by default, to sign online donors up to recurring donations unless they opted out.
When the boxes first appeared on the online donation form, around March of 2020, they signed people up to monthly payments. By September, the campaign had changed them to weekly donations.
"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," the Times reported.
"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.
"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."
Banks and credit card companies dealt with a flood of complaints and fraud claims from Trump supporters who believed they'd made a single donation, only to see hundreds or even thousands of dollars leave their accounts.
The Times cited several examples.
Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old retiree, made a $990 donation in September. That was followed by seven more withdrawals, adding up to almost $8000, before he noticed.
Stacy Blatt, a 63-year-old cancer patient, made an initial $500 donation. The same amount kept coming out of his account every week until he ran out of money, leaving him unable to pay for rent or utilities. He died in February.
"It felt like it was a scam," Blatt's brother Russell said.
Some refunds are typical during US election campaigns, and happen for various reasons, such as the donor exceeding the legal limit on how much they can give. But last year was on a completely different scale.
In the graph below, you can see the effect the pre-filled check boxes had on the campaign's refund rate, which gradually rose from about 2 per cent of its online donations to more than 12 per cent.
The number of refunds particularly started to swell from mid-June, when the second box was introduced. You can also see the effect of the campaign's decision in early September to have the recurring donations happen each week, instead of each month.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign's refunds remained consistent throughout the year.
"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," said the Times.
"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."
In total, Trump had to issue $173 million worth of refunds throughout 2020, compared to $29 million for his opponent.
In the final 10 weeks of the year alone, the Republican side issued 530,000 refunds worth $91 million, while the Democrats issued 37,000 refunds worth $7.9 million.
Trump did not address the investigation in a brief statement today, instead issuing an Easter message of sorts.
"Happy Easter to ALL, including the radical left CRAZIES who rigged our presidential election, and want to destroy our country!" he said.
As always, we are obliged to note that the election was not rigged. Trump tested his claims of widespread fraud in court dozens of times, and failed to produce any supporting evidence.