Donald Trump has an unusually ugly record when it comes to separating those he perceives as fools from their money. As we've discussed before, the Republican ran a fraudulent charitable foundation and created a fraudulent "university" that was designed to do little more than rip off its "students."
But the scam the Trump campaign pulled off last fall was truly extraordinary, even by the former president's standards.
The New York Times reported over the weekend on Trump's 2020 political operation and the brazenly underhanded tactics it employed to swindle its unsuspecting donors. The article began by featuring a financially unstable cancer patient in Kansas City, who chipped in $500 last September after hearing Rush Limbaugh talk about the Republican ticket's financial needs.
What the hospice-bound patient -- making his first-ever campaign contribution -- didn't know was that Team Trump accepted the $500 donation, withdrew another $500 the next day, and then took another $500 once per week through mid-October. It wasn't long before the cancer patient's bank account had been emptied by the then-president's political operation, causing the man's utility and rent payments to bounce.
This wasn't the result of an accident or a banking error.
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.
Initially, there was an easily overlooked pre-checked box on the donation page -- which, naturally, many supporters didn't see -- that turned a single donation into a monthly contribution. As Election Day drew closer, the pre-checked box created weekly contributions.
In time, solicitations featured "lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language."
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."
The then-president's joint operation with the Republican National Committee -- relying on WinRed, a for-profit operation that processed the online donations -- had to issue more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3 million in the final two-and-a-half months of the campaign. The total for all of 2020 was even more amazing: $122 million in refunds. From the article:
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.
Of course, even though the Republicans were forced to refund millions of dollars, Trump and his team were able to use that money when they needed it most. As the Times put it, "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."
The article went on to note that the unintended payments "busted credit card limits. Some donors canceled their cards to avoid recurring payments. Others paid overdraft fees to their bank."
It's tempting to think Trump's defeat in early November ended the problem, but it didn't: the Republican continued to pump out ridiculous financial appeals, begging donors to send him even more money based on his post-election Big Lie. The former president's supporters did as they were told, chipping in more money to help combat the made-up conspiracy, unaware of the fact that much of the money was directed to Trump's new political action committee, not to efforts to combat the election results.
As was true before Election Day, Team Trump continued to benefit from a system in which many donors didn't recognize the fine print -- which in turn generated another round of weekly withdrawals.
For the former president, revelations like these add to a history of scams. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pleaded with GOP voters in 2016 to see Trump as an accomplished "con man," the senator was entirely correct. The common thread tying together Trump's fraudulent charitable foundation, his fraudulent "university," his fraudulent fundraising operation, and even the way he treated contractors is obvious: Trump sees those who put their faith in him as suckers to be fleeced.
But looking ahead, it's not just the former president. The same New York Times report added:
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.
To be sure, in recent years, we've seen a great many prominent Republicans treating their donors like dupes. But there's every reason to fear the problem will continue to intensify.
It was nearly eight years ago when MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote, "Much of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks." The observation was true at the time, but it's even more important now.