Is this election becoming the battle of the family foundations?
For many months, the media have explored the cozy relationship and favor-seeking between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department—no small matter because it included the care and feeding of big donors, including foreign donors who cannot contribute to presidential campaigns.
The Wall Street Journal revealed yesterday that the Fragrance Foundation paid Bill Clinton $260,000 for a single speech in 2014. Months later, the Clinton Foundation “organized and partially funded an effort to get hundreds of farmers in Haiti to plant thousands of lime trees”—helping the perfume industry, which had been hurt by rising lime prices. The foundation denies any connection.
Now, thanks mainly to reporting by the Washington Post, we’re hearing more about the Trump Foundation.
My sense has been that neither story truly took off in the past because the details are usually complicated, a follow-the-money scenario in which any quid pro quo is usually implied rather than explicit. So these developments may resonate with news junkies more than busy people who are worried about jobs, taxes and terrorism.
But is the reporting on the Trump Foundation starting to break through the static?
First there was the foundation’s $25,000 contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, for which the IRS imposed a penalty because such donations are improper for charitable organizations.
But the idea that Trump was trying to entice Bondi into refraining from investigating complaints about Trump University was undercut when the New York Times disclosed the check had been sent before those complaints were publicly disclosed.
Then came stories about Trump using foundation money to buy two portraits of himself, one of them a $20,000, six-foot-tall painting purchased during a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. These easily mocked transactions (which could raise IRS questions) might show the billionaire’s considerable ego, but that’s hardly breaking news.
But now the Post’s David Farenthold has reported this:
“Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire’s for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents.
“Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump’s charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against ‘self-dealing’ — which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses.
“In one case, from 2007, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club faced $120,000 in unpaid fines from the town of Palm Beach, Fla., resulting from a dispute over the size of a flagpole. In a settlement, Palm Beach agreed to waive those fines — if Trump’s club made a $100,000 donation to a specific charity for veterans.”
And he details the other instances as well.
The thing that might set this story apart is that it’s easy to understand: setting up a charity, using some of the dough for business expenses.
The Trump campaign declined to comment to the Post, but communications director Jason Miller issued a blistering statement--"In typical Washington Post fashion, they’ve gotten their facts wrong”—and then ripping the Clinton Foundation for selling access and trading political favors.
"There was not, and could not be, any intent or motive for the Trump Foundation to make improper payments. All contributions are reported to the IRS, and all Foundation donations are publicly disclosed. Mr. Trump is generous both with his money and with his time. He has provided millions of dollars to fund his Foundation and a multitude of other charitable causes.
“The Post’s reporting is peppered with inaccuracies and omissions from a biased reporter who is clearly intent on distracting attention away from the corrupt Clinton Foundation, a vehicle for the Clintons to peddle influence at the expense of the American people.”
But the statement didn’t specify any inaccuracies, and Miller didn’t respond to my request. Mike Pence, in an interview with MSNBC’s Brian Williams, also said there were multiple mistakes but did not city any.
Since Trump has never held public office, his business record—and charitable endeavors—are fertile territory for judging his career.
As someone who says the media are far more interested in digging up dirt on Trump as opposed to Clinton, I view these Washington Post pieces as perfectly legitimate—as well as those, such as in the Journal, probing Hillary Clinton’s family foundation. We’ll have to see how much voters care about these tangled financial stories.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.