In the fall of 1996, a charity called the Association to Benefit Children held a ribbon-cutting in Manhattan for a new nursery school serving children with AIDS. The bold-faced names took seats up front.
Then, all of a sudden, there was Donald Trump.
“Nobody knew he was coming,” said Abigail Disney, another donor sitting on the dais. “There’s this kind of ruckus at the door, and I don’t know what was going on, and in comes Donald Trump. [He] just gets up on the podium and sits down.”
Trump was not a major donor. He was not a donor, period. He’d never given a dollar to the nursery or the Association to Benefit Children, according to Gretchen Buchenholz, the charity’s executive director then and now.
But now he was sitting in Fisher’s seat, next to Giuliani.
“Frank Gifford turned to me and said, ‘Why is he here?’ ” Buchenholz recalled recently. By then, the ceremony had begun. There was nothing to do.
“Just sing past it,” she recalled Gifford telling her.
So they warbled into the first song on the program, “This Little Light of Mine,” alongside Trump and a chorus of children — with a photographer snapping photos, and Trump looking for all the world like an honored donor to the cause.
Afterward, Disney and Buchenholz recalled, Trump left without offering an explanation. Or a donation. Fisher was stuck in the audience. The charity spent months trying to repair its relationship with him.
“I mean, what’s wrong with you, man?” Disney recalled thinking of Trump, when it was over.
For as long as he has been rich and famous, Donald Trump has also wanted people to believe he is generous. He spent years constructing an image as a philanthropist by appearing at charity events and by making very public — even nationally televised — promises to give his own money away.
It was, in large part, a facade. A months-long investigation by The Washington Post has not been able to verify many of Trump’s boasts about his philanthropy.
Instead, throughout his life in the spotlight, whether as a businessman, television star or presidential candidate, The Post found that Trump had sought credit for charity he had not given — or had claimed other people’s giving as his own.
It is impossible to know for certain what Trump has given to charity, because he has declined to release his tax returns. In all, The Post was able to identify $7.8 million in charitable giving from Trump’s own pocket since the early 1980s.
In public appearances, Trump often made it appear that he gave far more.
Trump promised to give away the proceeds of Trump University. He promised to donate the salary he earned from "The Apprentice." He promised to give personal donations to the charities chosen by contestants on "Celebrity Apprentice." He promised to donate $250,000 to a charity helping Israeli soldiers and veterans.
Together, those pledges would have increased Trump’s lifetime giving by millions of dollars. But The Post has been unable to verify that he followed through on any of them.
Instead, The Post found that his personal giving has almost disappeared entirely in recent years. After calling 420-plus charities with some connection to Trump, The Post found only one personal gift from Trump between 2008 and the spring of this year. That was a gift to the Police Athletic League of New York City, in 2009. It was worth less than $10,000.
The Washington Post has contacted more than 420 charities with some ties to the GOP nominee in an effort to find proof of the millions he has said he donated. We've been mostly unsuccessful.
The charity that Trump has given the most money to over his lifetime appears to be his own: the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
But that charity, too, was not what it seemed.
The Trump Foundation appeared outwardly to be a typical, if small, philanthropic foundation — set up by a rich man to give his riches away.
In reality, it has been funded largely by other people. Tax records show the Trump Foundation has received $5.5 million from Trump over its life, and nothing since 2008. It received $9.3 million from other people.
Another unusual feature: One of the foundation’s most consistent causes was Trump himself.
New findings, for instance, show that the Trump Foundation’s largest-ever gift — $264,631 — was used to renovate a fountain outside the windows of Trump’s Plaza Hotel.
Its smallest-ever gift, for $7, was paid to the Boy Scouts in 1989, at a time when it cost $7 to register a new Scout. Trump’s oldest son was 11 at the time. Trump did not respond to a question about whether the money was paid to register him.
At other times, Trump used his foundation’s funds to settle legal disputes involving Trump’s for-profit companies and to buy two large portraits of himself, including one that wound up hanging on the wall of the sports bar at a Trump-owned golf resort. Those purchases raised questions about whether Trump had violated laws against “self-dealing” by charity leaders.
In advance of this article, The Post sent more than 70 questions to the Trump campaign.
Those questions covered the individual anecdotes and statistics contained in this article, including the tale about Trump crashing the ribbon-cutting in 1996, as well as broader questions about Trump’s life as a philanthropist.
Exactly when, before this spring, did Trump last give his own money to charity?
What did Trump consider his greatest act of charity in recent years?
Trump’s campaign did not respond until Saturday afternoon, after this article was published online; it sent a written statement saying that Trump “has personally donated tens of millions of dollars . . . to charitable causes.”
Trump officials did not respond when asked to provide evidence of the tens of millions of dollars in gifts.
The result of The Post’s examination of Trump’s charity is a portrait of the GOP nominee, revealed in the negative space between what he was willing to promise — and what he was willing to give.
"All of this is completely consistent with who Trump is. He's a man who operates inside a tiny bubble that never extends beyond what he believes is his self-interest," said Tony Schwartz, Trump's co-author on his 1987 book "The Art of the Deal." Schwartz has become a fierce critic of Trump in this election.
“If your worldview is only you — if all you’re seeing is a mirror — then there’s nobody to give money to,” Schwartz said. “Except yourself.”
‘An ardent philanthropist’
In several interviews with The Post this year, Trump has declined to supply details about his giving, saying that if charities knew what Trump had donated they would badger him to give more.
“I give mostly to a lot of different groups,” Trump said in one interview.
“Can you give us any names?” asked The Post’s Drew Harwell in May.
"No, I don't want to. No, I don't want to," Trump responded. "I'd like to keep it private."
Of the $7.8 million in personal giving that The Post identified, about 70 percent — $5.5 million — went to the Trump Foundation, which was founded in 1987. All of that giving came before 2009; since then, the foundation’s tax records show no donations at all from Trump to his foundation. Its coffers have been filled by others, including $5 million from pro-wrestling executives Vince and Linda McMahon.
At least $1.1 million of Trump’s giving has come in the last six months.
That includes a gift that first brought Trump’s charity — and the gap between the promises and the substance of his giving — to the center of his presidential campaign.
In January, Trump skipped a GOP primary debate in a feud with Fox News and held a televised fundraiser for veterans. In that broadcast, Trump said he'd personally donated to the cause: "Donald Trump gave $1 million," he said.
Months later, The Post could find no evidence Trump had done so. Then, Corey Lewandowski — Trump's campaign manager at the time — called to say the money had been given out. In private. No details. "He's not going to share that information," Lewandowski said.
In reality, at that point, Trump had given nothing.
Trump didn't give away the $1 million until a few days later, as the news media sought to check Lewandowski's false claim. Trump gave it all to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which helps families of fallen Marines. Trump bristled at this reporter's suggestion that he had given the money away only because the media were asking about it.
“You know, you’re a nasty guy. You’re really a nasty guy,” Trump said. “I gave out millions of dollars that I had no obligation to do.”
Later, in August, Trump also gave $100,000 to a church near Baton Rouge. He sent the check after visiting the church during a tour of flood-ravaged areas.
For years, Trump built a reputation as somebody whose charity was as big as his success.
That identity was expressed, for a time, in Trump’s biography on his corporate website. His image had two seemingly equal parts.
"He is the archetypal businessman," the biography said, "a deal maker without peer and an ardent philanthropist."
In the books he wrote or co-wrote about himself, Trump frequently praised charitable giving in the abstract — casting it as a moral response to his vast wealth.
“We’ve benefited from the American Dream and we feel the duty to give back to the community,” he wrote of his family in “The America We Deserve” in 2000. “Those who don’t are nothing more than parasites.”
In the same books, Trump seemed to regard charity differently when he encountered it in his day-to-day life.
In those cases, it sounds like a hassle.
A game he can’t win, and hates playing.
“The people who run charities know that I’ve got wealthy friends and can get them to buy tables,” Trump said in “The Art of the Deal,” explaining why he’d turned down a charity request from New York Yankee Dave Winfield. “I understand the game, and while I don’t like to play it, there is no graceful way out.”
One rare time when Trump describes finding joy in the act of charity comes in 2008’s “Trump: Never Give Up.”
“I can remember a friend who asked me why I had so many charity events at my properties,” Trump wrote. “I said to him, ‘Because I can!’. . . It’s a great feeling, and it makes all the work that goes into acquiring all those beautiful properties and buildings worth it.”
But that’s not entirely a story about how Trump gives money away.
It’s also a story about how Trump makes money.
Charities pay him to rent out his clubs and banquet rooms for fundraiser galas. At the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, they can pay $275,000 or more for a single night. Sometimes, Trump has given donations from the Trump Foundation to the charities that are his customers.
But in some of those cases, he still comes out ahead.
"It cost, I think, 20-some thousand," said William Hertzler, of the German-American Hall of Fame, who rented space at Trump Tower when the hall inducted Trump in 2012. Trump was the 15th person inducted, the year after magicians Siegfried and Roy. Trump gave a $1,000 donation from the Trump Foundation.
Hertzler said the hall of fame was okay with that. “He came down” to attend the gala, held in the same tower where Trump lives, Hertzler said. “His time is very valuable.”
‘Advancing Trump’s interests’
In his early days as a developer — when he was a New York celebrity but not yet a national one — Trump made some high-profile personal gifts to charity. He gave $1 million to a Manhattan Vietnam Veterans' memorial in 1983. Then, after taking over the renovation of the city-owned Wollman Rink in Central Park, Trump said he donated some of its proceeds to charities.
But, even then, Trump was looking for ways to have other people support his charitable causes.
“He wanted me to get as much money as I could from the contractors. And I was a good soldier, and so I went out and put the arm round them [saying], ‘I need you to buy a table at the United Cerebral Palsy gala,’ ” said Barbara Res, a longtime Trump employee who recalled being sent out on job sites in advance of charity galas hosted by Trump’s then-wife Ivana.
Usually, Res said, the contractors paid. “They whined. And I pushed.”
Then, in 1987 Trump published “The Art of the Deal.”
He became a national celebrity — and made his charity a key part of his brand.
“I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, more than I’ll ever need,” Trump wrote on the book’s first page.
So, Trump said in interviews, if he made money off the book in which he wrote he didn’t need money, he would give it to charity.
“To the homeless, to Vietnam veterans, for AIDS, multiple sclerosis,” Trump told the New York Times two years later. “Originally, I figured they’d get a couple of hundred thousand, but because of the success of ‘The Art of the Deal,’ they’ll get four or five million.”
So in 1987, Trump signed the forms to incorporate the Donald J. Trump Foundation. The paperwork warned that he could not use the charity’s money to help political candidates. Nor could he use it for the benefit of “any member, trustee, director or officer” of the charity.
That first year, Trump made himself president.
He put in $144,050.
Then he used $100 of the foundation’s money to buy a two-person membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Trump did not respond to a question about whether the membership was for his own use. If it was, it may have been a violation of the laws against “self-dealing.”
"You've got to pay for it yourself; you can't have your foundation pay for it," said Lloyd Mayer, a professor teaching tax law at Notre Dame Law School. He said this payment, small as it was, appeared to provide a benefit directly to Trump. In which case Trump — not the charity — should have paid.
In the foundation’s first four years, Trump put in a total of $1.9 million, proceeds from the best-selling book and from the poor-selling “Trump, The Game.”
He was the Trump Foundation’s only donor.
Though that was not for lack of trying.
“If you could ask your accountants to write a check to the ‘Donald J. Trump Foundation,’ I will distribute the money in my name and yours and will let you have a list of the charities which benefitted,” Trump wrote in a letter to boxer Mike Tyson in 1988, according to news reports from the time.
Trump had helped Tyson with business dealings and believed Tyson owed him $2 million. He wanted it to go to the Trump Foundation instead. That doesn’t seem to have happened — tax records show no donations from Tyson.
The largest donation in the history of the Trump Foundation was made in 1989. The Central Park Conservancy wanted to restore the Pulitzer Fountain, a turned-off, crumbling feature next to the famous park. The city wouldn't pay for it, saying the money was needed elsewhere.
So owners of the 15 buildings around the fountain — who would benefit directly from its restoration — were asked to pay a voluntary “tax.” The tax was $0.50 per square foot.
At the time, Trump owned one of those 15 buildings: the Plaza Hotel. Its front door faced the fountain.
Today, the Plaza is about 1 million square feet.
If it was the same in the 1980s — hotel officials weren’t sure — that would have led to a tax of $500,000 or so.
The conservancy’s records show that Trump’s hotel paid some of the “tax” — between $100,000 and $250,000 — in 1988.
In 1989, the Trump Foundation also paid $264,631 to the Central Park Conservancy. It appeared that Trump’s charity had contributed to an effort that enhanced the view outside Trump’s business.
“It shows you what this [foundation] is all about. Which is basically just about advancing Trump’s interests,” said Brian Galle, a professor of tax law at Georgetown University. The Central Park Conservancy declined to comment.
In 1990, Trump’s businesses started to go south, plunging him into a period of heavy debt. In 1991, his creditors limited his living expenses to $375,000 a month.
At that time, Trump’s giving to charity collapsed. He gave $0 to the Trump Foundation in 1991. Around the same year, Trump tried again to get somebody else to pay his charitable donations for him.
In late 1990, the all-female band Precious Metal was going to shoot a video for their remake of “Mr. Big Stuff.” Trump made headlines by agreeing to star as the title character, in return for a charitable donation.
“I want to give it to my favorite charity, and it’s just 10 grand,” Leslie Knauer, the lead singer for the band, recalled Trump saying.
They shot the video, Knauer said.
Then, a few days later, the band got a call.
"You know, $10,000 really isn't a Trump kind of donation," Trump said, according to interviews Knauer gave at the time. He wanted $250,000.
The move backfired. The band re-shot the video with a look-alike. Knauer said they gave Trump nothing.
“Then he said [publicly] he hated the song,” Knauer recalled. “It was horrible.”
In that low period of Trump’s finances, his generosity dried up even to those close to him.
For instance, Res — the executive who had spent years leaning on Trump’s contractors to buy tables at his wife’s fundraisers — came to Trump to ask for a favor of her own.
“I got an award from a group called the Professional Women in Construction,” she recalled. There was a gala. There were tables. She’d sold a number to subcontractors she knew.
But, usually, the winning woman’s employer was the big spender, buying multiple tables or paying for high-level sponsorships. That was Trump.
"He showed up at the door and bought one ticket," said Lenore Janis, the leader of the Professional Women in Construction at the time. The ticket cost $100.
“And then he said to me, the president of the organization, ‘I have a few things that I want to say. I will need the microphone,’ ” Janis said.
She said no. But Trump found somebody who said yes. “He got up there and for 15 minutes he blew his own horn,” Janis said, so that anybody watching would think he’d written a big check.
Afterward, Janis said her son photocopied the check and hung it on his wall.
“Oh, my God, a check signed by Mr. Trump!” Janis recalled him saying. “And I said, ‘It should have been, like, $20,000. . . . Grow up.’ ”
‘The most clueless person’
As the 1990s went on, Trump’s finances slowly climbed out of the red.
And in 1995, he made one of the most famous charitable gestures of his life.
That year Trump gave a donation to help finance a Manhattan parade honoring veterans on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
At the time, press reports pegged his gift at $200,000. In recent interviews, one of the organizers said he thought it was higher, closer to $500,000.
“He certainly put his money where his mouth was, and he certainly helped us when we were in pretty bad shape,” said Vince McGowan, who helped organize the event.
Trump, who had obtained five deferments to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, was named a grand marshal, and he marched near the front of the huge column of veterans. He was later honored with an invitation to visit the Pentagon and meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Trump describes this gift in his most recent book, called “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America.”
"I donated a one-million-dollar matching grant," he wrote.
As the 1990s went on, Trump also increased his giving to the Trump Foundation: $6,500 in 1992, $8,500 in 1993, then $74,432 in 1994, after Trump said he’d sold photos of his wedding to Marla Maples and given the proceeds to his charity.
As it rose again, the Trump Foundation continued to be used to benefit its namesake.
The best illustration of that was the charity to which the foundation gave its two largest gifts of the 1990s. The Trump Foundation gave $50,000 in 1995, and another $50,000 in 1999, to a nonprofit called the National Museum of Catholic Art and History.
Those gifts, not previously reported, seemed like an odd choice for big charitable dollars.
The museum was housed for much of the 1990s in a former headquarters for "Fat Tony" Salerno of the Genovese crime family in East Harlem. It had few visitors and little art. A Village Voice reporter, visiting in 2001, said the collection included a photo of the pope, some nun dolls bought from the Home Shopping Network, and — just off the dining room — "a black Jacuzzi decorated with simmering candles, gold-plated soap dishes, and kitsch angel figurines."
Trump is not Catholic.
But he and the museum had a mutual friend.
Ed Malloy, who was then the chairman of the museum's board, was the head of the powerful labor group, the Building and Construction Trades Council. News reports from the time indicate that he was a business ally of Trump's: Union members worked on Trump buildings, and Malloy helped Trump line up vital financing from a union pension fund.
“Contributing to this museum — you know, it only made sense in the context of relationships,” said Wayne Barrett, the Village Voice reporter, in a recent interview.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment about these donations.
Malloy died in 2012.
The Catholic museum shut down in 2010.
“I cannot give you a comment. I don’t want to be quoted on anything,” said Christina Cox, the museum’s former director, when The Post reached her by phone.
At times, Trump seemed to make light of others’ expectations about his generosity.
In 1997, for instance, he was “principal for a day” at a public school in an impoverished area of the Bronx. The chess team was holding a bake sale, Hot & Crusty danishes and croissants. They were $5,000 short of what they needed to travel to a tournament.
Trump had brought something to wow them.
“He handed them a fake million-dollar bill,” said David MacEnulty, a teacher and the chess team’s coach.
The team’s parent volunteers were thrilled.
Trump then gave them $200 in real money and drove away in a limousine.
Why just $200?
“I have no idea,” MacEnulty said. “He was about the most clueless person I’ve ever seen in that regard.”
The happy ending, he said, was that a woman read about Trump's gift in the New York Times, called the school and donated the $5,000. "I am ashamed to be the same species as this man," MacEnulty recalled her saying.
At a nursery school a year earlier, Trump had crashed the ribbon-cutting for the event aimed at helping children with AIDS.
Once he was onstage, Trump played the part of a big donor convincingly. Photos from the event show Trump smiling, right behind Giuliani, as the mayor cut the ribbon. During the “celebratory dance” segment of the program, Trump mugged and did the macarena with Giuliani, Kathie Lee Gifford and a group of children.
“I am just heartsick,” Buchenholz, the executive director, wrote the next day to the donor whose seat Trump had taken. Buchenholz provided a copy of the email.
“I immediately said ‘no,’ but Rudy Giuliani said ‘yes’ and I felt I had to accede to him,” Buchenholz wrote. “I hope you can forgive me.” Buchenholz said that Fisher did remain a donor, despite the snub.
Trump and Giuliani did not respond to questions about the event.
A spokeswoman for Fisher said he did not recall it.
Buchenholz said her group did not receive any donations from Trump until three years later. The charity was holding a gala on a cruise ship. Trump bought tickets and paid with $2,000 from the Trump Foundation.
‘Unusual and alarming’
If Trump had never run for president, the cost of his charitable shortfalls would only have fallen on his conscience.
He had not, apparently, faced any kind of scrutiny for the way he ran the Trump Foundation. Former IRS officials say that’s not surprising. They said the IRS largely relies on the honor system: It asks charities to flag their own bad behavior, reporting if they made a prohibited political gift or committed an act of self-dealing.
The Trump Foundation never did.
“So it was invisible,” said Marc S. Owens, the former longtime head of the IRS office dealing with nonprofits.
During his run for president, Trump has faced new consequences.
Trump paid a $2,500 penalty tax, after The Post reported that his foundation had made a political gift in 2013 to a committee aiding Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi (R).
Also, earlier this month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) ordered the Trump Foundation to cease its fundraising — after The Post revealed that it had been soliciting funds from the public without obtaining a special registration required by state law.
Schneiderman’s office is also investigating the Trump Foundation, examining its acts of possible self-dealing. In a written statement, Schneiderman called reports about the foundation “unusual and alarming.”
Tax-law experts said it’s possible that the Trump Foundation will be — or perhaps already is — under investigation by the IRS. The IRS has declined to comment.
Trump also has faced political attacks from Clinton and other Democrats, who have mocked his foundation as evidence of his character.
“The Trump Foundation . . . took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald,” Clinton said during the third presidential debate. “I mean, who does that?” she said.
Trump’s response was that, in effect, it could have been worse.
At least he didn’t buy something more expensive than a painting.
“Trump Foundation, small foundation. People contribute, I contribute. The money goes 100 percent — 100 percent goes to different charities, including a lot of military,” Trump said. “I don’t get anything. I don’t buy boats. I don’t buy planes.”
The next night, Trump and Clinton were together again, this time in Manhattan at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, which benefits Catholic charities.
In the program for that event, Trump’s official biography echoed the language he had used about himself for years.
Despite all that had been revealed about his charitable giving during the course of his campaign, Trump stuck with the old self-image. He was a man whose identity had two equally important sides.
“Mr. Trump is the archetypal businessman,” the bio said, “a deal maker without peer and an ardent philanthropist.”
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Alice Crites contributed to this report.