Instead, they embody Trump’s lifelong habit — borrowed from his career in New York’s notoriously unscrupulous real estate world — of making unethical, comically dishonest pitches. In a simpler time, Republican politicians and conservative talking heads made money by selling their audience to advertisers peddling investment advice, gold or unproven cures for erectile dysfunction. Now, the huckster making dubious promises is the president himself. Trump’s campaign blew through a once-massive fundraising advantage, spending more than $800 million of its $1.1 billion haul before early September. In August, the last month for which data is available, former vice president Joe Biden outraised Trump by $155 million. By late September, Biden had $141 million more in the bank than the president did. Not coincidentally, Trump’s fundraising entreaties are becoming increasingly implausible and desperate.
For proof that Trump thinks his political supporters are a bunch of suckers to swindle, just look at how he gets them to part with their money, alternating between flattery and abuse: You’re one of the president’s finest supporters, you are told, and that’s why you personally have been selected for this opportunity to give him money — except when you’re told that you’ve let him down by not donating enough. The campaign’s apparent hope is that the recipient will crave Trump’s approval and seek it through generosity. Sometimes, the praise and shaming are deployed in concert, as in this July 14 pitch nominally sent by the president himself: “I’ve asked my team to pull the records of my BEST donors - our most loyal Patriots who I can always count on when I need them the most. I’m disappointed to say that when I asked for your file, they told me you showed up in the BOTTOM 1% of all Trump Supporters.”
Trump also frequently deploys a marketing gimmick seemingly borrowed from late-night cable infomercials, in which a bonus or a discount is promised if you open your wallet instantaneously, as he did with this appeal on Aug. 3: “I’ve decided to activate an exclusive 3-Months-Out 700%-MATCH just for YOU. This offer is only available for the NEXT HOUR.” Guilt-tripping and outsize donation matches are used in Trump’s fundraising text messages, too. In September, a Trump email promised that an “exclusive 900%-MATCH is available to you for the next hour, so don’t wait.” Just 44 minutes later, while that match would supposedly still be in effect, an email allegedly from both Trump and Vice President Pence claimed, “We’ve activated a special 800%-MATCH.” This past week, Trump again offered an 800 percent match (for just 30 minutes) when he left Walter Reed hospital.
Naively, I had assumed that factual claims in fundraising solicitations had to be truthful, lest they violate laws against deceiving customers or donors. And yet these assertions range from unverified to clearly false. If I were really one of Trump’s best supporters, his campaign would be in an awful lot of trouble, since I’ve never given him a penny. How could any more than 1 in 100 of his email recipients be in the “bottom 1%” of his donors?
The match is even more suspicious. Is every donation really being matched at 500 percent or 700 percent for one or two hours? By whom? We’re never told. (A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Wouldn’t matching donations at such an extravagant rate be impossible without the matcher hitting the individual campaign contribution limit? Trump has been claiming large donation matches at least since last year, long before the Republican National Convention, after which the national party merges with the presidential campaign and individuals can contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican National Committee through the campaign. Until then, donors could give only up to $5,600 for this election cycle. “You never see a match that high,” says Robert Greenwald, the founder of Brave New Films, a nonprofit film and advocacy organization, who has years of experience in fundraising. “Generally, you’ll see a 1-to-1 match, sometimes 2-to-1.”
In terms of legality, experts generally agree that false statements intended to flatter donors would be deemed harmless rhetoric in court. While lying about a donation match could legally be considered consumer fraud, there isn’t a specific campaign law against it. Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, said the FEC considers its mandate to be enforcing the limits on donations, restrictions on sources and how the money is spent. “Our regulations wouldn’t cover deception or anything like that,” he said. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would investigate false fundraising claims as potential consumer fraud or wire fraud.
There is at least a theoretical way to create even a 9-to-1 match without hitting individual contribution limits, according to a Republican fundraising consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to openly discuss campaign fundraising tactics. Campaigns can ask large donors to hold off on making a planned contribution until the campaign has advertised to smaller donors that they will be matched if they give within a certain time frame. Campaigns can then create a pool of many large donations to ensure that there are enough funds.
This could be considered deceptive, since the implication of the advertised match is that by donating you will increase a large donor’s gift as well. In truth, the match is merely notional, invented to encourage small contributors who mistakenly believe that their $50 is generating an additional $350 from someone like Sheldon Adelson. Trump, despite his claims of being a billionaire, hasn’t given his campaign a cent (and the Trump Organization has charged it $2.3 million “for things like food, lodging, and rent,” according to the Atlantic).
Both Matt Sanderson, co-leader of the political law group at Caplan & Drysdale, who works with Republican clients, and the GOP fundraiser stressed that matching has become common among candidates and election committees in both parties. I gathered dozens of email solicitations from Democratic campaigns since 2016 at the presidential, Senate and congressional levels and found no claims of donation matches, although there were a few fundraising ads from left-leaning independent PACs, such as Stop Republicans and End Citizens United, that included them. In 2019, Mother Jones noted that Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Seth Moulton also used this tactic. A brand-new study by researchers at Princeton University of political fundraising emails from this election cycle reported that out of their pool of more than 100,000 emails, about 13,000 contained some claim of a donation match. The study characterized the claims as “devious and potentially deceptive” because campaign finance experts are skeptical of their veracity.
Biden eschews this tactic. “Donald Trump has years of practice swindling people out of money for businesses that he runs into the ground,” Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in an email. “His campaign is no different, bombarding supporters with messages meant to shame and scam them out of every cent.” In September, after being contacted for this article, the Biden campaign sent a fundraising email to supporters specifically criticizing a recent Trump pitch claiming an“8x” match. “Does anyone really believe this?”
Without any oversight, it’s impossible to verify whether the Trump campaign has gone to the trouble of actually creating all of its claimed matches. There is little reason to believe that someone whose eponymous “university” and foundation were both deemed fraudulent by New York’s attorney general would refrain from inventing nonexistent matches just because it would be wrong to do so.
Similar questions have been raised about another Trump fundraising gimmick: an opportunity to win a free trip to meet the president. “Why haven’t you entered to win a chance to meet President Trump yet?” demanded a June 13 email, ascribed to presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump. “The President saw the list of Patriots who have already entered and he noticed that your name was MISSING.” For an all-expenses paid vacation, all you needed to do was donate. Except the fine print at the bottom said you could enter the competition without donating. More important, perhaps, is that it’s possible the sweepstakes will never occur and no one will win. In 2017, Yahoo News observed that the Trump campaign had run such a contest without ever publicly announcing a winner or producing any evidence that a donor actually had dinner with Trump.
Although every fundraiser interviewed for this story said donation matches are used because they work, generating more small-dollar gifts, the Biden campaign argues that it’s doing better than Trump without resorting to hucksterism. “If you’re looking for a way to tell which approach works better,” says Ducklo, “I’d point you to last month’s fundraising totals.”