A charitable foundation run by President Donald Trump stands accused of a variety of abuses – including improper intervention in partisan campaign politics.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that officials in New York have filed suit against Trump and three of his children (Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump) in state court, asking that the Donald J. Trump Foundation be dissolved.
The foundation is accused of a laundry list of violations. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has charged that the nonprofit foundation was mainly a shell to help Trump pay his bills and boost his political ambitions. As The Post reported, the foundation existed “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.”
Oversight of the foundation was lax. Its board, which included the three Trump children, hadn’t met in 19 years, and its treasurer wasn’t even sure he was on the board.
Underwood said that state officials have been investigating the foundation for 20 months, and she has forwarded the results to the Internal Revenue Service. She asserts that the foundation violated a core principle of the law: Tax-exempt nonprofits are supposed to serve the public good, not enrich their founders or get people elected to public office.
The entire situation is a mess, but what’s most relevant to Americans United is that Trump stands accused of using the foundation for partisan political purposes. If true, the foundation’s activities violate the Johnson Amendment, the provision in federal law that bars nonprofit foundations (and houses of worship) from intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates.
Underwood asserts that in 2013, Trump’s foundation donated $25,000 to a political group in Florida that was working to reelect Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R). Someone at the foundation must have realized that was a problem because the foundation later tried to cover it up by falsely claiming in a report to the Internal Revenue Service that the $25,000 had gone to a nonprofit group in Kansas.
After the story became public, Trump reimbursed the foundation and paid a fine. But he apparently didn’t learn anything from that experience. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s campaign held an event in Iowa (ostensibly designed to raise funds for veterans) that it coordinated with the foundation.
The foundation and the Trump campaign worked closely together, a partnership that raises legal issues. Underwood charges that after the event, “the Foundation ceded control over the charitable funds it raised to senior Trump Campaign staff.” As The Post reported, Underwood pointed to emails in which Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, made decisions about which charities should get money.
Trump later claimed that the Iowa event was for charitable purposes. But at the time, it was widely recognized as a campaign rally. It took place the same day Fox News Channel was airing a Republican debate that Trump has declined to attend. The Iowa appearance was seen as an effort by Trump to move the spotlight away from the debate and onto himself.
As Daily Beast reported, “The coordination between the foundation and the campaign was blatant and explicit, according to documentation posted on the AG’s website. In one instance, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski requested that a top foundation official give out grant money in Iowa in order to improve the campaign’s prospects in that state’s Republican caucus. Lewandowski even specified the date on which he wanted the grants rolled out – three days before Iowa Republicans went to the polls, he told a senior officer at the foundation.”
In court documents, Underwood says Trump knew that the event was designed to boost Trump’s campaign. She asserts that the foundation “acted in a persistently illegal manner by repeatedly intervening in Mr. Trump’s campaign for president in 2016 by, among other things, making expenditures during the first five months of 2016 that were intended to influence his election for president.”
Added Underwood, “Mr. Trump’s wrongful use of the Foundation to benefit his Campaign was willful and knowing.”
This situation is a reminder of why the Johnson Amendment is so important. It’s designed in part to prevent what happened here – someone inappropriately using a nonprofit as a vehicle to help a candidate get elected.
Trump denies everything and is furiously attacking Underwood on Twitter – what else is new? The most disturbing angle to all of this is that Trump has been actively pushing to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, If that were to happen, at least some of the problems Trump’s having over his foundation might evaporate.
When Trump started talking about how he’d like to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, I just assumed that Jerry Falwell Jr. or another one of his Religious Right lackeys fed him the line because, unlike most religious leaders in America, they are eager to politicize their pulpits and issue orders on how congregants ought to vote. But it turns out a move like that could be a huge benefit to Trump himself.
Why am I not surprised?