Imagine Donald Trump’s surprise upon realizing that a charity bearing his name did not mean the money belonged to him.
So it has come to pass with a New York judge’s ruling last Thursday that the president had misused money given to the Donald J. Trump Foundation and, as part of a settlement, will have to pay $2 million in damages. Not only did he use the money for himself, including the purchase of a 6-foot-tall portrait of None Other, but he also filled the board of directors with family members (the usual suspects Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric) and at least one officer, Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who didn’t know he was even on the board, according to court documents.
The man who popularized “fake news” apparently also invented a fake charity. They’re tons of fun until you get caught. But there was nothing fake about the money Trump spent that was intended for others.
In addition to the portrait, for which he paid $10,000 (albeit at an auction for another charity) but which later hung in his Doral golf resort in Miami, Trump’s other charitable interests included about $250,000 to settle lawsuits involving his for-profit business. Best of all, he used $12,000 from the charity to buy a jersey and a helmet autographed by then-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
There were some “charitable” donations, such as a $25,000 check in 2013 to a political committee connected to then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Charities are prohibited from making political contributions. And, in 2016 while in Iowa at a political rally, Trump issued a $100,000 check from the foundation to a local veterans group. Again, money from charities is prohibited by federal law from “participating” in political campaigns.
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who was in the crowd, noted the gimmick, embarked on Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting, and in 2018, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit alleging “persistently illegal conduct” at the foundation, where Trump had served as president since 1987.
One would think that such a “very stable genius,” as Trump has described himself, would know that charities are meant to fund, well, charitable acts. But one can also imagine that the words “fiduciary duty” would not trip easily from Trump’s tongue. Instead, they might lodge in this throat and emerge only with the violent assist of a Heimlich maneuver.
“Mr. Trump owed fiduciary duties to the Foundation,” state Judge Saliann Scarpulla wrote in the order. “Mr. Trump breached his fiduciary duty to the Foundation.”
I’d say. Otherwise, the Trump Foundation was something of a ruse. The board had never met in 19 years, from 1999 to 2018, when it agreed to shut down. Trump, though he gave $5.5 million over the foundation’s life, didn’t surrender a penny between 2009 and 2015.
It probably goes without saying that the president engaged in his usual gas lighting — trying to make others question their own reality — and initially had cast the suit as a partisan sham. How could there be any wrongdoing when the doer was Donald J. Trump himself? As if to say, Hey, my name’s on the Foundation. Obviously, the money’s mine.
Then again, Trump has always been accustomed to doing things his way. Why would he think the rules of ordinary people should apply to him? Besides, weren’t these innocent errors of judgment rather than intentional abuses? I’m sure that Trump only wanted the painting to serve some higher purpose. As then-adviser Boris Epshteyn told MSNBC, the Doral was doing the foundation a favor by storing the art. (Cue laughing hyenas, volume up.)
In a rare concession of accountability, Trump admitted to the court that he misappropriated funds and has agreed to extreme oversight in any future charitable works. His three eldest children, who were originally named in the lawsuit, were let off in exchange for taking an “in-person interactive” course on how to be better board members. (Hyenas, hit it!)
And, finally, the foundation will do what it was intended to do. Trump already has paid back $338,000 to the foundation for various improper expenditures. In total, the foundation will disburse $3.8 million to eight charities.
In a twist of ironic justice, the man with the alleged Midas touch dropped $12,000 on Tebow’s helmet and jersey on the very night that the Broncos were massacred by the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs. The quarterback was soon traded and played only one more season. Had Trump only waited until this past week, he could’ve found a signed Tebow helmet on eBay — for a mere $180.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.