A journalistic investigation into the IRS filings of the controversial Donald J. Trump Foundation found that GOP nominee Donald Trump used charitable funds to donate to conservative groups that offered him a political platform to launch his 2016 presidential campaign.
The pattern indicates that Trump may have violated self-dealing laws from 2011 to 2014, cutting checks to influential conservative groups that would legitimize his presidential prospects and further his political career.
After pouring through the Trump Foundation’s tax filings, Real Clear Politics found Trump spent $286,000 of his charity’s money for donations to conservative or policy groups from 2011 through 2014.
One anonymous source with ties to Trump noted that since 2011, when the business mogul became politically active, he “started to make strategic donations.”
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In 2011, Trump invited conservative activist Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council to Trump Tower to discuss his plans to mount a presidential bid in 2016. Shortly after the meeting, Trump donated $10,000 of his foundation’s money to Smith’s policy group.
“He was never heavy-handed about any quid pro quo,” Smith recalled.
In 2013, the Trump Foundation cut a $10,000 check for The Family Leader, a conservative policy group that develops and advocates legislation. A charity donating money to a group that can impact policy is illegal, but Trump’s foundation never properly marked whether it paid the organization itself or its charitable arm.
That same year, Trump was invited to be a marquee speaker at The Family Leader leadership summit in Iowa.
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Also during the same year, Trump spent $50,000 of his foundation’s money to donate to the American Conservative Union Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the group that runs the Conservative Political Action Conference, arguably the most influential platform for conservative leaders.
Trump was invited to CPAC that year, where he tested policy ideas and campaign rhetoric that would come to define his 2016 presidential campaign. An anonymous source familiar with the donation noted that the business mogul never explicitly asked for a speaking slot, but “it was kind of understood.”
In 2014, the Trump Foundation donated $100,000 to the Citizens United Foundation. That year and in 2015, Trump was invited to speak to the group’s highly influential summits for presidential hopefuls.
There is no evidence that Trump explicitly asked for political favors in return for his charitable donations, but the pattern is troubling.
“Getting the right to speak or access to networking events, that’s definitely starting to push into self-dealing, where you’re using the private foundation assets to benefit Mr. Trump,” said charity lawyer Rosemary Fei of Adler & Colvin, San Francisco.
“If what he talked about was promoting his candidacy or fundraising for his campaign, it is not only self-dealing but potentially involves the foundation in making a grant to support political activity,” Fei added. “That’s prohibited.”
Trump has not personally donated to his foundation since 2008. On Sept. 30, Democratic Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York ordered the Trump Foundation to stop soliciting donations in the state, The New York Times reports.
The cease and desist letter arrived after it was discovered that the Trump Foundation had not sought the certification required to solicit money in the state. The Trump campaign has accused Schneiderman, who has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, of having political motivations.
Journalist David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post has been investigating the Trump Foundation for nearly a year. In his research, the journalist says he has found ample evidence that Trump has used his charity for self-dealing.
“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,” Fahrenthold told NPR.
The journalist added that Trump “doesn’t seem to have understood that, at least legally, a charity… is not set up to benefit you.”