One of former president Trump’s biggest campaign expenses this year has been refunding donors who were duped into making multiple increasing donations. Trump and the Republican Party have returned $12.8 million to donors in the first half of 2021, according to newly released federal records.
The New York Times reported that the refunds account for approximately 20 percent of Trump’s total fundraising so far this year. The refunds are the result of shady campaign tactics where donors unwittingly agreed to make recurring donations thanks to a pre-checked box on the donation form that set up weekly or monthly automatic payments. Another pre-checked box signed donors up for a “money bomb,” which doubled their contribution. Both boxes were accompanied by tiny text that was worded in a confusing way, making it more likely donors left them checked without understanding what they were agreeing to.
Trump resorted to these tactics, known as “dark pattern design,” that are set up to intentionally deceive the user starting in September 2020, when it was becoming clear he was falling behind then-candidate Joe Biden.
The 2021 refunds only add to the total number of reimbursements the campaign and party have had to give back. In the last two months of 2020, Trump and the Republican National Committee gave back $64.3 million to online donors.
In response, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller told the Times, “Our campaign was built by the hardworking men and women of America, and cherishing their investments was paramount to anything else we did.”
While dark pattern design is relatively common, the way Trump and the Republicans used it was exceptional, experts have said. Biden’s campaign also issued donor refunds, but according to the Times, it was much less common. While the Biden campaign’s refund rate was 2.2 percent, Trump’s was nearly five times higher at 10.7 percent, federal records indicate.
“I’ve never seen anyone do what the Trump campaign just did,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, told Business Insider of the tactics. He went on to describe it as “a complete rip-off.”
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “They knew they were tricking people into signing up for what they thought was one contribution when they were really signing up for multiple contributions. Then when they got caught, they sent the money back. It’s like if a bank robber got caught and said, ‘Oh, well, I gave the money back.'”