Harold Pollack is a professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago.
The Donald J. Trump Foundation agreed to dissolve on Dec. 18 after the New York attorney general condemned “a shocking pattern of illegality” at the organization. Its assets will be sold off under court supervision, and the government will distribute the remaining money to other groups. President Trump and his children may face additional sanctions, including more financial restitution and a temporary ban on serving on nonprofit boards.
Judging by Trump’s behavior as a foundation operator, that ban may be superfluous. The Trumps are hardly the first wealthy family to seek cheap public relations points through a foundation, or to skirt the niceties of corporate governance and tax law along the way. What made the Trump Foundation unusual was how little else it did, and how little anyone involved in it appeared to care about anything, other than Trump’s self-aggrandizement.
I write this from the perspective of an academic researcher who spent the past 25 years variously involved in fundraising efforts. By the nature of these things, I catch the occasional glimpse of how the top 0.1 percent live and their varied ways of giving. Some want to help reduce youth violence, polio or world hunger. One wants her name on the dining hall where she met her late husband. Another wants to ask you about Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest obsession. Another wants to support a hepatitis research center because a cousin died from this disease. One or two want to finance a $50 million center for cat leukemia or rodent studies.
Some are jerks. Some are saints. People in both categories realize that an accident of fate granted them great wealth. They want to use at least some of it to do good. One might be dismayed or puzzled by whatever idiosyncratic agenda they find compelling. I myself lambasted Jeffrey P. Bezos for his huge investment in space travel (Bezos owns The Post). Whatever it is, there is almost always something that they genuinely find inspiring or important.
Trump seems quite different. Despite his immense wealth, he does not seem to value any cause, or interest or even hobby outside himself.
The sheer tackiness of his foundation’s spending remains striking: The pricey portrait of the president on display at a golf property, the use of foundation funds to pay Donald Jr.’s Boy Scout dues, the Tim Tebow autographed helmet, the bragged-about donations to veterans’ groups that weren’t actually paid until reporters began trying to verify them, our first billionaire president’s failure to donate his own money to the foundation that bears his name.
That the Trumps got away with this reflects the sad reality that loosely regulated family foundations can cross ethical and legal lines with impunity.
Here’s what actually surprises me. Beyond the various improprieties, the Trump Foundation did pretty much nothing at all. It provided some scattershot donations to good causes. In the main, though, it barely tried to do good works, or to pursue any genuine cause larger than Trump himself. Aside from some support for the Police Athletic League, the foundation didn’t even do much on the president’s signature issues of immigration security or support for law enforcement.
This story provides a sadly revealing window into the man who occupies the Oval Office. His tone-deaf comportment oddly reminds me of another grifter, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich came from a long line of machine politicians. That old-style political world wasn’t pretty, nor was it unduly constrained by fastidious legal or ethical precepts. Still, there were unspoken proprieties Blagojevich failed to observe, most notably when he allegedly threatened to withdraw $8 million in state funding to Children’s Memorial Hospital to extract a campaign donation from the hospital’s chief executive officer.
That wasn’t Blagojevich’s worst crime, but it may have been his strangest. As a practitioner of local patronage democracy, you might find occasion to shake down the municipal concrete contractor for campaign cash. But every normal politician knows that you support the children’s hospital. You argue sports and take selfies with the leukemia patients there. You brag about it to your grandchildren. You’re proud that the new cancer wing is part of your legacy. You don’t shake down the children’s hospital or threaten to drag it into your sordid political mess.
Sharp-elbowed billionaires act in the same spirit. Sure, some philanthropy may cut ethical corners or fit a bit too conveniently with corporate PR. But it’s more than that, too. When you’re rich, you support causes that genuinely move you. If some of these causes happen to be unusual or eccentric, that’s just part of the fun that comes with your first billion.
Trump doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t seem moved by anything. For all his money, power and celebrity, all his dalliances and supermodel romances, he doesn’t seem to enjoy much in life beyond establishing his dominance over others.
I don’t envy him for a single second. He seems spiritually empty in a profound and pitiful way. What does it profit a man to win the whole world if he never locates his own soul?