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FEC targets Team Trump favorite: Pre-checked fundraising boxes

Team Trump pioneered the practice of raising money through pre-checked boxes and recurring contributions. The FEC is unanimous in calling for a ban.

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Members of the Federal Election Commission tend not to agree on much. The nation's top watchdog agency for election laws is divided evenly between Democratic and Republican members, and since they tend to vote along party lines, the FEC routinely deadlocks on important issues.

Indeed, we learned this week that FEC officials recommended further investigation into Donald Trump's alleged campaign-finance misdeeds, but nothing happened because of the stalemate between the divided commissioners.

With this context in mind, it was striking to see FEC members vote unanimously on an increasingly important issue. The New York Times reported:

The Federal Election Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend that Congress ban political campaigns from guiding donors by default into recurring contributions through prechecked boxes, a month after a New York Times investigation showed that former President Donald J. Trump's political operation had steered huge numbers of unwitting supporters into repeated donations through that tactic.

FEC members, including those appointed by Trump, specifically asked Congress to protect the public and prospective donors by strengthen campaign-finance laws.

For those who may need a refresher, the New York Times first reported last month on Trump's 2020 political operation and the brazenly underhanded tactics it employed to swindle its unsuspecting donors. As we've discussed, the tactics and the scope of the scam were breathtaking.

To recap, the Times found that Team Trump set up a default system for online donors: by adding easily overlooked pre-checked boxes and opaque fine print, the then-president's operation was able to fleece unsuspecting donors for months. Not surprisingly, banks and credit card companies were soon inundated "with fraud complaints from the president's own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars." Some donors even canceled their cards just to make the recurring payments to Trump stop.

The Republican was presented as a politician who was effectively fleecing his own supporters, and while the former president didn't like the reporting, he also didn't contest any of its specific details.

The original article added that the tools Team Trump relied on are being "exported ... across the Republican Party, presaging a new normal for G.O.P. campaigns." Indeed, we learned around the same time that the National Republican Congressional Committee was relying on similar tactics, "deploying a prechecked box to enroll donors into repeating monthly donations — and using ominous language to warn them of the consequences if they opt out."

Just as the former president's operation relied on pre-checked yellow boxes with provocative fine print, the NRCC this week also turned to pre-checked yellow boxes with provocative fine print. A Times' report added, "Those donors who do not proactively uncheck the box will have their credit cards billed or bank accounts deducted for donations every month."

In fairness, it's important to emphasize that all kinds of entities -- party committees, activist organizations, non-profit groups, et al. -- do fundraising that often includes recurring contributions through pre-checked boxes. It happens on the left, right, and center.

What made Trump's and his party's tactics unusual was the predatory nature of their tactics. The specific tool may be relatively common, but Republicans' efforts to hide and intimidate stood out for a reason.

The National Republican Congressional Committee's donation page read last month, for example, "If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you're a DEFECTOR & sided with the Dems. CHECK this box and we can win back the House and get Trump to run in 2024." All of that text is bolded. Below it, in text that isn't bold, the box added, "Make this a monthly recurring donation."

The appeal came on the heels of a different recent NRCC fundraising pitch with a similar pre-checked yellow box. "If you want Trump to run for President in 2024, check this box," it read. "If we flip 5 seats and the House RED, Trump says he'll run. Uncheck this box, we lose."

Trump didn't actually say this, of course. The National Republican Congressional Committee simply wanted to separate its supporters from their money.

With this in mind, Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has vowed to introduce legislation to rein in the practice. Watch this space.