Last Thursday, freelance writer Rob Tannenbaum began looking at the publicly available filling of the Donald Trump Foundation. Tannenbaum typically writes about music and culture (he is the co-author of the oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video), but he also is one of the directors of a small charitable foundation that was established by his grandfather. Almost immediately he was shocked by the improprieties and questionable actions he found listed in plain sight.
Writer David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post has already been doing significant work writing about the shady dealings of the Trump Foundation—including using its money to settle lawsuits and to buy painting of Trump to display in his hotels—but Tannenbaum couldn’t believe no other outlets were pursuing this story. Tannenbaum started posting his observations about the Trump Foundation on Twitter that Thursday, gaining traction on social media, and has continued to do. While other outlets have begun re-reporting what Fahrenthold has found, and the Trump campaign has responded with typical blowhard claims of bias, no other major organization appears to be following the potential leads.
We spoke to Tannenbaum about why what Trump does with his foundation is important, and what it says about him as a person and the next possible President of the United States.
How closely have you been following this election?
I am following it like most voters who’ve already made up their mind. I know who I’m voting for, and when I see a story that corroborates my belief in Hillary Clinton, I like it, and when I see one that says Donald Trump is loathsome, exploitative pig, then I do believe it—but I also look into it a little further. That is what brought me to look into the Trump Foundation.
Can you set the scene in how you started looking into this?
It really happened spontaneously. It was last Thursday, I had been working on some stuff and took a break. I think I saw something on Twitter mention the Trump Foundation and I wondered why we haven’t heard more about it. I have a little more knowledge about foundations than most reporters or most citizens do, because I’m on the board of my family’s small foundation. I know a little bit about the laws that guide what foundations can and can’t do. I also know that every foundation has to file a 990-PF to the IRS annually, and that those documents are public information.
I wasn’t thinking to myself, “I’m going to begin an investigation of the Trump Foundation.” It was really just, “I wonder what the Trump Foundation does.” I started looking at some of their 990s and as soon as I did, it was just full of red flags. When I saw stuff, I tweeted about it. My tweets usually get five likes and one retweet, and the stuff on the Trump Foundation started to get dozens and dozens of likes and retweets. There’s a guy, Howard Riefs, he Storify-ed it, he collected this chain of tweets so anyone who wanted to read it in sequence would have it readily available. The last time I looked, the Storify had 65 thousand hits.
Were you reading the stuff that David Fahrenthold had been writing for the Washington Post?
Yes, and as I progressed I became more and more aware of what he was doing. I would tweet about something, and someone would tweet at me and copy him, and then I would go and look at what he wrote. I knew that someone was doing this in a more formal way than I was doing it, but what really surprised me and disappointed me is that no one else [besides Fahrenthold] is doing this. I don’t know how many reporters there are on the campaign, I have to think that it totals in the hundreds. And of these hundreds, one guy is looking into the Trump Foundation while everyone else is reporting about Skittles and pneumonia? That’s pathetic and it’s bullshit.
What do you think is at the root of why only one person so far is really looking at the foundation?
People have been asking me this on Twitter and there’s no way for me to fit this into 140 characters. If I gave you all of my thoughts about this, we’d be on the phone for a couple of hours.
Knowledge of foundations is an arcane knowledge. There aren’t a lot of reporters who know how foundations work and what they should look for, but honestly it doesn’t take all that much time to figure it out. I’m semi-smart, I’m not particularly smarter than the other reporters. The advantage I have is some experience. But this is easy enough that they could figure it out in a couple of phone calls. You call a tax lawyer, you call the IRS, you call the president of a foundation, and in a morning’s work, you understand what to look for in the 990-PFs.
Another big factor is a lack of resources. Every day we see a new report about a newspaper or a magazine that’s laying off its staff. And in particular what happens is the middle aged reporters get fired because they are making significant amounts of money, and those jobs are turned over to 25-year-olds. No offense to 25-year-olds, but they don’t the reporting experience that middle aged people have and they’re probably less likely to have the background that would lead them into this investigation. Also they don’t have time. Every reporter I know is stretched thin, having to post stories every day. One blessing that Fahrenthold has, he’s an old fashioned reporter given old fashioned responsibilities and time. He doesn’t post a story every day. There are a lot of reporters who have to post multiple stories a day, and if that’s what you’re doing, if you’re constantly feeding the news cycle, you don’t have time to do something that’s going to take a little longer.
Norm Orenstein recently said that he thought the reason more reporters weren’t doing what Fahrenthold is, is that [Fahrenthold] has placed his stake, he’s claimed the story, and no one else seems to want to be second to the story. But for fuck’s sake, newspapers are constantly second on everything, including much smaller, less important stories.
Then there’s the Clinton Foundation factor. Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for decades as a politician or a politician’s spouse. She’s the most interrogated politician in history, and inevitably people are going to be looking into the Clinton Foundation, which they have been doing for years. On the other hand, Trump snuck up on everybody. When did reporters start taking Trump seriously? Six months ago? I think that to reporters and editors, there was a little bit of foundation fatigue.
What were some of the biggest red flags you noticed in looking through the forms?
The most relevant thing that I can add to Fahrenthold’s reporting is that this a constant pattern. Fahrenthold detailed the ways in which Trump used foundation money illegally to get himself out of trouble. What Trump has done over and over for the last six years is to use foundation money to buy influence and favors, which no honorable foundation director would ever do.
Every foundation has a mission. It might be arts, it might be schools, global health, animals…and over a period of generations my family’s foundation has changed its mission a couple of times. The Trump Foundation has no mission except for helping the Trump family. As a foundation director, I’m angry that Trump even gets to call this a foundation. It’s an abuse of the spirit of foundations, even when it’s not an abuse of federal law about foundations.
You can divide the improprieties into two categories, one is donations to the Foundation and the other is donations from the foundation. “To the foundation” is kind of important here. It’s very unusual for foundations to raise money. Trump’s foundation does. It’s been since 2008 that Trump has donated his own money. For the past eight years, he’s been donating other people’s money. One of the things that disgusts me is they call it the Donald Trump Foundation because it’s a foundation that chiefly benefits Donald Trump.
On 2011’s 990, there’s a list of people who gave money to the foundation. Almost all of that money came from two sources. The first one is a guy named Richard Ebers. Richard Ebers contributed $450,960 to the Donald Trump Foundation. I had never heard of Richard Ebers, so I googled him. His a ticket broker who in a New York Times profile bragged that before the laws changed, he broke the law every day. Why wouldn’t a millionaire ticket broker donate the money himself. If he wants that money to go to charity, great, then donate it yourself. Why give it to Donald Trump? The answer is, I don’t know. This is where the story needs an investigative reporter. Somebody needs to find the link between Ebers and Trump, what favors Trump has done for Ebers. And by the way, it might turn out that there’s no connection at all, that it’s a fairly innocent connection. Red flags don’t always lead to violations, sometimes they lead to dead ends, but if you don’t chase it, you really never know.
The other biggest contribution that year came from Comedy Central, $400,000. I thought this was weird, because why would Comedy Central be giving money to Donald Trump? That was also the year that they did the Roast of Donald Trump. So what I imagine is, they asked him to participate in the roast, he pointed out that his name brings ratings and the network is going to make a lot of money off the roast, so what’s in it for him. They offered to pay him, let’s say, $250,000. If he takes that $250,000, he’s got to pay taxes on it. And besides, $250,000 doesn’t mean much to Donald Trump. So he says, This is what you’re going to do instead, you’re going to pay $400,000 to my foundation, then I don’t have to pay taxes on it. You guys get a tax deduction on the gift, that decreases the net amount of your payment from $400,000 to $250,000. And everybody wins. Then Trump uses that $400,000 to donate to one of the conservative causes that in the last few years have been benefitting from his foundation. It’s a way for Trump to maximize the per dollar value of what Comedy Central is going to pay him. Is this illegal? Not on the face of it, unless there’s more there, but just because it’s not illegal doesn’t it’s not disgusting.
In every 990, you have to list the amount of time that each director spends on the foundation per week. It’s an approximation. I don’t remember what I usually write down, but an hour, two hours, three hours. In the Trump Foundation’s 990 from 2011, there’s a list of five directors, four of whom are Trumps. Each one has a title, and under “hours per week devoted to position,” for all five of them it says zero, 0.00. So according to the 990-PF, none of the five directors of the Trump Foundation did any work on the foundation in 2011. Yet that year they gave away more than a million dollars. So who’s running the foundation? Who’s making the decisions? Either there’s someone who’s running the foundation who isn’t listed on the return, or the directors misrepresented the amount of time that they devote to the foundation. This is a small point, nobody’s going to go to jail over this, but it is yet another indication that they’re negligent about the foundation. They don’t take it seriously. They don’t document it the way foundation directors are supposed to. I also tweeted a small conspiracy theory about why they reported zero hours. Technically whoever signed this return, whether it was Donald Trump or someone else, [he or she] signed an inaccurate federal document. Again, very small thing. But the small, suspicious things start to accumulate.
One the knocks against Hillary Clinton is that she’s been in politics too long, she’s corrupt, she’s in the pocket of too many people and corporations People might look at what Trump does with his foundation and think, “He’s a businessman, this is how millionaires keep their millions. This is capitalism.” Do you think the American public has more tolerance of business corruption over perceived political corruption?
The short answer to that is: Yes, I do.
Donald Trump has spent his entire adult life doing nothing but accumulating wealth for himself and his family. He has never tried to help anyone less fortunate than he is, and in fact, looking at his record of not paying contractors, he’s often hurt people who are less fortunate than he is by refusing to pay them. A lot of voters admire this. They think he’s canny, he’s got chutzpah, he takes short cuts. Somehow they’ve come to believe that he’ll be able to do this for the country. And like state lotteries, it’s kind of a fantasy. People imagine that if Trump is the president, that some of us will get rich from that, that he must be smart because he’s made however much money.
In advocating for a more careful look at these records and how the Trumps run this foundation, do you hope that they will be penalized, or is it more that you think the public needs to be conscious of what type of people they are?
It’s up to the New York Attorney General and the IRS to determine whether the Trump Foundation has broken any federal laws, and if so what the proper punishment is. Trump has already paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS because of a previous violation where he sent $25,000 from the foundation to [Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi], which was illegal. I’m not an IRS agent, I don’t know how the IRS usually prosecutes or penalizes foundations in these instances. With my family’s foundation we work very hard not to step into any of this territory.
Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns. I believe that he won’t release them because what’s in them would line up with the foundation’s return in a way that would make it really clear how many times he’s broken the law, and might even end in him having to drop out of the race. But until he releases his tax returns, which his son says he won’t ever do, these foundation returns are the closest things we have to proof of what kind of person he is. Not what he promises—he’s going to build a wall, he’s going to keep us all safe—but how he actually behaves. And I guess the center of my argument is: Why would you trust the country to man whose charitable foundation does nothing to benefit people who need it, and benefits only people who don’t need it?