GoFundMe will refund more than $20 million in donations made by hundreds of thousands of people to an online effort to build President Trump's border wall with Mexico, after the Iraq War veteran behind the crowdsourcing effort suddenly changed his plans Friday on what to do with the funds.
In an update to the "We the People Will Build the Wall" campaign, Brian Kolfage wrote that rather than donating the money raised to the federal government, it would instead be handed over to a private nonprofit he said he had established in order to construct a wall himself.
"The federal government won’t be able to accept our donations anytime soon," he wrote. "We are better equipped than our own government to use the donated funds to build an actual wall on the southern border."
When he first created the campaign in mid-December, Kolfage had set an ambitious $1 billion goal for the crowdsourcing effort and pledged to refund all the money himself if the target was not met, according to an internet archive. "100% of your donations will go to the Trump Wall," Kolfage wrote. "If for ANY reason we don't reach our goal we will refund your donation.” The language was later removed from the fundraiser page.
"However, that did not happen," GoFundMe spokesperson Bobby Whithorne told BuzzFeed News in an email after Kolfage changed the campaign's original promise. "This means all donors will receive a refund."
"If a donor does not want a refund," Whithorne continued, "and they want their donation to go to the new organization, they must proactively elect to redirect their donation to that organization. If they do not take that step, they will automatically receive a full refund."
Kolfage didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday, but Jennifer Lawrence, a spokesperson for the new campaign, disputed the characterization that donors were being refunded.
However, Whithorne told BuzzFeed News that donors will be automatically refunded unless they choose otherwise.
And indeed, thousands of them appear to have chosen otherwise. On Saturday, Kolfage announced on Twitter that a flood of donors opted to have their contributions redirected to the new private wall-building effort. The first day after GoFundMe informed donors they could opt out for a refund, 27% responded — but only 8.6% of them wanted their money back, while 80,700 people wanted their donations to fund Kolfage’s private endeavor.
“GoFundMe said everyone is opting in to our new plan at a rate they’ve never seen!” Kolfage said in another tweet.
Still, 73% of donors to the original campaign had yet to respond, and if they don’t within 90 days, their contributions will be automatically refunded.
Whithorne confirmed Kolfage’s figures about GoFundMe in an email to BuzzFeed News, saying, “The information in his tweet is accurate,” adding that GoFundMe will contact all of the remaining donors again about the choice to opt in or out.
Whithorne could not immediately cite the amount of money that has been refunded and redirected, and Kolfage did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Saturday.
Kolfage has said the nonprofit's advisory board included, among others, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, controversial former Wisconsin sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., and Fox News contributor Sara A. Carter. Kobach confirmed his involvement in the project in a tweet.
Kolfage is a recipient of the Purple Heart medal — his legs and right arm were amputated as a result of a rocket attack during his second Iraq tour — but has a history of creating and profiting from fake, inflammatory news and right-wing conspiracy theories, and has been permanently suspended from Facebook.
Some of the stories on his now-defunct web pages falsely accused Democratic megadonor George Soros of funding domestic terrorists and former president Barack Obama of being a pedophile.
The veteran has also spearheaded other crowdfunding ventures over the years, raising thousands of dollars on GoFundMe with the promise of helping mentor fellow vets at military hospitals, but spokespersons for the medical centers told BuzzFeed News they have no record of Kolfage working at their facilities or donating any money.
Kolfage has repeatedly said he would not take any money from the wall donations. He has started another GoFundMe campaign with a $100,000 goal that he says will be used to help him "Fight 4 Free Speech" and take action against Facebook, which deleted several of his pages in October during a major purge of inauthentic accounts.
Shortly after he established the wall fundraiser last month, Kolfage updated the webpage to include a separate website that included a Colorado P.O. box, where he said donors could mail personal checks to support the cause.
The amount raised with personal checks was not known, but Kolfage said Friday on Twitter it was enough to put the campaign "over the record.” A GoFundMe spokesperson said those funds could not be guaranteed.
The federal government isn't presently able to accept financial donations with strings attached, but last month Republicans introduced legislation that would allow
Treasury officials to do so for the border wall.
Dominic Holden contributed reporting.