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What We Know About Donald Trump's Scandal-Plagued Charity Foundation

The Republican nominee is accused of having used his personal foundation to pay off a politician, finance a lawsuit against his enemies, and buy a giant painting of himself.

Donald Trump laughing on the campaign trail in April. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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One of the prerequisites for running for president is having a lot of money. Even Barack Obama, one of the least wealthy presidents of the modern era, was a millionaire by the time he ran for the White House in 2008, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both make him look like a pauper. Americans are fine with being ruled by the rich—not that we have a choice, lol—but there's understandably a lot of interest in how these rich people choose to spend their money.

Politicians generally being public-minded sorts, presidential candidates tend to give large chunks of their fortunes away. According to Hillary and Bill Clinton's tax returns, the power couple gave away $23.2 million from 2001 to 2015, or about 10 percent of their income. The 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his wife had them beat, giving away almost 30 percent ($4 million) of their income the year before his failed bid for the presidency. Proving charitable giving is normally just a box to check off for candidates, a way to signal that they're one of the good One Percenters.

In that context, Trump's history of charity is especially bizarre. As with so much else about the self-proclaimed billionaire, Trump talks big about his generosity but can't or won't go into specifics. Investigations by journalists into Trump's family charity, the Donald J Trump Foundation, have turned up little in the way of recent donations from the candidate's own pocket, and uncovered one case of an illegal gift to a politician who at the time was weighing whether or not to sue Trump University for fraud. Especially now that the foundation is itself being investigated for wrongdoing, it's worth taking a closer look at what the hell is happening with the Donald J Trump Foundation.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that he's given more than $100 million to charity, and earlier this year, his campaign put out a list of nearly 5,000 donations he supposedly made. But the tireless work of Washington Post reporter David A Fahrenthold, who has called more than 300 charities individually to ask if Trump had ever given them money, shows that it's actually very hard to find incidences of the man himself giving away any cash, at least not in recent years. In an article published in June, the Post found that the supposed billionaire had given away less than $10,000 from 2008 to 2015.

How is that possible? It turns out that a lot of Trump's gifts to charity—including gifts he publicly promised to contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice—came from the Donald J Trump Foundation, to which he's donated nothing since 2008 and is instead stocked with other people's money. Other gifts his campaign referenced came in the form of rounds of golf on Trump's golf courses that were given to charities to be auctioned off; that list of donations, the Post reported, also included arrangements called "conservation easements" that involve a real estate developer agreeing not to use land for certain purposes while still owning it and making money off of it.

Trump has given millions to charities over his lifetime, though that amount isn't all that significant given how much money he says he's worth. Since the Post has started chasing this story, Trump has given $1 million to a veterans' charity (months after promising he would, and only after being questioned about it), and gave $100,000 to a Louisiana church last month following the floods that decimated the state.

But the Donald J Trump Foundation has its own problems separate from the lack of proof of Trump's personal giving. GuideStar, a nonpartisan group that evaluates nonprofits, published a blog post Monday comparing the Trump Foundation to the Clinton Foundation. Clinton's organization—which itself is controversial due to so far unproven allegations major donors essentially bought access to Clinton while she was secretary of state—is much bigger, much more transparent about what it does, and has more of its eponymous founders' money.

The Trump Foundation has also allegedly engaged in what's called "self-dealing," or using a charity's money for personal gain, which is usually against IRS rules. For instance, the foundation spent $20,000 on a giant portrait of Trump himself, and $12,000 on Tim Tebow memorabilia.

Oh, and then there's the alleged bribe the Trump Foundation paid to Florida attorney general Pam Bondi. This was a $25,000 donation that the foundation made in 2013 to a Bondi-aligned PAC, which was problematic for a couple reasons. First, charities can't give to PACs—Trump's campaign said that the charity had given the money to the PAC by mistake, then screwed up again by telling the IRS the money had gone to a different group (whoops!). When this came to light this year, Trump paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty and reimbursed the foundation for the $25,000 gift. Second, just days after that gift, Bondi reportedly decided not to join a lawsuit against Trump University filed by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. (Bondi's spokespeople deny her office was ever considering the lawsuit, contradicting newspaper accounts from that time.)

Speaking of Schneiderman, in 2014, the Trump Foundation gave $100,000 (a sizable sum by its standards) to Citizens United, a conservative group that was then suing the New York AG over his efforts to get them to disclose their donor list. Citizens United said the gift wasn't related to the lawsuit, but a Schneiderman spokesperson didn't agree, telling Yahoo News, "Funding a meritless lawsuit against this office would be nothing new for someone like Donald Trump, who has filed baseless ethics complaints, planted bogus stories, and tweeted a steady stream of incoherent insults just to make himself feel better for being exposed as the fraud he clearly is."

Trump has called Schneiderman a "lightweight hack" and "a low-life, a sleazebag," and the evidently personal battle between the two men seems bound to continue—on Tuesday, it was reported by the New York Daily News that the AG's office had launched a probe "to make sure [the foundation is] complying with the laws governing charities in New York." The Trump campaign responded by calling the AG a "partisan hack who has turned a blind eye to the Clinton Foundation for years."

It remains to be seen if Schneiderman's probe will result in any charges. But the legality of some of the Trump Foundation gifts aside, there are more basic questions about Trump's personal acts of charity that he refuses to answer, namely: What and when have you given to charity?

When BuzzFeed News looked into Trump's charitable giving in June, campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks told them, "He makes contributions personally, and there's no way for you to know or understand what those gifts are or when they are made." But no, there is a way to know what those gifts are—Trump could just release his tax returns, which he has refused to do. (Trump claims he can't release them because he's under audit, though Richard Nixon showed his returns to the public while being audited. This week, VICE News filed a lawsuit with the IRS seeking to gain access to the audits of Trump's returns.)

In the past week, even as the media has started to zero in on all this, Trump's campaign keeps sending out surrogates to proclaim his generosity in the broadest, least fact-checkable terms. Deflecting questions about their boss's activities is by now standard operating procedure for people on Trump's payroll, but the more important question has nothing to do with shady individual gifts. If Trump is willing to obfuscate and mislead about something as simple as which charities he gives money too, what else is he refusing to tell the truth about?

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.