The following is a transcript of the IRE Radio Podcast episode “Making a List, Checking it Twice." The audio version is available at: http://bit.ly/2gtrlaQ
<<Begin Daniela Vidal narration>>
2016 brought us one of the most interesting election seasons in American history.
President-elect Donald Trump came out on top, basing his qualifications in part on his success as a businessman. And, like many of the country’s wealthiest people, he also claimed to be generous with his personal fortune.
During his campaign, Trump said repeatedly that he’d given “tens of millions” of dollars to charity out of his own pocket. In one of the most prominent investigations of the campaign season, the Washington Post found that, for the most part, that isn’t true.
Fahrenthold: “I felt like I had learned basically what I could about Trump's charitable giving, which is that it appears to be a facade. He claimed to be a philanthropist, but at every turn tried to avoid actual philanthropy or to have other people pay his philanthropy for him.”
On this episode of the podcast, Riley Beggin talks with David Fahrenthold about his investigation into Donald Trump’s history of charitable giving. Or lack thereof.
We’ll hear about the methods he used to get hard-to-find details on Trump’s spending, and how he learned that Trump has likely been breaking the law by using his foundation to pay for personal items and to help his for-profit companies. Plus, he’ll tell us his thoughts on how journalists should cover the Trump administration going forward.
I’m Daniela Vidal, and you’re listening to the IRE Radio Podcast.
<<End Daniela Vidal narration>>
<<Begin Riley Beggin narration>>
It was 1996. The Association to Benefit Children was hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony in New York City to celebrate the opening of a nursery for children with AIDS. Big-name, big-dollar donors were given seats of honor at the front of the room: Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and TV stars Frank and Kathie-Lee Gifford were among them. There was an empty seat saved for Steven Fisher, another donor who had given lots of money to build the nursery.
There was a ruckus at the door, and all of a sudden, there was Donald Trump. He walked in and hunkered down in the empty seat saved for Fisher just in time for the ceremony to begin — for the photos, the hand-shaking and the chorus of children singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
The association’s staff let the show go on, but they were confused. And who wouldn’t be? Trump hadn’t given a penny.
If it wasn’t reality, it would be comedy gold.
Fahrenthold: “Somebody who used to work for that organization just emailed me out of the blue and said, listen, you've gotta call the Association to Benefit Children. There's this amazing tale that she had heard when she worked there about Trump you know, showing up, crashing the event, stealing the seat on stage.”
That’s David Farenthold, a national political reporter for the Washington Post.
Fahrenthold: “And low and behold it was a group that he had given so little money to that I hadn't even called them yet. They weren't on my list. But when I called, you could tell they had been waiting to tell the story for 20-plus years.”
David has been investigating Donald Trump’s charitable giving since early June. That “list” he’s referring to has become an icon of persistent, shoe leather reporting in one of the most difficult election seasons for political reporters ever. More on that in a bit.
His multi-month investigation began, like many good projects, with regular beat coverage.
Fahrenthold: “I started to cover Trump's veteran donations back in February after he had raised all the money he said for veterans and then he said he was going to give it all away. But I realized after having watched him do that for a few days in Iowa and New Hampshire, he stopped giving the money away when he'd only given away about a million or a little over a million dollars. Six million he said he would give away.”
So, not even close.
Fahrenthold: “So that set me on several months trying to figure out what he had done with the money, the rest of the money, including the million dollars he said would come out of his own pocket. That all ended up with him calling me a nasty guy, finally giving the million dollars away, and sort of angrily detailing what he'd done with all this money people had given him for veterans.”
For David, that was a red flag.
Fahrenthold: “And so that made me think, OK, well, if this is how he treats charity when everybody's watching him, when he's invited this scrutiny of himself during the middle of a presidential campaign – which is essentially that he sat on the money for a long time and only gave it away under tremendous pressure – then what was he doing with his charity before he was under scrutiny, when he was just a rich guy and nobody was really paying attention to whether he followed up on his promises?”
Trump was claiming that he had given away tens of millions of dollars out of his own pocket.
His philanthropy, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, seemed like a possible source of those donations. But tax records showed that the Trump Foundation had received most of its money from other donors, not Trump himself.
David wanted to figure out whether or not it was true that Trump was the paragon of giving that he was touting on the campaign trail. So, he started by asking the man himself.
Fahrenthold: “I should say, first of all, I asked him for examples of the donations he'd given out of his own pocket and got nothing. So Ii thought, well, I probably won't find a whole iceberg. I'm not going to be able to find all the gifts that he gave away. But if I look for them and I'm strategic about where I look for them, I could find the tip of the iceberg, I could find some evidence that the money he gave away really exists.”
With no help from Trump himself, David began compiling a list of charities that seemed most likely to have gotten some of his money.
Fahrenthold: “So I thought I would look at the charities that seemed most likely to have gotten money from him. If he was going to give money to anybody, he’d have given money to them. So I started with charities that he gave money to from the Trump Foundation, which is not his money, but I thought maybe if he liked them enough to give them other people's money, he might give them some money of his own. I looked at charities he'd praised on Twitter, charities he'd gone to their fundraisers, charities his relatives had given money to, any charity that it seemed like there was some connection to. And I called them and asked them if you'd ever gotten a personal donation from Donald Trump and, if so, when was the last time?”
In the end, David had a list of more than 450 charities that seemed likely candidates for Trump money. He started calling. And calling. And calling.
Fahrenthold: “One of the things about Trump is that he's very secretive, but he's not very strategic. He would make promises but then basically sort of move on to the next audience before the first audience figured out that he hadn't followed up on his promise. And so the weakness there for him, the vulnerability there, was that there were people out there who remembered what he'd done for them, who remembered the promises he'd made and also there are people out there who could tell you if he'd fulfilled those promises.”
He tracked his calls using Google Sheets, but also wrote it all out on a color-coded notepad so it would be easy for readers to see his progress online and on social media. The visual was striking, especially because black ink — the color indicating charities that had never received money from Trump — dominated.
Fahrenthold: “There were some charities that said ‘no comment,’ but a lot of them were willing to go back and search in their archives and tell me what they found. And what I found was between 2008, which is the last time he gave money to his own foundation – the Trump Foundation – and this May, which is when he made good on that million-dollar promise to veterans, in that period from ‘08 to this May, I found one gift out of his own pocket. And it was a gift of less than $10,000 back in 2009.”
In short, he found almost nothing. At least, nothing even close to the number Trump was claiming.
Fahrenthold: “So if he was truly following through on this promise to give away tens of millions of dollars, in this search of the 450 charities that seemed closest to him, I didn't find even the tip of the iceberg. I found no indication that those tens of millions of dollars of gifts existed.”
It was looking more and more like the iceberg didn’t exist - at all.
It turns out that David was right in more than one way — those missing Trump donations were breadcrumbs leading to a much larger realization.
Fahrenthold: “Along the way I learned something I didn't even know I was looking for, which is that the Trump Foundation (as I said, it’s other people's money), I had thought of that first as sort of a road map to where I might find personal donations from Trump's own pockets. But it turned out that there was something interesting hidden in those donations, too.”
As he worked his way through the list of charities, he started noticing a pattern. Organizations were saying that they didn’t receive any money from Trump himself. But then some would follow up with something a little curious — a story about how they came to receive Trump Foundation money.
Fahrenthold: “And I started to realize that he used the Trump Foundation in ways you're not supposed to use a foundation, particularly to buy things for himself, or to buy things for his businesses. That he would use the Trump Foundation's money to buy portraits to hang on the walls of his businesses, to buy a signed football helmet, to pay off legal settlements involving his businesses.”
Those anecdotes started to stack up, and David started to delve into unfamiliar waters. So, he sought out experts and lawyers that could help him understand charity law. After a while, the stories he was hearing began to make a lot more sense.
Fahrenthold: “What happened in some cases was I just didn't know that much about charity law when I started this project. And as time went on and kind of by accident I would discover something and talk to charity lawyers and then I'd be like, wow, I remember months ago I found an example that actually now that I'm more informed I realize what I found was something important and illegal.”
One example is the case of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. In 2007, Trump got in a fight with the town of Palm Beach Florida over the height of a flagpole stationed outside his luxury golf and beach club.
He faced $120,000 in unpaid fines, but the town agreed in a settlement to waive those fines if Trump made a $100,000 donation to a veteran’s charity. Instead, Trump paid the donation with funds from his foundation — the one financed almost entirely by other people’s money.
Fahrenthold: “And I learned about that back in May but didn't really understand why that was bad or that it was against the law. And it was only later that I saw, oh wow, you can't use your foundation's money to pay off a debt incurred by your for-profit business. And I could go back and see what I had learned months before and that became the basis of a big story.”
Trump used $5,000 of his foundation’s money to buy ads for his hotel chains. $12,000 to buy a football helmet signed by then-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. $30,000 to buy two giant portraits of himself. $264,000 to renovate a fountain conveniently located just outside the windows of a Trump hotel. The list goes on.
Experts in charity law say these purchases are part of an illegal practice called “self-dealing.” If you’re going to buy things that are a direct benefit to you, your business or your family, you can’t have your foundation pay for it.
Two weeks after the election, David found 2015 IRS tax filings showing that the Trump foundation had admitted to illegally participated in self-dealing.
David was only able to get ahold of Trump one time over the course of more than 8 months of reporting. In May, he was following up on the nearly $6 million Trump had raised months before to benefit veterans causes. He asked, why did it take you four months to give that money away?
Fahrenthold: “And he said, well, I needed to vet the group that I was giving the money to. I said, well the group you gave money to gave you a lifetime achievement award at a black tie gala at the Waldorf Astoria last year, so I don't think you really needed to vet them, they were known to you. And he said, ahh, that's true. And I said, well did you just give this money away because I was asking about it today? And he said, well, you're really a nasty guy.”
The interview was an illuminating experience, if an odd one.
Fahrenthold: “The interchange was really interesting because he would say, ‘you're a nasty guy you should be ashamed of yourself,’ but I needed to get other factual information out of him. I didn't want to argue about whether I'm a nasty person or not. So then I'd just say, well, going back to this particular aspect of it, when did you call them, how much money did you give, what about the other money from the Trump Foundation? I would just take it back to a factual question and the he would reset from personal insults to answering the factual question, and then that answer would devolve into insults again and then we'd start again, and the next question, factual devolving into insults. It was a really odd interview. I didn't speak to him ever again, or he never called ever again.”
He did, however, have a few more interactions with the Trump campaign. But they were… limited.
Fahrenthold: “Mostly they just didn't respond to my questions. I'd send them questions on email, very detailed questions, asking fact checking questions. Generally they would not respond at all.”
As a reporter who wanted to do his best to tell all sides of the story, that ended up being one of the most challenging aspects of the investigation for David.
Fahrenthold: “If you called the Clinton campaign with questions about something, you'd hear from four different people and they'd send you white papers and policy statements and they would sort of try to overwhelm you with their side of the story. And the Trump people would just often not tell their side of the story. You'd send them a bunch of questions and hear nothing, not even an acknowledgment that the questions had been received. So the challenge there was to try to tell Trump's side of the story if you got nothing out of him.”
It took a lot of research, a lot of calls, a lot of shoe leather.
The experience brought him back to a story he worked on in 2014, about the government’s “underground paperwork dungeon” used to store federal employee’s personnel records.
If you’re not familiar with this facet of the federal government, it’s actually exactly like it sounds: An underground mine used to house documents and offices for the people who manage them.
He was fascinated by it, but the Office of Personnel Management stonewalled him. There was no way in.
Fahrenthold: “And so what I did was I started going around them. I started calling people and I pulled government reports, GAO reports, about how the mine worked. But I also went on LinkedIn and other places and started finding people who used to work in the mine and now do not. And then: tell me who else would know, the name of the guy that you sat next to. So through talking to other people, I got to where I knew what the mine looked like.”
Eventually, it broke the story open. When he faced similar obstacles with the Trump campaign, he knew how he would approach the challenge.
Fahrenthold: “I'm going to think of myself like water. I'm going to find a way in. I'm going to cover every surface and try to find a way in.”
Fast forward to Tuesday, November 8. The polls start closing, the results start rolling in, and newsrooms across the country begin to hustle. The gears of our electoral system churn through the night, ending in a historic upset.
Riley Beggin: “I'm curious about how you felt late Tuesday night early Wednesday morning when you realized that Trump was going to be president. How did you feel?”
Fahrenthold: “Well, you have to be humble in this business. You can't go around telling yourself that you made – you know, if I ever told myself that I made a difference in this presidential campaign or that I changed the outcome of the presidential campaign, that was probably never true. But it was obvious that night that that's vanity to think that one reporter could make such a big change. There's a lot of factors at play in something like a presidential campaign, and so you can't think of yourself as the one who changes things. Your job is just to report and you have to do the job you have. You can't try to think that you're going to change these things on your own.”
Some investigations have clear, tangible impact. Legislation is passed, regulations are tightened, lives are saved.
But others have less clear-cut results. It might be easy to interpret the Washington Post’s investigation as ineffective, given the results of the election. But David says it’s not that simple — the job of reporters is to report, not to persuade.
Fahrenthold: “I think it probably did make a difference for some people. Was it the difference to any one person who said, ‘Oh, I can't support Trump because I've read about his charitable giving.’ I don't know. Clearly it was not. There were a lot of factors at play in the election. So I didn't set out to do it thinking that I was going to use it to beat Trump or change people's minds about him. I just wanted people to know, you know, who they were getting. And also this is a really important part of his self image, that he's a philanthropist. So it's important for me to know if it's true. So I feel like I did what I could to let people know what is out there. And if people read that information and voted for him, then I've still done my job. I've told you what you're getting.”
And many journalists know exactly what they’re getting going into the Trump administration. He has been a difficult candidate to cover; notoriously hard to get a straight answer out of. David’s investigation left him with some useful tips for other reporters who will be covering the president-elect going forward.
Fahrenthold: “He can often be secretive and deceptive, but he's not very strategic about it. And so his M.O. has often been to say something that is untrue or misleading to one group and then to move on to a different audience before the first audience realizes what has happened. And so he's always finding a new audience. Think about Trump steaks, Trump water, Trump University, Trump magazine, Trump airline. You're reaching new audiences with those who don't remember what his record was in his other things.”
But the good news for journalists is that each of those ventures leaves a trail. Reaching out to those old audiences, the ones that have dealt with Trump in the past, can help unearth information he’s trying to keep secret.
Fahrenthold: “It's a time-consuming method, but it's a way to see how he really follows through. And the other thing is that his advantage has been to move on from promise to promise, from statement to statement, from audience to audience, and he did that pretty effectively during the campaign. He was able to say an outrageous thing today, and then if the media's getting spun up to cover today's outrageous thing, tomorrow he'll say something new so then they have to – so he's always a step ahead because people are trying to cover these things, to react to them.”
It’s an effective strategy. But David says there’s a way around it.
Fahrenthold: “The key to me was to pin him down, to just focus on one area of his life and continually return to it. Don't let him and his shifting agenda change your agenda. If you want to tell something important about Trump, it takes time to understand that facet. But once you've got it, you can learn a lot about him. But you have to just make sure you're focused on one subject and you're not chasing his words from day to day.”
Plus, this isn’t campaign season anymore. It’s the real deal, and Trump’s going to have less wiggle room than ever.
Fahrenthold: “I think the thing for him that's going to make being president hard is that the audience doesn't change. You're every day judged by your actions, not just by your words. And the people who were judging you are not going to move on, they're not going to lose sight of you. The press corps will be on him every day about everything, and the Democrats will and the Republicans who disagree with them in the House. He's not going to be able to change the subject as easily as he did, and he's not going to be able to control information the way he did because he's the head of a large government. But I think the lesson for reporters is you can't just shift subjects when he does. You have to make sure if you find something important that tells you something important about the government or about him, you gotta stay with that and not let him pull you off onto the next thing.”
And David plans to keep at it as well. He’s going to continue covering Trump’s charitable giving as a part of a larger beat about the president-elect. The New York Attorney General opened an investigation into the Trump Foundation in February, and David says he’ll be keeping a close eye on their findings. He’ll also be continuing to rely on a large audience of online followers who have helped him get scoops in the past.
Fahrenthold: “I have a big audience now who have proven themselves to be extremely good sleuths and extremely good reporters, and I'm going to try to find a way to use the Twitter audience that I have, the engaged people that I have following me now, in the same way, to try to dig up more to try to find more and see more and analyze more than I could have analyzed on my own. And also just to remember that what I was saying earlier about pinning him down and focusing on one topic. That whatever I do, I want to make sure that I find a way to both in my coverage and also in my Twitter feed and other places, that I find a way to focus myself and my readers on what we know about one thing and to not let him change the subject if I think the subject is important.”
Election night seemed like it would be the end of a long investigation. But he’s come to terms with what Nov. 8 meant: it’s just the beginning.
Fahrenthold: “I had thought of this charity coverage as a very intense but very worthwhile and meaningful experiment, or experience, and it was going to be over on November 9th. And instead, it's just the beginning. We're just at the beginning of something not the end of something. That was a little shocking at the beginning, but that's the job, and I think we're now fully into that job.”
<<End Riley Beggin narration>>
<<Begin Daniela Vidal narration>>
Thanks for listening. If you’re a fan of the show, rate us or write us a review on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play. Or, share our show with your friends.
The IRE Radio Podcast is recorded in the studios of KBIA at the University of Missouri. Riley Beggin reported this story. Blake Nelson drew our episode art, and Sarah Hutchins is our editor.
That’s all for this episode. From Columbia, Missouri, I'm Daniela Vidal.
<<End Daniela Vidal narration>>