Ethics Observations About “How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations”

To imply that I am not exactly shocked is not to suggest that what the story—that headline is from the New York Times—described isn’t just as wrong as it would be if the news sent me to a cardiac ward.

But read on…

What the story describes is this…

….Facing a cash crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the [Trump] 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. 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.

The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists — retirees, military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives. Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

….In the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts issued more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3 million to online donors. 

Observations :

  • Ah, the old automatically checked box fundraiser’s trick! Brings back memories! I worked as a professional fundraiser for Georgetown Law Center, and I met my wife-to-be, who was the foundation and corporate development officer for the whole university, while learning the ropes of the fundraising game. I don’t know if Georgetown uses the automatically checked box now, but other non-profit organizations I worked for did, notably the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. There was an automatic donation to the organization that members had to uncheck to avoid giving a hundred bucks when they re-upped for membership. Membership wasn’t my area at ATLA, but I was blowing ethics whistles even back then: I told the members that the trick was deceptive and unconscionable. The excuses and rationalizations I got—these were all lawyers, in some cases famous lawyers—was first and foremost, that it worked. Indeed it did: the box usually went unnoticed, especially since research showed that most members had their annual membership bill paid by secretaries and never actually read what they were signing. Every year, the trick brought in millions of dollars, which the association needed, since its membership was falling. (That was rationalization #2.) Another was that “everybody did it”—well, not everybody, but a lot of associations and charities, including those with unassailable missions, like animal rescue groups and cancer research charities. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”! The leadership of the association told me that requiring an opt-in rather than a small print opt-out would cost ATLA an annual fortune. And that their members could afford an accidental gift of a hundred dollars. “So what?” I replied, in the diplomatic fashion that partially explains why I am now self-employed. What kind of organization scams it’s own members?”
  • What kind indeed. Later I found that the pre-checked box was a standard tool in the organizational fundraiser’s tool box. In the non-profits, including my professional theater company, where I had enough authority to do so, I made sure that such donations were only opt-ins. Still, the device is legal, as was the Trump campaign’s use of it, though the multiplying gift trick is unusually aggressive—legal, but deliberate deception, and unethical as hell.
  • Why am I not shocked? Donald Trump has no ethics; I think I established that many years ago. The people he has hired usually have less-than-sterling ethics as well. Both parties lie and exaggerate on their fundraising appeals to a nauseating extent, and target gullible, lazy, fools, and these appeals are authored by professional fundraisers who are deemed successful according to how much money they raise, not by the principles of honesty, respect and fairness they grind into dust by doing it. If organizations that save whales, cure AIDS and send money to Africa tolerate this unethical technique, why would I expect a political organization, especially one working for Donald Trump, to do otherwise?
  • There is no justifiable excuse for what the campaign did, but the one I would be most sympathetic to is this: the campaign was being starved of cash by unethical tactics by the AUC, “the Axis of Unethical Conduct.” By September, the pubic was being told daily in polls after poll that any money donated to the President was a lost cause: Biden’s election was a lock. At the same time, the narrative in the news media and Democrats was that Trump was responsible for the pandemic, even that more than 300,000 dead Americans would have been alive had he not botched the national response to China’s gift to the world. This was also an unethical strategy, and no rationalizations are more powerful than the set that argues, “We have no choice!” and “They made us do it!”
  • For once, a front page anti-Trump story is justifiably being trumpeted at the Times, but the paper still can’t play it straight. It’s wording attribute the deception to Donald Trump, and while he is certainly accountable for what his organizations do in his name, I very much doubt that he was involved in the decision to use this hoary tactic. Some publications, though not most, are playing it straight and attributing the device to the Trump campaign. But why expect the news media to start being honest and fair now?
  • Newsworthy as it is, the disinformation campaign being employed by President Biden and Democrats to spark a corporate boycott against Georgia for its voting reforms are both more important, more dangerous to the nation and more consequential: baseball pulling the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta is projected to cost the area up to $100,000,000. I haven’t seen equivalent outrage from the Times over that, and I should.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Observations About “How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations”

  1. I donated three dollars to Joe Biden’s campaign, just to keep track of what they were up to. I had also given Trump 49 dollars. The Blue team scattered my contact information across their networks and the usual suspects were involved…SPLC, ACLU etc. plus a myriad of pacs. I was up to thirteen text solicitations per day before I started to block them. New ones kept springing up to replace them.

    Trump’s campaign and families got me up to eight text solicitations per day, but stopped immediately when I asked. I’m thinking I will just send checks from now on with no other information included. Let them do the work of finding me in their database.

    • I got caught off guard taking a “survey” from the USO on Facebook. They asked hard hitting questions such as “do you believe moralle is important for our troops?”, eventually asking “will you consider a one time donation to the USO?”

      Worn down, I made that one time donation. To there credit, I guess, there was no check box….

      However, a month later, I got an letter thanking .e for my one time donation, and asking if I’d consider another. Then every assortment of vaguely patriotic charities started sending me letters (and crappy gifts) asking for money. The most blatant were the Saint Joseph’s School for Indian Children, which sent a 6 address labels, 4 creating cards, two pens, and dream catcher (in a pear tree). The other was some sort of Sheriff’s Association that sent a full size American flag that I am now stuck with. There was one more now that sent a nickel glued to their letter. They’re letter had the gall to state “RETURN WITHIN 2 WEEKS!” in regard to my potential voluntary donation. Then on the return envelope, it asked that I return the coin, because “every nickel counts!”

      I started sending a small note card in there self-addressed envelopes asking to be removed from their lists.

      I think it’s basically inevitable and not unethical for a charity that I chose to donate to to follow up and ask for more. I can think of no ethical reasoning that justifies selling my information and goodwill to everybody else. I am now jaded against the freaking USO, and unlikely to donate to other similar charities for fear of their predatory practices.

      • I have never, in recent decades, been able to contribute much to charities, even ones I approve of. The USO and Red Cross are actually two of those few I have made donations to.

        However, I prefer to combine that with some self-interest — I also subscribe to a site that rewards you essentially for spending with their advertisers and from time to time the Red Cross uses them to send out an appeal. So I can donate to a good cause and also get points towards a gift card for Barnes & Noble or Paypal (and in 2020/2021 a tax writeoff). It’s a win-win-win in the true sense, everyone concerned benefits.

        Needless to say I am on their email list, but I feel no compunction about deleting their emails unread, along with perhaps half or more of all the emails I get daily (which are necessarily numerous). I don’t donate over the phone and I choose when and how much. It works for me.

        Before last year, I don’t think I ever made a political donation, but the AUC persuaded me to do so, and I will probably expand that. Inevitably I reckon that will lead to email from those folks, but one has to do something,

  2. I was the unwitting victim of this practice by a for profit “wine club.” Our daughter gave us a Christmas present of a gift certificate entitling me to buy a mixed case of wine for a hundred bucks. Which I did. The wine was awful. Not that I expected much. I stashed it in what we call our “book club wine;” the juice Mrs. OB uses to entertain her girlfriends who are generally content to drink crappy wine and I use when making spaghetti sauce. A few months later, Mrs. OB asked me why we were paying twenty or so bucks a month on our master card to a wine club. I was outraged. The wine club refunded the payments. I was tempted to sue them under a class action and make forty percent as my fee and take a chunk as the nominative plaintiff as well.

  3. Two thoughts on this practice. I acknowledge that it is an unethical, even shady way of getting money. However, would anyone care to place any wagers that the Biden campaign didn’t do the exact same things? That doesn’t absolve the Trump campaign, it just means both campaigns (or perhaps all major campaigns these days) are slimy in this regard, I would be more impressed with their reporting if they also told us that Biden did not do this sort of thing — but I am sure they deliberately did not look for fear of what they would surely find.

    Secondly, many of the people who write about software will tell you never to use the ‘standard’ or default installation option — to always uncheck that box and choose the custom installation. The reason? Too often with the default installation options you opt into installing other programs you have no desire to have or actively do not want on your computer. One infamous tactic (I think this was from an anti-virus program amongst others) is to change the default search engine for your browser and install a new tool bar for that search engine. I’ve been caught by this more than once, I am sorry to say, and it is always a pain. And needless to say it is unethical by any conceivable standard.

    There are very few companies I trust enough to just follow their defaults. On many others, I may end up using their defaults in the end, but I check first.

    Now, if only there was a way to vet all the massive EULAs one has to deal with……..

    • I meant to mention this issue but forgot: thanks. The Times, of course, didn’t tell readers that the GOp didn’t invent this cheat or how common it is…or that it is likely that the Democrats have used similar tactics. I do think that’s relevant.

  4. If organizations that save whales, cure AIDS and send money to Africa tolerate this unethical technique, why would I expect a political organization, especially one working for Donald Trump, to do otherwise?

    Because people working for the latter sort may have more difficulty fooling themselves with that there saints’ rationalisation you mentioned, or something similar. However, I have no reason to suppose that any such effect would be material.

  5. “For once, a front page anti-Trump story is justifiably being trumpeted at the Times, but the paper still can’t play it straight. It’s wording attribute the deception to Donald Trump, and while he is certainly accountable for what his organizations do in his name, I very much doubt that he was involved in the decision to use this hoary tactic.”

    I think we have to evaluate Trump’s actions when he initially found out about the practice to determine whether it was condoned or not. Fundraisers take a percentage off the top so padding the numbers makes the fundraising firm more money while leaving the host responsible. Can any one name the fundraising firm utilized by any national charity or political party; probably not.

    As in government and business, many decisions are made by “campaign workers” who oversee myriad contractors and consultants. Every one of these people will derive an income stream from their piece of the funding streams of which they oversee the development. The only one that cannot is the candidate. We need to keep that in mind as we begin to assign ethics blame.

    Did the Times trumpet the story of Bernie Sanders wife taking a 10% ad placement commission for his campaign ads? No. In fact when the story appeared elsewhere it referred to the practice of family members raking off placement fees as customary.

      • That was not my experience with fundraisers. The fees were structured based on success which technically results in a percentage basis. Perhaps we were just naïve.

        • Well, understandably naive. The fundraising associations all make the point that a fundraiser who wants a cut can’t be trusted. Why? It creates a potential conflict of interest. The reason is most vivid in institutional fundraising: big donors are easily talked into relatively cheap immediate gifts, but what institutions need is the big hits, and getting them takes patience and time. What I hated most about fundraising was that you often weren’t around for the results of your best work. I “cultivated” a big GULC donor for years. He finally gave one of the largest grants ever, to build the new library, but a year after I left. If I were being paid by a percentage, I might have been temped to get a quick donation that would have let him get off the hook.

          And I got credit for some gifts that I had nothing to do with.

      • WinRed is an attempt to copy the Democrat’s ActBlue. It processes the Republican fundraising.

        How much WinRed charges in transaction fees
        Team WinRed avatar
        Written by Team WinRed
        Updated over a week ago
        Cost Summary
        Transaction Fee: 3.8% + $0.30

        High Dollar Page Fee: 3.4%

        ACH Donation Fee: .8%, capped at $5

        Dispute Fee: $15

        Account Set-Up: $0

        Monthly Fee: $0

        Fees cannot be refunded if the donation is refunded.


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