New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced yesterday that he is investigating Donald Trump's charity, the Trump Foundation. The foundation's biggest misdeed publicized so far has been its $25,000 donation to Schneiderman's Florida counterpart, Attorney General Pamela Bondi, as she was running for reelection while considering whether to sue Trump University, which was not a university but a seminar series. Trump University's teachers were advertised as "hand-selected" by Trump, but were not in fact, and the business charged tens of thousands for real estate business courses of questionable utility. Schneiderman is in the process of suing Trump University himself, alleging fraud.
"We've inquired into it," Schneiderman told CNN about the new foundation probe. "We've had correspondence with them. I didn't make a big deal out of it or hold a press conference. But we have been looking into the Trump Foundation to make sure it's complying with the laws governing charities in New York."
"My interest in this issue really is in my capacity as regulator of nonprofits in New York state, and we have been concerned that the Trump Foundation may have engaged in some impropriety from that point of view," Schneiderman said further.
The latest investigation comes after a series of damning investigative reports, most prominently in the Washington Post, showing that the Trump Foundation is barely recognizable as a charity, has repeatedly served as a vessel for Trump to pursue his political and business goals, and has since 2008 been transformed into a means of taking credit for other people's charitable giving.
The Post's reporting showed that Trump hasn't given to the foundation that bears his name since 2008. Instead, Trump has regularly solicited donations for other charities—the Palm Beach Police Foundation for example—then funneled the money through the Trump Foundation, thus taking credit for the gift. The foundation also claimed at least four donations to charities that the charities never received, according to the Post, and Trump and his wife Melania bought items totaling $32,000 at charity auctions with foundation money, possibly in violation of IRS rules against self-dealing.
In many other instances where Trump publicly pledged to donate money to a charity, the Post found no record of the gift coming from the foundation. Trump claimed that this was because he was actually donating millions out of his own pocket. In contacting 250 charities linked to Trump, though, the paper only found one charity that said it had gotten money from Trump the man, the Police Athletic League of New York, and the group said that may have been a bookkeeping error.
After press reports highlighted the Bondi donation this spring, the IRS fined the foundation $2,500, because charities aren't supposed to give to political organizations. Schneiderman's office wrote to Trump and his foundation in June asking for records related to the $25,000 donation to the pro-Bondi political action committee And Justice For All and any other political contributions since 2013, according to CNN. The donation came three days after Bondi announced she was eyeing Trump University.
Trump's treasurer Allen Weisselberg replied to Schneiderman's investigator by saying no other such contributions have been made, and the Bondi gift "was made in error due to a mistaken identity involving organizations with the same name." Trump staffers told the Washington Post that the money was supposed to go to a group in Utah, and yet the foundation's accountants listed the gift in tax filings as a third group in Kansas.
It can't help Trump's case denying a quid-pro-quo with Bondi that during the course of his presidential campaign he has spoken repeatedly about his ability to buy politicians, which he has said shows a "broken system." "When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do," Trump said last summer.
The Bondi donation is the best-known, but not the only Trump gift that dovetails with Trump's interests. Trump gave $35,000 to the successful gubernatorial campaign of Texas Governor Greg Abbott after Abbott, as Texas attorney general, dropped an investigation into Trump University. And in 2014, the Trump Foundation gave $100,000 to the conservative corporate wedge group Citizens United, as Citizens United was suing New York Attorney General Schneiderman over his effort to require nonprofits like Citizens United to disclose their donors under seal to the state. Schneiderman had already begun his fraud lawsuit against Trump University at the time.
Trump has responded to scrutiny from Schneiderman in the past by calling him a "hack" and a "lightweight" who is "trying to extort me" with the fraud lawsuit.
Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller called the latest investigation the work of "a partisan hack who has turned a blind eye to the Clinton Foundation for years and has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president," adding, "This is nothing more than another left-wing hit job designed to distract from Crooked Hillary Clinton’s disastrous week."
It's true, there are two major-party candidates running for president. Scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation has turned up ethical conflicts and ample evidence that, in addition to providing lifesaving medicines to poor people abroad and earning an A rating from Charity Watch, the foundation has at times blurred with the Clintons' political projects, and those involved in senior management have tended to get rich in the process. In the case of the global consulting firm Teneo, now home to outgoing NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, staffers passed between roles with the foundation and with the State Department, and large donors also often served as diplomatic contacts and prospective clients at the firm. Teneo paid Bill Clinton $100,000 to serve as its honorary chairman, and its founders drew government salaries for helping the former president while they were also setting up the business.
The firm is now reported to be considering an initial public offering valued at as much as a billion dollars.
Members of the chattering class have recently taken to debating whether presenting scrutiny of Clinton side by side with reporting on Trump risks creating a false equivalence, given that Trump is a propagator of racist lies and proprietor of a shambling Borgesian business empire that consists largely of selling his name as a cartoonish ideal of someone who is cunning and successful, whereas Clinton's chief sins are a ridiculous email setup, a taste for war, and a penchant for secrecy.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg explained the quandary this way over the weekend on CNN: "The structure of covering politics is you have an apple and you have an orange. They both have different attributes, but they're both fruits and you can take your pick. In this case you have something more like, you have an apple and some rancid meat."
On the limited question of the candidates' abilities to manage their affairs, regulatory watchdogs seem to agree. The Trump Foundation is not rated by Charity Watch. As it began to wind down operations in 2010, Trump University had a Better Business Bureau rating of D-.