Striking Dirt: Lessons from a Deep Dig Into the Trump Foundation

The first presidential debate of 2016 is fast approaching, and somehow, for the first time ever, philanthropy could play a starring role. Reporters have been digging into the Clinton Foundation for two years, generating lots of smoke with some unseemly implications, but as of yet, not much in the way of fire. Now, the Donald Trump J. Foundation is getting serious scrutiny, most notably from David A. Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who's written a series of articles about the foundation and Trump's elusive claims of charitable giving. The reporter has spent months on a story that keeps getting bigger and weirder. 

We'll get to Fahrenthold's findings in a minute, but first let us say how great it is to see philanthropy finally getting attention from heavyweight investigative reporters. If only IP had resources like that. (We don't, yet.) One takeaway here for major media outlets is that this is a subject worthy of more investigation. Given the questions that have been surfaced by Fahrenthold's drilling into just two charitable operations, you've got to wonder how many other troubling issues lie beneath the surface of a sector that accounts for 5 percent of GDP and, at its highest levels, is populated by billionaires with a range of business interests and political ties. Then there's the world of established foundations, now sitting on over $750 billion in wealth, and hardly ever scrutinized by the media, even as these tax-exempt entities wield growing power in U.S. society. 

It's not hard to imagine that if more investigative reporters ever do get on this beat, new scandals might be coming hot and heavy. 

Now, on to Fahrenthold's heroic work. The journalist combed through the tax returns of the Donald J. Trump Foundation going back to the year it was founded in 1987. Initially, and for the better part of a decade, the foundation was funded by Donald Trump, who was the sole contributor to his charitable vehicle. This is par for the course. In 2001, however, the Trump Foundation also started receiving contributionsfrom others. In the 2006 tax year, for instance, Trump gave $610,000 out of his own pocket, while other contributions came from Stark Carpet Corp and People Magazine, which gave $150,000. Still, the foundation received around $780,000, and most of it came from Trump.

However, by the 2008 tax year, Trump's contribution to his own foundation shrunk to $30,000 out of around $503,000. By 2009, his contribution shrunk to zero, and it's stayed that way ever since, albeit without 2015 tax records available for confirmation. Fahrenthold points out that this is highly unusual, and he's right. Contributors include WWE, which gave a whopping $4 million one year, Richard Ebers of Inside Sports and Entertainment Group, and Prestige Mills, a carpet store on Long Island.

Foundation funds were granted to a grab bag of groups, with no particular throughline. Some recent grantees include the UJA Federation, the Salvation Army, Palm Beach Opera, Labyrinth Theatre Company, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and the Green Beret Foundation. Unsurprisingly, the Trump Foundation's grantmaking has had a contradictory quality at times; it has supported Gay Men's Health Crisis on the one hand and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which has decried the influence of the so-called gay lobby, on the other.

Fahrenthold's findings cast Trump in a highly negative light. For years, he's gotten credit for charitable giving through a foundation with his name on it, without actually spending a dime. Oh, and we haven't even mentioned this latest nugget from Fahrenthold: "In 2007, Donald Trump spent $20,000 that belonged to his charity — the Donald J. Trump Foundation — to buy a six-foot-tall portrait of himself during a fundraiser auction at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida."

In addition to digging into the foundation, Fahrenthold also spent the past few months trying to get a handle on Trump's opaque personal giving to corroborate his claim that he's giving millions and is an "ardent philanthropist." Looking at Donald J. Trump Foundation grantees, individuals close to Trump, and DonorSearch database records, as well as other connections like gala attendance or ties to The Apprentice, Fahrenthold made a list of charities to which Trump might have donated out of pocket and then contacted some 250 of those organizations.

So far, his search has turned up little. Or a lot, if we're looking at Trump's actual generosity. Between 2008 and May 2016, the Post's search identified just one personal gift from Trump's own pocket. What was that gift? A sum of between $5,000 and $9,000 that Trump gave to the Police Athletic League of New York. Fahrenthold notes, though, that this gift may be a bookeeping error and that it's possible that the gift came from the Donald J. Trump Foundation instead.

Meanwhile, other potential personal Trump donations, like a $100,000 donation to Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana to aid flood-relief efforts, do not appear to have been paid.

Amid growing criticism, however, it turns out Trump did donate $1.1 million of his own personal money to the Marine Corps—Law Enforcement Foundation a few months ago. 

This is pretty damning stuff for a man who claims a net worth of $10 billion, as well as the title of philanthropist. Meanwhile, as we've noted, Hillary and Bill Clinton—with a fraction of Trump's wealth—gave just under $15 million to charity between 2007 and 2014, or 10.8 percent of their total income for that period. (A much higher level than most affluent Americans.)

Getting back to our larger point, it's good to see all this digging into philanthropy, but frustrating how difficult that digging is. For example, the 2015 tax returns for Trump's foundation are not yet available, even though it's September, which is common for foundations. Meanwhile, Trump has no obligation to publicly reveal gifts made outside his foundation. This episode is a reminder of just how secretive American philanthropy can be—a problem that's getting worse, as we've argued, even as the influence of major givers grows greater. 

As for the election, these new revelations offer further insights into why Trump might not want to release his tax records. It's one thing to lie to the American people about his giving; quite another to do so to the IRS.