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Trump Decries His Foundation's Closure, Overstating Its Giving

Donald Trump blasted Hillary Clinton for her family's own charitable foundation and alleged conflicts of interest during the campaign.
Gerald Herbert
Donald Trump blasted Hillary Clinton for her family's own charitable foundation and alleged conflicts of interest during the campaign.

President-elect Donald Trump is lashing out in defense of his charitable foundation as he prepares to shutter it before taking the oath of office next month.

And in doing so, Trump incorrectly stated the charitable reach of the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

In a series of tweets Monday evening, Trump said he had given millions to the foundation he began in 1987 and that all of the money raised went to "wonderful charities."

But extensive reporting over the past year has shown those claims to be overstated. According to the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold, who has researched the foundation's donations and expenses for several months, Trump and his companies have given about $6 million to the charity since its launch, according to tax records up to 2015.

However, the president-elect has not given anything to the foundation from 2009 until 2014; his businesses gave to the foundation in 2015 for the first time in several years, according to the Post.

In fact, the two largest donors were professional wrestling magnates Vince and Linda McMahon, who gave $5 million to the foundation from 2007 until 2009. Trump has nominated Linda McMahon to lead the Small Business Administration.

And as Fahrenthold reported during the campaign, not all of the money was solely for charitable purposes. In many cases, spending benefited Trump and his business interests. Trump used his foundation's money to buy a 6-foot-tall portrait of himself for $20,000, and had earlier bought another portrait for $10,000, the Post's reporting showed. He also used the foundation's money to buy an autographed Tim Tebow Denver Broncos helmet for $12,000.

Trump tapped his foundation to help settle lawsuits for his businesses. In one case, Palm Beach, Fla., agreed to forgive fines for Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club if he made a $100,000 donation to a veterans' charity. In another instance, Trump settled a case involving one of his New York golf courses to make a $158,000 donation to a charity of the plaintiff's choosing.

"So if Trump is using this money basically to save his businesses, the money isn't helping people. That's a violation of the letter and the spirit of law," Fahrenthold told NPR's All Things Considered on Sunday.

Trump announced on Christmas Eve that "to avoid even the appearance of any conflict with my role as President I have decided to continue to pursue my strong interest in philanthropy in other ways."

But Trump cannot shutter the foundation just yet since it's under investigation by the New York attorney general, according to the office's spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ordered the foundation to stop raising money in New York in October, saying it wasn't registered by law to be able to do so in the state.

And last year Trump had to pay a $2,500 fine to the IRS when he used $25,000 of the foundation's money to donate to a group supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. At the time, she was weighing whether or not to pursue an investigation into Trump University; ultimately, she decided not to, and this year was a vocal surrogate for Trump.

RealClearPolitics also reported in October that many of the Trump Foundation's donations in recent years went to top conservative or policy groups that could aid Trump as he prepared for a White House run.

Throughout the campaign, Trump took sharp aim at his opponent Hillary Clinton's own family foundation, claiming it was a pay-to-play vehicle for the Democratic nominee and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

"It is impossible to figure out where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins. It is now abundantly clear that the Clintons set up a business to profit from public office," Trump said at an August rally in Texas. "They sold access and specific actions by and really for I guess the making of large amounts of money." Those claims have not been borne out by evidence.

In August, the Clintons vowed to drastically reduce the sizeof their foundation to avoid appearances of conflict. They denied any insinuation of pay-to-play and defended the work of the Clinton Foundation.

At the time, RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement, "If everything was above board while Hillary Clinton ran the State Department as the Clintons have said, then why change a thing?"

But now it's Trump and his family who have come under fire for some of the same alleged behaviors. An AP investigation found that Trump's son Eric " has exaggerated the size of his foundation and the donations it receives. At the same time, the charity's payments for services or donations to other groups repeatedly went to one of Donald Trump's private golf clubs and to charities linked to the Trumps by corporate, family or philanthropic relationships."

Eric Trump announced last week he would also close his personal foundation after it was auctioning off a coffee with his sister, Ivanka, who is expected to have considerable influence in her father's White House. The president-elect also tweeted about that last Friday, saying it was a "ridiculous shame" that Eric would have to stop fundraising for his foundation, which gave much of its money to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Back in October, NPR's Joel Rose compared the Trump and Clinton foundations and found some marked differences. While the Clinton Foundation does have hundreds of employees and a large budget, it spent almost 90 cents of every dollar received on charitable causes, such as HIV and malaria prevention in Africa. It's a public charity, meaning it mostly raises money from other people and organizations (including a gift from the Trump Foundation in 2009). And while it did accept money from foreign donors, some of whom wanted meetings when Clinton was secretary of state, "there's no evidence that big donors got any special favors from the State Department," Rose reported.

The Trump Foundation is a private foundation, originally intended to give away Trump's own money. But, as noted earlier, he stopped making personal contributions about eight years ago.

"The Trump Foundation has engaged in documented, flagrant acts of violation," said Pamela Mann, a former head of the charities bureau in the New York attorney general's office, told Rose. "That's really different."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politicsand is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.