The Trump Foundation: what's known is shocking. We need to know more
Then imagine that she spent $258,000 from the foundation to cover expenses arising from legal challenges.
And here’s the really beautiful bit: imagine that the Clinton Foundation has no discernible purpose as a charity.
If the Clinton Foundation had done all of these things, Hillary (and perhaps Bill and Chelsea too) might well be headed to prison, the place Donald Trump and his supporters insist she belongs.
But it’s the Trump Foundation, not the Clinton Foundation, which reportedlybought a portrait of its namesake, settled legal claims for him, donated money to a rightwing advocacy group and whose purpose is somewhat opaque.
I know about the Trump Foundation’s ersatz charity mostly from the work of one dogged investigative reporter from the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold, who bothered to contact more than 300 charities to see whether they’d received donations from the Trump Foundation. His reporting unfolded as so many other journalists were writing their 50th stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails. It is only in the past week that the Post’s reporting on the Trump Foundation has gained traction. The issue should come up in the first presidential debate Monday, as those “damn emails”, as Sanders called the over-covered controversy over Clinton’s private email server, surely will. (The Trump campaign, by the way, has claimed that the report is “peppered with inaccuracies and omissions”.)
There is a clear disparity in the attention focused on Clinton’s supposed ethics problems compared with Trump’s. There has been some excellent reporting on everything from Trump University to his business practices, especially the tax breaks he received on real estate deals uncovered by the New York Times. But these revelations seem to roll off Trump’s back, while in the Clintons’ case they create indelible stains.
For example, when Melania Trump used a Trump Foundation check to purchase the towering (forgive the pun) portrait of her husband, the painting wasn’t donated to a charity but apparently hung in the boardroom of one of her husband’s golf clubs. The more than a quarter of a million dollars of Trump Foundation funds that went to help settle legal disputes included a case involving the height of a flagpole at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida. And the conservative activist group that received $100,000 from the Trump Foundation was Citizens United, the group that opposes the disclosure and limitations of political fundraising and is headed by David Bossie, who was recently hired as Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
Perhaps the most salient thing about the foundation that bears his name is that Donald Trump himself has given a relatively small amount of money to the Trump Foundation and none since 2009, although we won’t know for sure until – don’t hold your breath – Trump releases his tax returns. Although there are some legitimate gifts to real charities, it’s unclear what the Foundation actually does.
Except for deep explorations by the New Yorker editor David Remnick, the Times’ Amy Chozick and Celia Duggar, and a recent book by Joe Conason, relatively few journalists have looked seriously at the good works of the Clinton Foundation, especially on global health and the environment. The Foundation has given many millions to drive down the cost of anti-retroviral drugs to treat Aids in Africa and Latin America. It helped establish a multi-city fund for better technology to combat global warming and other environmental problems. The list of its projects could fill its own book. When I was managing editor of the Times, Bill Clinton invited a group of us from the paper to his office in Harlem for a barbecue lunch (this was before his heart problems and vegan diet) and spent more than three hours talking to us about the foundation’s work.
A separate and much smaller Clinton Family Foundation handles their personal contributions to charities. According to their tax returns, the Clintons as a couple have donated about 10% of Bill and Hillary’s multimillion-dollar incomes in recent years to various well-known charities, more than most super-wealthy people, who give an average of about 3%.
Though his vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence, has said that Trump personally contributes “tens of millions of dollars” to charities, as with so much about Donald Trump, absolutely nothing has been made public to back up the claim. We are just supposed to accept Pence’s word and the statement in a recent CNN interview by his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who calls reporters’ questions about his charitable foundation “badgering”, that Trump is indeed “a very generous man”.
Personally generous he may sometimes be. The work of the Trump Foundation, however, is an entirely different question. For journalists, for regulators, for any citizen who cares about the future of this country, this isn’t badgering. It’s an urgent democratic duty.