Journalist Says Trump Foundation May Have Engaged In ‘Self-Dealing’ – New Hampshire Public Radio
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Donald Trump has refused to release his income tax returns. This has left unanswered questions about his business practices and possible conflicts of interest between what’s best for his international businesses and what’s best for our country. My guest, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, has found an alternate window into some of Trump’s finances. Since January, Fahrenthold has been looking into Trump’s charitable giving. His reporting has raised questions about ways in which the Trump Foundation may have violated the law.
He’s found that Trump hasn’t always followed through on donations he’s committed to, and some charitable donations that Trump claims to have made from his own pocket actually came from money others donated to his foundation. Fahrenthold also discovered that Trump has sometimes requested that money owed to him be paid to the foundation, which may have enabled him to avoid paying taxes on that money. Fahrenthold has used crowdsourcing on Twitter to help him find information on whether Trump has fulfilled his financial promises to charities and how he’s used his foundation’s money. Fahrenthold’s Twitter account was described as one of the most surprise sensations of the election year by CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter.
David Fahrenthold, welcome to FRESH AIR. So in the debate Monday night, Donald Trump said, you don’t learn that much from tax returns. That I can tell you. What do you want to learn from his tax returns?
DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, I think there’s a lot of people who want to know a lot of things. From my particular viewpoint, I’ve been writing all year about whether Donald Trump gives any money out of his own pocket to charity. He’s said publicly that he does. His staff has said publicly that he does. I’ve been looking all year for evidence that that’s actually true, and I haven’t found any gifts out of his own pocket between 2009 and this May. So the thing I’d turn to first if I got them was the charitable deductions line, that he claimed that he’d given any money out of his own pocket to charity.
GROSS: What else would you like to learn from the tax returns? Then we’ll get to what you are learning from his foundation.
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, we learned a really interesting thing a couple of days ago, and that was – there was this mystery about the Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump’s nonprofit, which is that Trump hasn’t actually given it any of his own money since 2008. Other people have supplied all the money in that time, which you don’t normally see with a rich person’s private charity. Those things are usually just filled up with a rich person’s money. So we wondered, well, why does anybody give money to prop up Donald Trump’s personal charity? And we learned an answer to that, which is that in – as you mentioned, in some cases, Trump has people who owe him money either for business dealings or they buy tickets that he has rights to. They pay the Trump Foundation and not Trump himself.
Now, you can do that. That’s totally legal. But Trump would have to pay income tax on that – those donations because they’re his income. He directed where they went. So I’d also like to know – was Trump complying with that law? Was he paying income tax on this money he was sending to his foundation?
GROSS: So you are – since you don’t have access to his tax returns, you’re examining the Trump Foundation. Why is the Trump Foundation a useful resource to analyze Trump’s finances and his level of honesty?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the Trump Foundation’s tax returns are public. That’s one thing. So we can look through them in a way that we can’t look through his personal tax returns. They’re publicly available going back to the beginning of the foundation, which is 1987. And so you can look in there and you see both the money that’s come in and the money that it’s – that’s been given out. And so what we’ve done is called a lot of the folks that were listed as recipients of the Trump Foundation’s donations to find out, you know, why did he give? What was his connection with these charities? And there’s a couple of things that are really interesting.
One of them is that there’s no sort of abiding cause. And a lot of the times you see a wealthy person will help one group year after year, one cause – cancer research, for instance, autism research, a particular college or university. There’s nothing like that in Trump’s foundation. Instead, the main theme in the gifts seems to be that they help Trump’s personal life or his business life.
Trump owns a lot of facilities, including the Mar-a-Lago Club down in Florida, that do a lot of business with charities that can cost up to $270,000 to rent out – for a charity to rent out Mar-a-Lago for one night. And so you see a lot of cases in which Trump gives – donates money to other people who then just give it back to him by renting out Mar-a-Lago for a lot of money.
So that’s a really interesting way of understanding his approach to charity. He lives in a world where socially and commercially, he couldn’t not give to charity because he does – you know, his social life revolves around charity balls, and also because so much of his business revolves around charity. And instead, he – it seems like he uses the foundation to sort of get over the minimum amount, to give some donations to these people that do business with him, but not in any way that seems above and beyond what he needs to get through his business life or to get through his social life.
GROSS: So this week, you reported that more than $2.3 million that companies owed to Donald Trump or to his businesses was actually paid to the Trump Foundation. What’s the significance of that?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, there’s a couple of important things about that. One is that’s called assignment of income. And that’s the IRS term for it. If I’m owed money, but I say, don’t pay me, pay my cousin. Don’t pay me, pay my charity. You can do that, but then the IRS requires that you pay income tax on that. It’s your income if you earned it and you directed where it went. If you exercised control over where the money went, you have to pay income tax on that. So it’s important to know if Trump actually did pay income tax on that. We don’t know that – well, in – of the $2.3 million, $400,000 of that the Trump campaign says yes, he did pay income tax on it. The other $1.9 million they haven’t said. That’s an important question.
The other question is about where the money went. It would be one sort of moral and legal question if Trump was saying, don’t pay me, pay the American Heart Association. Don’t pay me, pay the American Cancer Society, sending his money to a charity that he was not in control of, an independent charity. That might be sort of a minor technical violation of the IRS code, but not a big deal. The problem is that in this case, he’s directing the money to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which he controls and which we’ve reported actually uses some of that money to buy things that benefit Trump or to settle legal disputes that his businesses are involved in.
So if you have Trump avoiding income tax and money coming in and then he’s still able to control it and use it as if it was his income to help his interests, then you’re starting to see a bigger legal problem. We haven’t proved all those pieces, but there are some indications that that might be a question that the IRS or the New York State attorney general might want to ask.
GROSS: Are either of those places investigating?
FAHRENTHOLD: The New York attorney general is. Eric Schneiderman is a Democrat, launched an investigation of the Trump Foundation a couple of weeks ago. The IRS has not commented about whether it’s investigating or not.
GROSS: So let’s look at a couple of examples of how Trump used money from the Trump Foundation for personal payments. And let’s look, for example, at the two Trump portraits that he bought, portraits of himself, with money from the Trump Foundation. So what does that violate?
FAHRENTHOLD: There’s a rule in charity law. It’s a ban on what’s called self-dealing. Now, this sounds kind of obvious. If you’re the president of a charity, you can’t take the money out of the charity and use it to buy things for yourself. And you can’t take the money out of the charity and use it to buy things for your business. Obviously, if that was – if you could do that, then everybody would get the charitable deduction and still use this money to buy whatever they were going to buy in the first place. So in these cases, if Trump uses the Trump Foundation’s money to buy a portrait of himself and he doesn’t dedicate that portrait to charitable use, he’s violated the law. If the Trump Foundation pays for something, it’s supposed to be used for charitable purposes. You can’t treat the Trump Foundation as sort of another pocket to buy things for yourself out of.
GROSS: So you tried to track down – so where are these portraits? And are they being used in, like, a charitable setting for the greater good? And you used Twitter to crowdsource this, to find out where they were, and you were successful.
FAHRENTHOLD: This is actually an amazing story. So it’s amazing on both ends. So we knew already a couple of weeks ago that Trump had bought a $20,000, 6-foot-tall portrait of himself in 2007. And we’ve written about that a couple of times. And so – and I’ve been tweeting about that. One day at my desk, I get a phone call. It’s from Palm Beach, the 561 area code. It’s a woman on the other end. I’ve never talked to her before. And she says Google Havi art Trump, H-A-V-I art Trump. There’s another paint – portrait. That’s it. That’s the whole tip. And miraculously – sometimes these tips are not as simple as they seem when they first come in. But no, I Googled Havi art Trump. Bang, another portrait that Trump bought of himself with charity money. In this case, in 2014, he bought a charity – at a charity auction, he purchased this $10,000 portrait of himself.
Now, that’s fine. If he just paid with his own money, he could have that portrait. He could do whatever he wants to with it. But he paid – later on, he actually paid for the painting with the Trump Foundation’s money. So again, the charity owns it. That portrait must be used for some charitable purpose. So the question was, where is this $10,000 portrait? And I had been tweeting about it. And that night, the night we published the story, a reader found – on Twitter contacts me to say that she’s been looking at the TripAdvisor site for Doral. Trump has a big golf course, the Doral Golf Resort outside of Miami. And on TripAdvisor, you know, you can put – post pictures of – the inside of your bathroom, the inside of the hotel lobby. There were 385 pictures on the Doral site on TripAdvisor. She went through all of them and found a picture of this missing Trump portrait, a $10,000 portrait he bought with charity money.
Wow, I tweet that out. This is, like, about 8:00 o’clock at night that night. Look, I think we’ve found it. This picture on – from TripAdvisor was taken in February, hanging on the wall of Trump’s golf resort. I wonder if it’s still there.
Well, a guy named Enrique Acevedo, who’s a anchor for Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, is right down the street from Doral in Miami. He sees this, makes a reservation at the Trump Doral golf resort because you can’t get it in unless you’re a guest. After his newscast ends at midnight that night, goes over there, checks into his room and then starts wandering the grounds, talking to the Trump’s maintenance workers or housekeeping crew in Spanish, saying where’s picture? Where’s this picture? Bingo, he finds it hanging on the wall of the Champions Bar and Grill inside Trump Doral. So that when you go in the Champions Bar and Grill, the first thing you see is this picture of Trump.
Unless it serves as a soup kitchen and it’s off hours, that is not something you can do with a thing you bought with charity money.
GROSS: (Laughing) So these portraits actually violated – correct me if I’m wrong here – two tax regulations. First, in the method that he purchased it, using foundation money instead of his own. And second, in where he put it, putting it on his – one of his own profit-making company’s businesses, a hotel, as opposed to, you know, donating it to the greater good.
FAHRENTHOLD: (Laughter) That’s right. So, I mean, it’s two sides of the same rule here, basically.
If you buy it with a charity’s money, it has to be used for charity purposes. So if there was a Trump Foundation office, he could hang it in there. But there’s not, has no office, has no paid staff. If he’d given it to decorate – if there was some charity out there that wanted it to hang it in – on the wall of their office, I suppose he could. But he didn’t. He hung it in the – on the wall of his for-profit business.
Now, this is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things – $10,000. But that is basically the textbook definition of self-dealing, using your charity’s money to buy something that enhances the experience of guests at your for-profit business.
GROSS: What made you think of turning to Twitter to crowdsource information that would help you in your investigation?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, it all started in May, when basically the Trump campaign lied to me about something important. We were writing about the $6 million that Trump said he had raised for veterans back in Iowa. You remember, there was a Fox News debate Trump didn’t want to do. He held this televised fundraiser for veterans instead, January 28 in Des Moines. He said at the time, I raised $6 million and one of those millions is from me. I have given, he said – past tense – a million dollars to charity in January.
But time went on and time went on. He didn’t seem like he had actually given that money away. In fact, it seemed like a lot of the money that other people – some of that other 5 million that had come into the Trump Foundation from other people with the understanding that Trump would give it away, that he didn’t give it away. It was still sitting. And so we’re calling the Trump campaign trying to figure out what happened to it.
So finally Corey Lewandowski, who was then Trump’s campaign manager, calls me back one day and he says Mr. Trump has given away his million dollars to veterans. It’s already gone, went to a bunch of different groups. And I said, well, who? Who did he give it to? We can’t tell you. It’s a secret. It’s private. We’re not going to say anything about that. And I thought, well, OK, that’s not good enough. This is a million dollars that Trump took credit on a national stage for giving. He can’t say now, well, I gave it away but I won’t show you any proof.
So how do you figure out where it went? And I started looking on Twitter, knowing that Trump himself spends a lot of time on Twitter, or did back then especially. And I wanted to make my search public. So now I knew what supposedly – what had happened, Trump had given a million dollars to some veterans groups. So I’m probably not going to find all one million, but I can find the tip of the iceberg, I thought, by looking on Twitter.
So instead of doing what I normally would have done, calling the veterans groups on the phone or sending them emails. I just started tweeting at them, to the really big, famous veterans groups – Team Rubicon, the DAV, the Veterans of Foreign Wars saying, hey, have you ever gotten money from Donald Trump? And other reporters picked up on that and noticed it. And Trump himself picked up on it and got really mad about it, the whole long series of tweets about how the media was mistreating him.
Well, what was the answer we learned from all of that? Trump had not given his million dollars. What Corey Lewandowski told me was wrong. He’d given zero of it. And it was only after we’d made that sort of public search looking on Twitter for the money, that Trump coughed up any of the money. He gave it all to one particular group late at night one night, I think the day after my sort of public Twitter search.
So if we hadn’t done that, would he have ever given the million dollars? I don’t know. But it showed me that you can focus public attention, reporter’s attention and Trump’s attention on something in a way that really no other medium allows. And so that’s the approach that I’ve tried to replicate in my broader search for, you know, all of his charitable donations, not just this specific gift to veterans.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. And he’s been investigating whether Donald Trump donates the amount of money to charities that he says he does, and whether he’s violating tax regulations with his Trump Foundation.
We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national reporter David Fahrenthold. He’s been investigating whether Donald Trump donates the amount of money to charities that he says he does, and whether he violates tax regulations with his Trump Foundation.
Well, you’ve also investigated whether the donations that Donald Trump gives in his own name actually come out of his own pocket. And you’ve found that a lot of the things that he says he’s giving in his own name are actually from the Trump Foundation. And tell us why that’s an important distinction.
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the reason that happens is because a lot of wealthy people have a foundation. And they, you know, private foundation is what it’s called. And they put their own money into it, so they get the charitable deduction right away. And then they give the money out of it to charities along the way. That’s a very common practice.
And so it’s assumed in the world this – that Donald Trump lives in, New York high society, Palm Beach high society, that if you have a private foundation, the money in the private foundation is your money. And so I think it’s common for people to get a gift from the Donald Trump Foundation, to a school or a library or, you know, to some sort of cause and to credit Donald Trump because they believe that it never happens that the money in your foundation is not your money. So let’s just give Donald Trump the credit instead of saying it’s the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
I was looking at a giving report for Trump’s son’s school in New York. And that’s the same way, Trump gave $50,000 out of the Trump Foundation to his school. And of course, the credit in the annual giving report they give to parents is Donald and Melania Trump.
So that’s important for him because, as I said, he lives in a world where you can’t not give money. That this – all these sort of social rituals built into Palm Beach and New York high society where what you do is for charity. So you can’t just give nothing. But this is a way to give other people’s money effectively in a way that is often assumed to be Trump’s own.
GROSS: When you say other people’s money, you’ve pointed out that Trump hasn’t put any of his own money into his foundation since – what? – 2009 or 2008?
GROSS: Yeah, but he does get very large donations from other businesses?
FAHRENTHOLD: It’s a mixed bag. So we now know at least – so since Trump stopped giving any money, I think there’s been, like, 8 or $9 million that have come into the foundation from other people. And the bulk of that, the biggest chunk of that, is $5 million from Vince and Linda McMahon, who are the World Wrestling titans. They gave it in the years after Trump appeared on WrestleMania in 2007. They say it’s just a straight charitable gift, not a compensation for him being on the television show Although, yesterday Linda McMahon was asked before the debate why did you give Trump $5 million? And she said basically, I don’t know. I forgot. So imagine being able to give $5 million away and forget why. And so there’s also a – $500,000 from NBC Universal, which televised “The Apprentice,” which Trump starred in. They also have refused to explain that. But there are gifts – a lot of the rest of the money has come from people who owed Trump money. And Trump directed them to pay his foundation instead of him.
GROSS: And again, your concern here is that it’s possible he did not pay any taxes on this money because the Trump Foundation is a tax-exempt charitable foundation.
FAHRENTHOLD: That’s right. The interesting thing, when I called the Trump campaign once we discovered that a lot of the money going into the Trump Foundation was, as I said, money owed to Trump that he diverted to the foundation, that’s fine. You’ve got to pay income taxes on it. When we called them to ask, OK, did Trump really pay income taxes on that? The answer was really unusual. The answer was actually that’s totally wrong. Instead, Donald Trump has been guided his entire life by an obscure 1942 Court decision – IRS commissioner v. Giannini. And it holds that you don’t have to pay income taxes if you don’t tell people where to give the money. So their contention was there were instances where people owed Trump money, and he said, no, I don’t want it. I reject your money. I renounce it. But you should maybe think about giving it to some charity somewhere and – not telling them the Donald J. Trump Foundation, just telling them give it to a charity. And then some of them did, in fact, give to the Trump Foundation, and that’s how the money comes in. And under that logic, Trump wouldn’t have to pay income taxes.
Now, that’s a complicated set of things for Trump to have done every time. And I said, well, tell me an instance where that actually happened, where this whole complicated theory you’re talking about was put into practice. And they couldn’t give me one. So it doesn’t seem like their approach, at least right off the bat was to say, oh, yes, that’s right. He should have paid income taxes, and he did.
GROSS: You’ve also investigated instances where Donald Trump used Trump Foundation money to pay legal fees that Donald Trump owed or that his businesses owed. Tell us the golf course lawsuit story.
FAHRENTHOLD: Sure. So this involves – in 2011, Trump has a golf course in Westchester County, N.Y. There’s a charity tournament that day, and for – it was for Alonzo Mourning, the basketball player’s charity. The prize for a hole in one – there were big signs all over the course saying if you hit a hole in one you win a million dollars.
Well, lo and behold, a guy named Martin Greenberg hits a hole in one. And he celebrates, he gets his picture taken with Alonzo Mourning. He goes off to the clubhouse, celebrates – he’s won a million dollars. He’s having a great time. They pull him out of the party, and they tell him you actually win nothing. You win zero because the fine print of the hole in one contest said that the shot had to go 150 yards to count. And because of the way Trump set up his course, he put the tee too close to the hole. Your shot didn’t go 150 yards. You win zero.
He sues the Alonzo Mourning foundation, and he says Trump’s golf course. And what happens is the case settles. And on the day the case settles – it was a confidential settlement, but it results in Martin Greenberg’s charity, the guy got the hole in one – his charity gets $775,000 from a combination of the people that he had sued. And of that money, the Trump golf course provides nothing. But the Trump foundation provides $158,000. The Trump campaign’s explanation is this is just a series of screw ups that was totally innocent. But what happened, what you can see in tax records is that when Trump’s business settled its lawsuit, Trump’s Foundation was the only one that paid.
GROSS: So are you saying that it’s very possible that other people’s money, people who donated their money to the Trump Foundation, that that money was used in the legal settlement that Trump was supposed to pay?
FAHRENTHOLD: That’s right. Specifically in that case, it appears that they actually held a charity auction in which they said online, we are auctioning off a lifetime membership at all Trump’s golf clubs. And it benefits the Donald J. Trump Foundation. So a guy in Florida bids 157,000 to buy this membership, perhaps paying more because he thought it was going to charity. And what happened was effectively the Donald J. Trump Foundation took the money he donated to it, turned around and paid off the settlement that involved the golf course.
GROSS: My guest is David Fahrenthold, a national correspondent for The Washington Post. We’ll talk more about his investigation into the Donald J. Trump Foundation after a short break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new biography of Jane Jacobs, who’s best known as the author of the classic book “The Death And Life Of Great American Cities.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with David Fahrenthold, a Washington Post national correspondent who’s been looking into Donald Trump’s finances by investigating his charitable group the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Fahrenthold has found that Trump hasn’t put any of his own money into the foundation since 2008. Some donations that Trump claims to have made from his own pocket actually came from money others donated to his foundation. And Trump has sometimes requested that money owed to him be paid to the foundation, which may have enabled him to avoid paying taxes on that money. You’ve also found that there are times that Donald Trump actually makes money on charitable events. How does that happen?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the most amazing one we’ve found, I think, is a case involving something called the Palm Beach Police Foundation. That’s a very – a charity in Palm Beach, obviously, that puts on one of the year’s – the biggest events in the social calendar, the policeman’s ball at Mar-a-Lago, a club that Trump runs. So this is what happened. Trump decides that he wants to make a donation to the Palm Beach Police Foundation. But he doesn’t use his money and he doesn’t want to – apparently doesn’t want to sort of draw money out of the Trump Foundation. So what he does is he calls another foundation, the Charles Evans Foundation, which is – that was founded by a Hollywood producer who was at that point dead. It was his relatives and his widow running this charity after his death. Trump goes to the other foundation and says, look, I’m raising money for the Palm Beach Police Foundation. I need you to give me something. They said fine. We’ll give you – I think it was $150,000. But Trump says, look, listen, don’t give it straight to the Palm Beach Police Foundation. Give it to me, and I’ll give it to them, OK?
The assumption they had was that Trump was gathering money from a lot of people and sort of bundling it together. Well, what happened was Trump just took the money they’d given him, the 150,000, gave it to the Palm Beach Police Foundation as his gift, adding nothing of his own, adding no money from his foundation or money from his own pocket. He turns their gift into his gift, and then he not only gets an award, he gets a giant crystal palm tree for his selfless support of the cause. He also gets to keep their business. He gets to butter up a client who pays $270,000 for one night at Mar-a-Lago. So he comes out with much – he hasn’t spent any of his own money, and he comes out with $270,000 in revenue, having only donated a donation from somebody else.
GROSS: So to sum up, there are at least two tax laws that you think the Trump Foundation might be violating. Sum up again what they are.
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, there’s actually more than two. But I’ll give you the ones that I think he may have violated. There’s the one that prohibits self-dealing. It’s – people who run charities from taking the charity’s money and spending it to buy things for themselves or to help their own businesses. There’s a question about whether he violated the rule about paying income tax on money – and when you assign your own income to a charity. But there’s other things like filing a false return. He’s filed a number of incorrect tax filings for the Trump Foundation and also paying a prohibited political gift. That’s the one that he’s admitted so far.
GROSS: So what kind of penalties would he face if he’s found guilty of violating these things?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, if the civil penalties – and it appears that sort of a civil case rather than a criminal case is much more likely at this time, the civil penalties could include penalty taxes, extra taxes on Trump that he’d have to pay the IRS, the equivalent of a fine. He may have to reimburse the Trump Foundation for all the money that it effectively spent on his behalf, basically make the charity whole for the instances of self-dealing. He could also lose the tax exempt status of the Trump Foundation. The Trump Foundation could effectively be killed off by the IRS because it’s been used in a non-charitable way, sort of in a pattern of non-charitable acts. Those seem to be the most likely civil consequences.
GROSS: So since you’ve done so much of the investigation with the help of Twitter, how do you think Twitter is affecting public interest in the story? Because you’ve kind of turned your investigation of Donald Trump’s charitable giving and the finances of his Trump Foundation, you’ve kind of turned it into this, like, nationwide scavenger hunt for information and for paintings and for things that bear his name on it because he donated to – you know, to the theater or to the park. So this – there’s this kind of buy-in. There’s this kind of, like, national involvement from anybody who’s following the Twitter feed and wants to participate in some way.
FAHRENTHOLD: I think I’m lucky in that there are these sort of physical objects that symbolize what I’m doing. You know, the painting or the Tim Tebow helmet, the benches, those are all things that people can find out in the real world and they’re sort of a tangible thing I can describe. I think that’s really helped a lot, sort of bring people in and involve them in it. I’ve also tried to just be – to sort of project that it’s – this is fun. This is the most fun part of reporting, the sort of scavenger hunt element of it. You know, every door you open leads you to something else. Every clue you find leads you to something else. And I’m trying to – it’s a lot of fun for me to unravel something like this, and I want to sort of share that with people. I think people have really gotten into that.
GROSS: What are you looking for now with the help of Twitter?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, we’re looking for a signed Tim Tebow Broncos helmet from – that Trump bought for $12,000 back in 2012.
GROSS: That he bought with Trump Foundation money.
FAHRENTHOLD: Trump Foundation money, that’s right. And we’re also looking for the 6-foot-tall portrait that Trump bought of himself for $20,000 back in 2007. That was done by a speed painter. A guy painted it right then and then auctioned it off at a party at Mar-a-Lago. Those are the two things that I’m looking for now, but there may be other things. I mean, there could be a whole theater named after Donald Trump that I haven’t found yet. So that’s kind of the open ended element of this that makes it fun.
GROSS: So I know you’ve tried to get answers to some of your questions from the Trump campaign. Has the campaign been responsive to you?
FAHRENTHOLD: In general no. In general – I sent them very detailed questions on a lot of these things, and I haven’t gotten the answers back before publication. In some cases, they’ve tried to give them to other reporters after the stories come out or they’ve gone on TV. They’ve sent Trump people to go on TV after the story comes out to answer the questions that they – I asked them to answer before the story came out. That’s what’s led to me posting my questions on Twitter as well.
Now, when a story comes out, I say, look, here’s what I asked, so that people know, you know, that I at least tried to get that information. It doesn’t seem like an oversight when somebody from the Trump campaign comes out and says it on Fox News two days later. The exception was this weekend, when I was working on this story about – no, this past weekend when I was working on the story about whether Trump paid income tax on these incoming donations – they actually put me on the phone with this guy Boris Epshteyn, a Trump adviser, which is the first time that they had actually put somebody on the phone to answer questions in a long time. That was an interesting interview. It didn’t answer all my questions, but it was at least a step in the right direction for me that I got them on the phone to hear their side of the story before the story ran.
GROSS: What did he have to tell you?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, that was what was interesting. His theory was essentially that the things that I was writing about did not exist, that had never happened. Trump had been following this obscure court decision from 1942, which means – meant that he had never explicitly directed that anybody that owed him money give it to his foundation, which honestly I was not – I was surprised by. I had never heard of this 1942 court case, and I was expecting him to say something else.
The interesting thing about that was I said, OK, well, can you give me an example of when – a time when this thing you’re describing happened? No. And I said are you sure that it never happened the other way, it never happened the way I’m describing, which would have resulted in Trump having to pay income taxes? And Mr. Epshteyn’s response was you have to figure that out. You have to find it, not no or I can’t tell you or – it was you have to figure it out. And so that – right then I said, well, what about this? I said, there’s an example – 2011, Comedy Central paid Trump $400,000. And he said at the time that he was giving it to the Trump Foundation. Oh, yeah, well, that’s true. Yeah, that’s – basically, that’s an exception to the rule. And then I said, are there others? Well, you have to find them. So they’re sort of challenging me to prove them wrong in this case, which was an interesting – I’ve never really had an interaction with a presidential campaign before. I don’t know if it worked from their perspective or not, but it was really unusual.
GROSS: What are some of the questions you’ve asked the Trump campaign that you haven’t gotten answers about?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the most important one, I think, is – there’s two, I would say, that are the most important. The first is before this May – before he gave that million dollars to the veterans under great media scrutiny – before this May, when was the last time Donald Trump had given any money out of his own pocket to a charity, any cash money to a charity? I’ve never gotten an answer for that. I’ve asked it a hundred different ways. And I’d love to know the answer. As I said, the last time I found was back in 2009 for $10,000.
The other question is whether since we’ve started writing this story they have filed any new paperwork with the IRS, any new filings in which they admit to having violated any of the laws we’ve been writing about – the laws against self-dealing, the laws – you know, whether they’ve admitted that they didn’t pay income tax on things they were supposed to. There’s paperwork you have to file as a charity and self-assess what you think you owe. We know they’ve done it in one case, which was for a prohibited political gift they gave to the Florida attorney general back in 2013.
But there’s a bunch of other things that I’d love to know. Have their lawyers looked at this and decided, listen, we should fess up to these things? Or are they continuing to insist they did nothing wrong?
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national reporter David Fahrenthold, and he’s been investigating the Trump Foundation. We’re going to take a short break here. Then we’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is David Fahrenthold. He’s a national reporter for The Washington Post. He’s been investigating whether Donald Trump donates the amount of money to charities that he says he does and whether he violates tax regulations with his Trump Foundation. Fahrenthold has successfully used social media and crowdsourcing to help him in his investigation.
So one of the stories that you’ve investigated is how the Trump Foundation gave a $25,000 donation to a political group supporting the re-election campaign when Pam Bondi was running for attorney general of Florida. What did you want to find out about that donation?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, there were a couple of things. One question we’ve answered and one question we haven’t. That donation was given around the same time that Bondi’s office was considering whether to launch an investigation into Trump University, that real estate seminar that Trump ran. People in Florida had complained to the attorney general’s office that they felt defrauded by Trump University, and her office was deciding whether to run with it or not. Around that time, she asks Trump for a political donation. Trump gives it to this campaign committee supporting her. So the unanswered question is did that gift have anything at all to do with the prospect of a Trump Foundation investigation by the state of Florida?
Trump and Bondi have both denied that it did, but they haven’t really provided much in the way of a timeline that would allow us to see when they knew about the possibility of a Trump Foundation – Trump University investigation and when she asked him for money. The part that we do know about is what happened after Trump said yes – yes, I will give you a donation – which is he sent her $25,000 from the Trump Foundation.
Now, you can’t do that. Nonprofits like the Trump Foundation are prohibited from giving political gifts, but he did. And even more interesting, he filed – the next year, when the Trump Foundation filed its tax paperwork with the IRS, it did something very odd, which is that it omitted any mention that it had given this prohibited political gift to Pam Bondi’s group. The group in Florida that she supported – was supporting her was called And Justice for All, OK? That’s important to remember that name.
So when they file their tax paperwork with the IRS, they don’t list that gift. Instead, they list a $25,000 gift to a group called Justice for All, which happens to be a nonprofit in Kansas which didn’t actually get any money at all from the Trump Foundation. So the result was they gave a prohibited political gift and filed an IRS return that hid that prohibited gift from the IRS and made it look like something innocent.
So Trump has now admitted that he wasn’t supposed to pay a political donation. He’s reimbursed the Trump Foundation $25,000. He’s paid a $2,500 penalty tax. And he’s given this explanation to the New York attorney general as to how all this happened, which was basically incompetence, that the Trump Foundation had terrible internal controls over where its money was going. It often cut the check just based on a name without a tax ID number or an address. And that is what led to this screw-up where it seemed like – where the money went to Florida and the IRS thought it went to Kansas.
GROSS: But one of the things that’s interesting about that response is that Trump is always bragging about his business command, about how he runs such great organizations, he’s always successful at what he does. And here he is confessing to a pretty big error.
FAHRENTHOLD: That’s right. It also shows you something interesting about the way that Trump viewed the Trump Foundation. And that is the explanation from the Trump people was – you know, we said, well, why did Trump – every other gift that Trump gave to an attorney general he gave out of his own pocket, as he’s supposed to. Why, in this case, did it not work? And they said, well, the reason is that at the Trump Foundation – at the Trump Organization, Trump’s business, the accounts payable clerks have a standing order that every time the name of a person to be paid or an organization to be paid comes down, they take the name and they look in a book that contains all the names of tax-exempt charities in the United States. And if a name they have to pay is in the book, meaning that the book – that this name is a charity, they pay it out of the Trump Foundation.
And so they looked up And Justice for All in the book and they found – this is even more confusing – they found a group in Utah that has the same name, another charity. And so they said, it’s a charity. This is a check to charity. It comes out of the Trump Foundation. They write the check. Somehow, the check gets to Florida anyway. But that shows you A, that the Trump people are not keeping great track of the money the foundation pays out. I don’t think Trump would have his business pay somebody without even knowing their street address to be sure that it’s the right group in the right state.
But it’s also that Trump doesn’t understand that you can’t – it can’t be that every check you pay to a charity can come out of your charity. There are some things that you’re not allowed to use charitable money for, like, in those cases we talked about, buying a portrait or a helmet or things like that. It sounds like from that explanation that he had just set up a rule that if a charity was to be paid, it was not to come out of his own pocket.
GROSS: Did your investigation of the Pam Bondi donation lead to a federal investigation of Donald Trump’s foundation?
FAHRENTHOLD: It led to a state investigation. The – what happened in that case federally was we wrote about this back in the spring, that Trump’s foundation had made this prohibited gift and that they had made errors that had the effect of covering it up when they’re IRS filing. And so Trump then volunteered himself to the IRS. Look, I made this prohibited gift. I’m going to self-assess a $2,500 fine. If the IRS – so he did pay that. If the IRS then took that and said, OK, we’re going to start our own investigation, I don’t know that.
GROSS: How would you compare the questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation with questions that you’re investigating surrounding the Trump Foundation?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, they’re – the foundations are very different, and the sort of concerns about them are very, very different. Just briefly, the Clinton – so we talked about how the Trump Foundation is a private foundation – small, it’s the kind of charity that is generally just filled – it’s just a bank account filled with a rich person’s money, which they then give away. The Clintons also have a kind of foundation like that. It’s called the Clinton Family Foundation. It’s all their money. They put in millions of dollars – I think millions of dollars a year, and it’s just a bank account where they give money away.
That – in addition, there’s something called The Clinton Foundation, the more famous Clinton Foundation. That’s called a public charity, like the Red Cross or the American Heart Association. It’s very big. It actually employs over 2,000 people who go out and do work in the world. It’s not designed to just be one family’s philanthropy. It’s designed for the public to contribute. So in her case, the way I’ve tried to explain it is, the Clinton Foundation – the questions about the Clinton Foundation – are about the moral responsibility of power. Hillary Clinton had a lot of power when she was Secretary of State. Did she use it in ways that were untoward to get people to reward donors to her foundation, to give people special access? But there’s no doubt that the Clinton Foundation did charitable work. It did the work that it said, and that it did good in the world.
For Trump, the question’s really about the moral responsibility of wealth. He was a very, very wealthy man. And the question is, did he – what responsibility did he feel to give back, to use his wealth for good in the world? And it’s surprising that it seems like he tried as hard as he could, as far as I can tell, to have other people pay the cost of his philanthropy. He wanted to appear philanthropic, but not without sacrificing something of himself, which is usually sort of the definition of philanthropy. He also – there’s questions about the self – the questions about self-dealing, the questions about improper tax returns. Did he make – sort of that kind of administrative error doesn’t really exist with the Clinton Foundation, that sort of question of violating the law in that way doesn’t really exist with the Clinton Foundation as it does with the Trump Foundation.
GROSS: So to sum up, what do you think the results of your investigation so far tell us about Donald Trump?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, Donald Trump set up a charity that he ran in an extremely unusual way, both in that it didn’t – it sort of seemed to give away his own money when it was not his own money and that it used its money in ways that benefited himself and his businesses in ways that were really unusual.
And I’ve talked to a lot of people who are tax law – I’ve talked to a lot of people who are tax law experts, who are ex-IRS officials who say that, you know, they have never seen a case of a foundation that seemed to violate the law this brazenly in this way. I have a number of quotes who say, you know, I worked at the IRS for 10 years. In private practice, I have 700 clients every year, and they always say, I’ve never seen anything this bad, any foundation that has this level of problems.
So there’s something in there about the way Trump viewed this charity, both that it didn’t seem worthy of learning the rules or following the rules, and also that he seemed to see it, in some cases, as kind of an extension of his business empire. It took money in from his business empire. It gave money out to help buy things for him or buy things for his business empire that, really, he doesn’t seem to have understood that, at least legally, a charity is supposed to be something separate, independent, with its own goals, its own philanthropic aims. A charity is not set up to benefit you. It’s – in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a way for you to benefit the public and use your money to benefit the public. He doesn’t seem to have seen it that way.
GROSS: David Fahrenthold, thank you so much for being with us, and thank you for your reporting.
FAHRENTHOLD: Thank you.
GROSS: David Fahrenthold is a national correspondent for The Washington Post. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new biography of Jane Jacobs, who’s best known for her book, “The Death And Life Of Great American Cities.” This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.