What Donald Trump's Charity Activities Say About Him
A close look at the Donald J. Trump Foundation's activities over the past decade raises more questions than it answers about what the GOP frontrunner actually believes.
Donald Trump attends his own Comedy Central Roast in 2011. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Last month, aides for Donald Trump made a rare admission of error, conceding that the candidate's charitable foundation had made a mistake by donating money to a group supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a possible violation of federal tax rules preventing charities from giving to political causes.
It was a surprising mea culpa from a public figure who doesn't do that sort of thing, coming in response to a watchdog ethics complaint that claimed the Donald J. Trump Foundation gave $25,000 to Bondi's political organization in 2013, and also mislabeled the donation on its tax filings, claiming the money went to a Kansas-based anti-abortion group with a similar name. At the time the donation was made, Bondi was considering a state investigation into Trump University; the investigation never occurred, a decision that created a minor controversy in Florida. Last month, Bondi endorsed the real-estate mogul's presidential campaign.
In a March interview with the Washington Post, Allen Weisselberg, the treasurer of Trump's charity—and also the chief financial officer at the Trump Organization—chalked the donation up to a mere clerical mistake. "All these years, we had no idea anything happened," he said, conveniently forgetting that the donation had made headlines three years prior. Weisselberg added that the foundation would "straighten it out" with the IRS.
Save for the glimmer of Florida cronyism, the controversy was pretty unremarkable, at least as far as Trump news goes. But it did draw attention to one of the less-explored corners of the strange Trump Family empire—namely, the real-estate mogul's foundation, an eponymous entity that the reality-TV star tends not to mention when he runs through his long list of personal accomplishments.
Established in 1988, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has never been a prominent part of its namesake's brand. Until January, the organization had no website, and doesn't publicly identify an overriding mission or goal for the family's philanthropy. According to public tax filings, Donald Trump is the foundation's president, and three of his children—Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr.—are listed as directors; no one is paid for their time, which is estimated at 30 minutes per week.
As of 2014, the last year for which public tax filings are available, the foundation had assets of about $1.3 million. According to a review of the charity's tax filings, the foundation doled out about $1 million or less annually over the past decade, with the exception of 2012, when its gifts totaled $1.7 million.
Unlike most rich dudes with family foundations, Trump himself appears to have donated a relatively small portion of the money his charity manages—since 2006, he has given less than $700,000 to the charity, according to tax filings; his last donation was recorded in 2008, when he chipped in $35,000. All $565,832 in gifts, contributions, and grants that the Trump Foundation reported on its last tax filing came from outside donors, many of whom have business or personal ties to Trump.
The numbers are surprising, given Trump's wealth—an estimated $4.5 billion, according to Forbes, which ranks him at number 324 on its list of the world's richest people. "Trump has an appallingly dismal record of giving," said Pablo Eisenberg, a founder of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. "In terms of charity, he's a cheapskate, and particularly for someone who allegedly has so much wealth."
Of course, it's possible that Trump has made donations outside of his charity. In August, the Republican frontrunner told the Associated Press that his philanthropic contributions have amounted to $102 million in land and cash over the past five years, but as the AP points out, it's not clear where that figure comes from. (Last year, Crain's New York noted that Trump "has given away properties only after his efforts to develop at least some of them failed.") Moreover, for a man thought to be the richest individual ever to run for president, even the $102 million number seems low: By contrast, Mitt Romney and his wife Ann gave 29.4 percent of their $13 million-plus income to charity the year before his 2012 presidential run, according to his personal tax disclosures. Trump has so far declined to release his own tax records, making a full accounting of his charitable giving impossible.
In the intensely scrutinizing process of a presidential campaign, philanthropic contributions are used not only as a measure of a candidate's generosity, but also as a proxy for determining a candidate's values and ideological or spiritual values. And while the size of Trump's foundation may indicate some level of stinginess on the part of its president, what the charity's donations say about the candidate is much harder to sort out.
A review of the last the Donald J. Trump Foundation's tax filings for the last decade uncovered an eclectic— and in some cases downright bizarre—mix of beneficiaries that eschews any discernible mission or coherent point of view, and ultimately raise more questions than answers about where the 2016 candidate's moral compass might lie.
On the one hand, the foundation has given to an assortment of right-wing organizations that one might expect to see associated with a Republican presidential candidate—groups like the Palmetto Family Council of South Carolina, whose current projects include a "Defend Christmas Freedom Hotline"; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; and Liberty Central, a conservative nonprofit founded by the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Tax filings from 2013 also show a $50,000 donation to the American Conservative Union Foundation, sponsor of the influential annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
In 2014, the year before Trump announced his campaign, the foundation's tax filings list a $100,000 donation to the Citizens United Foundation, the charitable arm of the conservative lobbying firm linked to the infamous 2010 Supreme Court campaign finance ruling. Filings from that year also list a $25,000 gift to the American Spectator Foundation, publisher of the conservative American Spectator magazine.
(In an email, Donald Rieck, president of the American Spectator Foundation, confirmed the donation, but stressed that there is a "firewall between the foundation and the website and our writers, hence the contribution has had no impact on our coverage of Mr. Trump.")
But while the above gifts seem to gel with Trump's current political role, his foundation has also bestowed its largesse on a number of far more liberal groups. Most notable, of course, are the Trump Foundation contributions to the Clinton Foundation—one for $100,000 in 2009, and another for $10,000 in 2010, according to the Trump Foundation's tax filings.
In the years following, Trump's charity continued to bestow its largesse on other decidedly left-wing organizations, including a donation of just under $57,000 in 2012 to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a major donor to Planned Parenthood and frequent target of conservative ire. And in 2014, his foundation gave $5,000 to Protect Our Winters, a group that, according to its website, aims to "mobilize the snow sports community against climate change," because global warming would "mean the end of skiing as we know it."
Other Trump Foundation gifts since 2011 include $20,000 to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, $10,000 to Gay Men's Health Crisis, $5,000 to the AIDS Service Center, and $10,000 to the Latino Commission on AIDS, a group "dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Latino community." In 2013, Trump also sent a whopping $325 in pocket change to the ACLU Foundation of Florida.
(The donations to Protect Our Winters, as well as those to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Gay Men's Health Crisis, were made on behalf of Celebrity Apprentice contestants, according to spokespeople for the respective charities.)
More controversially, in 2010, the Trump Foundation gave $10,000 to Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue, which promotes the belief, apparently shared by Trump, that vaccines cause autism in children. Perhaps the most bizarre donation, though, dates back to 2006, when the Trump Foundation's gave $1,000 to the Rescue Workers Detoxification Fund, which supported a project led by Tom Cruise that offered a "cleansing" program to 9/11 rescue workers known as the "Purification Rundown."
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, told VICE via email that many of the grants given to some of the more unusual recipients, especially liberal groups, were made on behalf of former Apprentice contestants but said that she couldn't be more specific. "Given that this occurred several years ago, over the course of a decade, it would be a weeks long process to determine the source of the contribution and at who's [sic] discretion [the donation was made]," she wrote.
In the end, the foundation—like most Trump-branded entities—reveals little about what the 2016 candidate believes, and even less about how he might behave as president. And that's just how his campaign likes it. "These groups may not share Mr. Trump's political ideology," Hicks wrote, "but Mr. Trump's generosity does not deserve to be questioned."
Follow Ken Silverstein on Twitter.