In March, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold asked Donald Trump’s presidential campaign what seemed like a straightforward question: What happened to all the money the New York businessman claimed to have raised for veterans’ charities when he blew off one of the Republican Party primary debates in January and held his own event instead?
Fahrenthold found that the Donald J. Trump Foundation—a charity run by the Republican nominee but not funded by him since 2008—distributed the $3.1 million viewers of Trump’s telethon sent in, while the candidate himself spent nothing. Under scrutiny for this apparent shortchanging, Trump eventually cut a $1 million check from his own account to a Marine Corps charity in May.
Since that initial story, Fahrenthold has combed through hundreds of charitable organizations—342, by his last count—that Trump says he’s donated to, only to find that it’s almost always the Trump Foundation doing the giving. And even then, the “charitable” work often ends up benefitting Trump himself—from the foundation’s $25,000 donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who later dropped an investigation into Trump University, to a portrait of Trump the foundation paid $20,000 for at a charity auction when Melania Trump made the winning (and only) bid.
Fahrenthold’s latest—and perhaps most damning—find came Tuesday, when he reported that the Trump Foundation paid out $258,000 to settle lawsuits against Trump over matters like a hole-in-one contest at his golf course in Westchester County, New York, and the size of the a flagpole at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Fahrenthold also found another Trump painting that wound up in the businessman’s possession.
Trump’s use of the Trump Foundation could violate laws against “self-dealing,” which blocks the heads of nonprofit organizations from using funds for their direct benefit. Now the IRS and New York State may look into the Trump Foundation. In the mean time, Fahrenthold answered a few questions about his reporting. He says he’s still looking for that $20,000 painting—the other one turned up Tuesday night at Trump’s golf course in Miami—and that there are “definitely more” Trump Foundation stories coming.
In the reactions to your latest story, I’ve seen a lot of people use the term “slush fund.” Is that what the Trump Foundation appears to be?
I don’t know the technical definition of it, but it basically seems Trump used it as another pocket of money he could use to pay out. He owns all these businesses and I think he used this as just another bank account. He was paying a charity, he would pay them out of the foundation. At least in this case, he didn’t treat it as a separate entity. Once the charity got the money it couldn’t be used for whatever Trump wanted.
Since you first posted that photo of the legal pad with all the charities, the process you’ve been going through seems like we’re going along with you on the investigative journey.
That’s the hope. The reason I did that that going into this, Trump’s people had told me back in March—told Ros Helderman, my cowriter on the story—that he does give money out of his own pocket, that it’s secret, that you can’t know anything about it. Which happens to be the same thing they told me about the $1 million he was going to give to veterans. And when they told me that, it was wrong, he hadn’t given any money. So the idea was “let’s go looking for this.” We’ve got to show people that we’re looking but not finding. So I hit on this as an idea of showing how much work I had done and how many places I had called, both so Trump could see it and call up and tell us the truth, and so readers could see it so they could appreciate the work I was doing but also so they could think of examples. “Trump said this or that,” and they could see it wasn’t on my list and they could write in.
Have any of those come in?
I’ve gotten amazing reader tips. Just the thing with this newest painting. Someone called from the 561 area code, which is Palm Beach. A woman’s voice—I don’t know who she was—said, “You should Google ‘Havi Art Trump’,” and it was like the perfect reader tip, because normally people call you with things like that and it doesn’t exactly pan out how you want it. But she told me to Google, I Googled, and bang—found another portrait. It turned out the reader tip was exactly right, it was another portrait paid for with charity money.
Last Friday, I was on the other side of the room from you at the Trump Hotel, but I think I heard you. We were all yelling. What were you shouting?
If you think of the question poorly shouted across the room, it would be “Where are the details of your charitable donations?” And you saw. He told us it was a press conference and he set it up in a way that was always going to make it hard to ask questions because there were all those people, and then he escaped the room like Batman after his two-line statement. I went thinking maybe it would be a press conference and it would be a good chance to ask him to his face, and as you saw, that did not happen in any way, shape, or form.
Best guess right now for the whereabouts of the first painting or the Tim Tebow helmet?
The Tebow helmet looks like a million other Tebow helmets. I know the people who sourced it and gave it to them, so I could maybe get a serial number. One of the things that’s been amazing, I get people—other journalists, people at home—sending me emails like, “Okay, I’ve looked through all the prom pictures on Flickr that were taken at Trump’s club in Westchester looking for this painting in the background. I think I might have found it!” The amount of effort people are putting into this, going through all these photos, is kind of incredible. I’ve seen it but we don’t have the rights. I know what it looks like but nobody else does. I think it’s unlikely we’re going to find that.