If you thought that there were no more varieties of sleaze that could be revealed about Donald Trump, I’m sorry to say you were wrong. Here’s the latest revelation from the dogged work of our own David Fahrenthold:
Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire’s for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents.
Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump’s charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against “self-dealing” — which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses.
In one case, from 2007, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club faced $120,000 in unpaid fines from the town of Palm Beach, Fla., resulting from a dispute over the size of a flagpole.
In a settlement, Palm Beach agreed to waive those fines — if Trump’s club made a $100,000 donation to a specific charity for veterans. Instead, Trump sent a check from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a charity funded almost entirely by other people’s money, according to tax records.
In case you haven’t been following the story of the Trump Foundation, that last part is critical: Trump has given zero dollars to the Trump Foundation since 2009. Instead, he gets other rich people to donate money to the foundation, and he then uses their money for self-aggrandizement and sometimes self-enrichment. As Fahrenthold has documented, Trump has used foundation money for things like buying a six-foot-tall painting of himself, sometimes at charity events held at Mar-a-Lago, where he charges the charity for use of the facility, which means that not only is he not making the donation for which everyone is praising him, he’s actually making money on the deal. And then of course there’s the conveniently timed, illegal $25,000 donation from the foundation to Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, which was followed quickly by her decision not to join a lawsuit charging Trump with fraud over Trump University.
We’ll have to see if the IRS investigates the self-dealing Fahrenthold has identified and what kinds of fines might result. But one of the many striking details in this story is the shock experts in nonprofit and foundation law express when they hear about how Trump uses the Trump Foundation. “I represent 700 nonprofits a year, and I’ve never encountered anything so brazen,” one lawyer told Fahrenthold. “If he’s using other people’s money — run through his foundation — to satisfy his personal obligations, then that’s about as blatant an example of self-dealing [as] I’ve seen in a while.”
I’m not a historian, but I’m beginning to think that Trump may be a singular figure not only in the history of American politics but in the history of American commerce as well. There seems to be no area of his extremely complex financial life that is not infected by double-dealing, public lies, broken promises, or outright fraud.
His foundation seems to be nothing more than a scam. He hires contractors to work on his buildings, then refuses to pay them, knowing they don’t have the resources to fight him and will probably accept pennies on the dollar, sometimes destroying small businesses in the process. He creates one swindle after another, like Trump University, the Trump Institute, and the Trump Network, suckering struggling people with promises of instant wealth. He sues people who criticize him, knowing that he has no case but just hoping to punish them with legal fees. He goes on The Apprentice and claims over and over that he’s giving charitable donations “out of my own wallet,” then arranges to have either the production company or the Trump Foundation pay instead — or sometimes, just never pays at all. He fails at the casino business, then declares bankruptcy and manages to stiff his investors while skating away with a profit, as though the whole thing were an Atlantic City version of “The Producers.” .
And incredibly, the man who has done all this refuses to show his tax returns, like every presidential nominee for the last 40 years has done, despite the fact that he has business partnerships in dozens of countries which could potentially create shocking conflicts of interest between his own bank account and the best interests of United States foreign policy. He’s not going to tell us what they are — we just have to trust him that everything’s kosher, despite the fact that we know with 99.999 percent certainty that there are troubling things in the returns that the public ought to know about before we make him the most powerful human being on Earth. Because everything we’ve learned about him up to now is so reassuring.
It can get tiring to repeat “Imagine if this were Hillary Clinton…” every time we learn of some new kind of malfeasance Trump has engaged in, but it’s hard to avoid the comparison. Republicans and many journalists practically lost their minds when we discovered that an executive at the Clinton Foundation had encouraged Clinton to meet with major donors to the foundation when she was secretary of state — even though those donors were people like a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the Crown Prince of Bahrain, a critical U.S. ally. Say what you will about that, but there’s never been even a hint that the Clintons used their foundation, which has done a tremendous amount of good work around the world, for personal gain. Now think what the reaction would be if we discovered that Clinton used her foundation’s money to pay off personal lawsuits. It would take about twelve seconds for outraged Republicans to demand an indictment and nervous Democrats to start calling for her to pull out of the race.
Perhaps there will be a few stories about the way Trump has used his foundation, and then everyone will move on. Perhaps people will stop asking about his tax returns, and he’ll get away with keeping them secret. And perhaps the dishonesty, corruption, and fraud running through almost everything Donald Trump touches has become so overwhelming that each new revelation has lost its power to shock. If that’s true, then shame on all of us.