I have some shocking news: An organization with “Trump” in its name has run into trouble with the law. Who could have imagined?
Thursday, the New York attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit targeting the Trump Foundation. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold reports:
“The New York attorney general filed suit against President Trump and his three eldest children Thursday, alleging ‘persistently illegal conduct’ at the president’s personal charity, saying Trump repeatedly misused the nonprofit organization – to pay off his businesses’ creditors, to decorate one of his golf clubs and to stage a multimillion-dollar giveaway at his 2016 campaign events.
“In the suit, filed Thursday morning, Attorney General Barbara Underwood asked a state judge to dissolve the Donald J. Trump Foundation. She asked that its remaining $1 million in assets be distributed to other charities and that Trump be forced to pay at least $2.8 million in restitution and penalties.
“Underwood said that oversight of spending at Trump’s foundation was so loose that its board of directors hadn’t met in 19 years, and its official treasurer wasn’t even aware that he was on the board.
“Instead, she said, the foundation came to serve the spending needs of Trump – and then, in 2016, the needs of his presidential campaign. She cited emails from Trump campaign staff members, directing which charities should receive gifts from the Trump Foundation, and in what amounts.”
Fahrenthold and other reporters have previously uncovered some of the facts that figure in the lawsuit, but there’s damning new information too, related specifically to an event to raise money for veterans that Trump held before the Iowa caucuses. According to the suit, the foundation brought in $2.8 million at that event, then essentially turned it over to the campaign to decide how it should be disbursed. They have emails from Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, directing where the money should be be donated. The suit charges that this amounted to an illegal in-kind contribution to the campaign.
There are two levels of context one needs to understand this lawsuit. The first level is that much of what we’ve learned about the Trump Foundation suggests that it was basically a scam, a way for Trump to make shady contributions, pay his debts with other people’s money and do things like buy a gigantic painting of Donald Trump.
For instance, Trump had to pay a fine when it was discovered that the foundation made an illegal $25,000 contribution to a political group connected to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who just happened to be deciding at the time whether to pursue a fraud investigation into Trump University, which she most agreeably decided not to do. Not only was the contribution itself illegal – charitable foundations aren’t allowed to donate to political groups – it was hidden when the foundation reported on its tax forms that the contribution had instead gone to a legitimate nonprofit in Kansas with a similar name, to which they had actually given no money. In other cases, the foundation was used to pay legal settlements for Trump himself.
The second level of context is that in all this, the Trump Foundation isn’t much different from everything else Trump did in his business career. The only reason nobody knew what the Trump Foundation really was before Trump ran for president was that no one had bothered to look. But once they did, it immediately became apparent that while it might do something legitimate here or there, at its core the foundation looks a lot like a grift.
You might say the same about Trump’s entire business career. As I’ve argued before, Trump wasn’t just a guy who skated close to the line a time or two or broke a few rules. In fact, when you add up the questionable bankruptcies, the cons like Trump University, the pyramid schemes, the contacts with mobsters, the exploitation of foreign workers, the Trump projects that have collapsed amid charges of double-dealing, the unusual interest Russian oligarchs have in using Trump properties as a vehicle for money laundering, and more, Donald Trump could well be the most corrupt major business figure in America. So why would anyone expect his foundation to be an above-board charity that does good work and would never run afoul of the law?
If I had to predict, at this point I’d guess that President Trump and his kids will try to settle this suit by paying a small fine. Even though he claims “I won’t settle this case!”, that’s what he said about the Trump University fraud lawsuit too, and he ended up paying a $25 million settlement to his victims. So while the Trump Foundation may not send the president to the slammer, this lawsuit will likely end up telling us a lot about who he is and how he operates.
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