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Why Is My Dad Mad? Trump Foundation Edition

Trump’s dodgy charity operation should scare you

Why is my dad mad?

Has he been hitting refresh on the Washington Post's website a lot? Does he whisper the name "Farenthold" with the kind of reverence usually reserved for high-end grilling accessories and no-iron khakis?

More like riding lawnmowers and good walking shoes, but yes.

Ah, well, he's talking about the Washington Post's David Farenthold, who has led the political pack with his reporting on The Donald J. Trump Foundation, the would-be charity that appears to function as the GOP nominee's personal piggy bank and auxiliary ego-inflation device.

Oh, so Trump is playing the same corrupt, pay-to-play game as the Clintons! You can’t trust any politician lol nothing matters.

Ugh, kids today! Put down that Green Party ballot before I slap it out of your hands and listen to me a minute, OK? Because you're doing that "false equivalence" thing. Just because both the Clintons and Trump have foundations and have participated in some shady deals doesn't mean they're the same kind, or the same level, of shady. Comparatively, the Clinton Foundation casts shade like a sidewalk dappled with the shadow of a big oak tree. The Trump Foundation, while much, much smaller in size than the Clintons', is ... well, it's fucking dark. Dark and slimy.

Okay, I’ll bite. What’s the reason for this big difference in shadiness?

I will refer you to noted internet dad John Oliver for a good explainer on the Clinton Foundation and the relatively minor (and ultimately inconsequential) conflicts of interests it generated. Let's focus on what Farenthold and a handful of other journalists have uncovered about Trump's foundation and what it does — and doesn't — do.

First of all: To call it a charitable foundation would be ... charitable.

I see what you did there.

Thank you. As I was saying: The biggest criticism of the Trump Foundation is that Trump didn't use it to give his money away. Rather, after an initial period in which it functioned more or less like any other rich person's charity, the foundation became a funnel for sending other people's money into outside causes — gifts that Trump then takes credit for himself.

Is that legal?

Well, the general scheme (taking credit for donating other people's money) is legal but "almost unheard of," according to tax experts, who note that the point of most family foundations is to create tax write-offs by giving away the family's money.

But if you’re already not paying taxes ...

You saw that story, huh? Yeah, If Trump really did use his almost-billion-dollar personal loss in 1995 to insulate himself from paying any income taxes in future years, he'd have no incentive to give away his own money. Well, other than the incentive that drives most people to donate their money to charitable causes, which is to feel like you're doing good in the world.

Well, at least someone’s money was going to support charitable causes, right? It may not have been Trump’s money, but at least he was using it for a good purpose.

Uh, this is Donald Trump we're talking about. Once you peel back the initial layer of gross selfishness, underneath that you'll find monstrous egotism. The money wasn't his, but he often used it to benefit himself, in ways both hilariously petty and immediately consequential.

The petty: The Trump Foundation purchased two portraits of Donald Trump. It also paid a $100,000 legal settlement that Trump reached with the city of Palm Beach over his refusal to fly a smaller American flag at his Mar-a-Lago club.

On the more obviously troubling side of the ledger: As we've discussed before, it was the Trump Foundation that gave a suspiciously timed donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, possibly influencing her decision to not pursue legal action against Trump University. It turns out that he may have done the same kind of well-timed check-writing for other state AGs as well.

Along similar lines: Real Clear Politics uncovered a pattern of donations from the Trump Foundation to the charitable arms of several politically influential groups and individuals. These donations appear to match up with Trump receiving prime speaking spots at conservative gatherings, along with other tangible political benefits that helped him burnish his plausibility as a presidential candidate prior to the GOP primaries.

That stuff has to be illegal.

Right? What we know for sure: The New York State AG has ordered the Trump Foundation to stop collecting donations from entities inside the state, because doing so requires a certain kind of certification, which the Trump Foundation never got. That certification would also have required submitting audits, which would reveal more about the workings of the foundation. What's more, the donations that appear to have eventually benefited Trump are in possible violation of "self-dealing" laws, which are pretty much designed to prevent ... exactly what Trump did.

Lastly (maybe!): There are some donations to the Trump Foundation that look suspiciously like they are actually income, which was diverted to the foundation so that Trump could avoid ...

Paying taxes. Right. I still think this is just not that surprising in a politician. Or a rich person. What makes this so bad? Wasn’t Trump just gaming the system like everyone else?

You're a tough audience. Okay, let's leave aside the obvious character argument — that it says something bad about Trump that he goes through so much trouble to avoid giving his money to good causes. Let's even take for granted that the causes were often far from good, and in fact were just good for him.

What makes the Trump Foundation so fascinating, and so revealing of Trump's character, is that it's not standard rich person behavior. Rich people can be skinflints and they set up tax dodges all the time — but they are usually much, much better at doing it. One theme runs through all the commentary tax experts have given on the Trump Foundation: the utter carelessness of the mistakes he's made. Not getting that New York certification to collect donations, for example — that's an utterly unforced error, compounded by each and every donation they solicited. As one tax attorney put it:

At the very least, I would expect that one of the law firms that he must engage on a regular basis to assign somebody to watch over his philanthropic activities to make sure they don't do what they have apparently been doing — creating a never-ending paper trail of large and small violations of federal tax law and state charity law. It's pretty rare to see somebody with Donald Trump’s financial assets and a family foundation not sort of having that managed by somebody who knows what they're doing.

The Trump Foundation isn't just an example of corruption, then. It’s an example of laziness, of incuriosity, of Trump not surrounding himself with "the best people." Many commenters have observed that Trump seemed to be using the Trump Foundation as his "personal piggy bank," and that metaphor is all the more appropriate for the childish short-sightedness he seems to have exhibited. (And for real, who else but a child busts open his piggy bank for two portraits of himself and a souvenir football helmet?)

There's also something immature, maybe dangerously so, about the unthinking possessiveness that drives someone to think he can use whatever institutional apparatus is at hand as a blunt instrument to achieve his own selfish goals. It's one thing to try to skirt the law, but it's quite another to just not give a rat's ass about what the law even is. Imagine Trump wielding the Department of Justice with the same impetuous impatience and opportunism as he did his foundation. Imagine him using the military that way.

That's my fear. It should be yours, too.