Bad Philanthropy

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily.

Last month I discussed a series of articles written by Washington Post reporter David J. Fahrenthold about Donald Trump’s charitable practices. I showed that much of what Fahrenthold had discovered was reported by the Smoking Gun as early as 2004 and that the Donald J. Trump Foundation was a small organization that frequently makes mistakes but that its sins were minor rather than major.

Fahrenthold’s chief discovery, and one that he deserves credit for, is showing repeatedly that Trump claims to be a major donor but in fact doesn’t contribute that much to charity. He has made further discoveries in his latest article.

In my view, what Fahrenthold has found is some possible, but very minor, violations of the self-dealing rules, but several cases where Trump was just being weird and stingy.

Fahrenthold notes that as recently as the Alfred E. Smith dinner a few weeks ago, Trump’s official biography refers to him as “an ardent philanthropist.” His campaign still claims that Trump has donated tens of millions of dollars to charity and still refuses to provide any evidence for this claim.

He notes that Trump has referred to charity at least twice in his books. In his 1987 book The Art of The Deal, Trump explained the reason he did not give to a charity run by New York Yankees slugger Dave Winfield. “The people who run charities know that I’ve got wealthy friends and can get them to buy tables. I understand the game, and while I don’t like to play it, there is really no graceful way out.”

In his 2008 book Trump: Never Give Up, Trump wrote “I can remember a friend who asked me why I had so many charity events at my properties. I said to him, ‘Because I can!’… It’s a great feeling, and it makes all the work that goes into acquiring all these beautiful properties and buildings worth it!”

But as Fahrenthold notes, this passage doesn’t mean that Trump likes giving to charity, but that he likes hosting events for charities, who pay him up to $275,000 to rent space at his properties. But he also quoted William Hertzler of the German-American Hall of Fame, who rented rooms at Trump Tower for a 2012 event in which Trump, along with magicians Siegfried and Roy, was inducted into his hall of fame. Hertzler was happy with Trump’s appearance and the $1,000 check from the Trump Foundation, saying that Trump’s “time is very valuable.”

Trump has apparently behaved so badly at many charitable events that many people were eager to talk about him. In 1996, Fahrenthold recounts, the Association to Benefit Children held a ribbon cutting in Manhattan for a nursery school that served children with AIDS. The program was stacked with celebrities: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor David Dinkins, celebrities Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford. Trump, who had never given any money to the association, showed up uninvited, stood on stage and sang “This Little Light of Mine” with children and Kathie Lee Gifford, and walked off stage without an explanation. “I mean, what’s wrong with you, man?” donor Abigail Disney recalled thinking at the time.

In 1990, Trump agreed to be in a video by the all-female heavy metal band Precious Metal, who was recording their song “Mr Big Stuff.” Trump agreed to be in the video if the group agreed to donate $10,000 to charity. After the shoot, lead singer Leslie Knauer said at the time that Trump called a few days later and said that $10,000 “wasn’t a Trump kind of donation” and demanded a $250,000 donation. Precious Metal responded by taking Trump out of the video and re-shooting it with some guy in a suit.

Finally, Fahrenthold adds new details about Trump’s giving. In 1983, before the Donald J. Trump Foundation was created, Trump did give $1 million to help build a Manhattan Vietnam veterans’ memorial.

The largest donation the Trump Foundation made was in 1989, when the Central Park Conservancy was rebuilding the Pulitzer Fountain near the park, and asked the owners of 15 buildings near the foundation to donate a “tax” of 50 cents per square foot. One of these buildings was the Plaza Hotel, a million-square foot property that Trump owned at the time. The Plaza Hotel paid between $100,000 and $250,000 to the conservancy in 1988, and the Trump Foundation donated $264,000 in 1989.

Fahrenthold quotes experts as saying that this donation by the Trump Foundation crossed the line into self-dealing. I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem that way to me—particularly since Fahrenthold doesn’t say how the other property owners paid the “tax.” It appears that the Donald J. Trump Foundation also acts as the foundation for the Trump Organization, which I don’t think has a corporate foundation. If the Trump Organization Foundation had donated to the Central Park Conservancy, would there be an issue?

Finally, the Trump Foundation has, over the years, donated $7 to register a child with the Boy Scouts and $100 for a one-year membership for two people to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also gave $100,000 over two years to the National Museum of Catholic Art and History, a now-defunct organization which, according to Fahrenthold, “was housed for much of the 1990s in a former headquarters for ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno of the Genovese crime family in East Harlem” and, by some reports, mostly housed kitsch.

Fahrenthold’s reporting adds to but doesn’t really change the portrait of Trump’s giving—unless over-zealous prosecutors pursue Trump for self-dealing for his wrongful Boy Scouts gift. Prosecuting Trump for a bad $7 donation would seriously undermine the rule of law.

What he reminds us is that Donald Trump is a bad philanthropist. Has Trump ever volunteered for anything—given a pint of blood, or helped a poor child learn to read? Has he ever donated to charity for the pure pleasure of helping to improve the world?

If you want to be a good philanthropist, whose donations enhance civil society, then don’t act like Donald J. Trump.

Martin Morse Wooster†

Wooster was a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor…
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