Reeeeeally dumb of the AG to make this announcement today, when it’s not only guaranteed to step on the news about the DOJ’s Emailgate report but happens to be POTUS’s birthday. If they want the suit to be viewed as a nonpartisan law-and-order demand for accountability, it’s idiotic to make the timing seem obviously political.
But maybe Barbara Underwood, the acting AG, doesn’t care. Dunking on Trump for partisan reasons is all upside in New York. The timing might be a simple matter of extending him a middle finger while serving process.
Stories about Trump’s shady charity operations were all over the place in 2016, most famously at the Washington Post via beat writer David Fahrenthold, but naturally they didn’t get much traction in righty media. Lots of conservatives are going to turn on cable news today, see the headlines about a charity lawsuit, and be mystified as to what this is about. Which is good news for POTUS, and no doubt just how he wants it: If all you know is that his Democratic antagonists in New York are hassling him in court, it’s a short step to concluding that this can only be a nonsense nuisance suit. Is it, though? Here’s a quote for the ages from Fahrenthold’s new story about it:
At one point, during a deposition, a New York state investigator asked Allen Weisselberg — a Trump Organization employee who was also listed as treasurer for the Trump Foundation — if the foundation had a policy for determining which specific payments the foundation was allowed to make.
“There’s no policy, just so you understand,” Weisselberg said. The interviewer asked if Weisselberg had understood he was actually on the board of the Trump Foundation, and had been for more than a decade.
“I did not,” Weisselberg said.
The charity’s treasurer, the guy in charge of making sure the money came in and went out in proper fashion, had no idea he was the treasurer and was willing to say so under oath. That’s a core claim in the complaint, that the charity’s board of directors was a sham designed to provide legal cover so that the organization could carry out Trump’s whims. Kind of like what the GOP is now.
Underwood wants Trump to pay $2.8 million in restitution and penalties. More details from the Times:
“As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” said Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s attorney general, who has been on her job little over a month. “This is not how private foundations should function and my office intends to hold the foundation accountable for its misuse of charitable assets.”…
The foundation was explicitly “prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of a candidate,” the complaint notes, adding that Mr. Trump himself signed annual I.R.S. filings, under penalty of perjury in which he attested that the foundation did not engage in political activity. “This statutory prohibition is absolute.”
That’s another core claim in the complaint, which you can read here. In addition to Trump using the charity to cover his own personal expenses, which the law forbids, it was also allegedly used during the Republican primaries as an extension of his presidential campaign. Charities are required by law to stay out of politics for exactly this reason, because it’s all too easy to abuse an altruistic organization for one’s own selfish purposes. (Right, Hillary Clinton?) If you think the AG’s blowing smoke about that, note that she claims to have emails proving that Weisselberg, the charity’s nominal treasurer, was taking dictation from Corey Lewandowski before the Iowa primaries about what sort of donations to make in Iowa:
With Trump’s campaign manager calling the shots, donations in Iowa to impress the locals were essentially campaign contributions by the charity to Trump’s campaign. It just happens that they were paid to third parties instead of to the campaign itself. (Same with Michael Cohen picking up the tab for Stormy Daniels’s payoff, come to think of it.) But if that doesn’t impress you, how about something that looks to be in Trump’s own handwriting?
That’s Trump allegedly writing to Weisselberg in 2007 after Mar-a-Lago settled with Palm Beach for violating ordinances related to the height and placement of flagpoles on the property, per the complaint. The settlement called for donations of $100,000 to a charity called Fisher House. The resort would be expected to pick up that tab, or of course Trump himself could. Instead, he allegedly asked the charity to pick it up. What the AG’s claiming, in other words, is that Trump himself was among the most deserving “charities” to receive funds from Trump’s foundation.
The foundation is outraged at today’s AG accusations, naturally — so much so that it blasted out a statement via the Trump Organization, which is sort of the whole problem here. Charities and businesses aren’t supposed to mix:
NOTABLE: The TRUMP FOUNDATION statement pushing back on the @NewYorkStateAG lawsuit alleging the Trump Organization improperly controlled the Trump Foundation came from a Trump Org email address. pic.twitter.com/ddpItwipti
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) June 14, 2018
No response there to any of the particular charges, do note. POTUS is outraged too, or so he says:
He’ll settle. Unless the AG’s being exceedingly deceptive about the evidence mentioned in the complaint, they would seem to have him dead to rights on several claims. Remember how he vowed to fight the Trump University lawsuit, also filed by the New York AG’s office? He settled that one too. “I’ll never settle!” is good PR for today, when everyone’s paying attention to the suit. In six months, when everyone’s forgotten about it, he’ll quietly cut a check.
If you’re looking for further background, the quickest way to get up to speed on Trump’s charity is to read Fahrenthold’s summary of what he found while investigating it, published a few days before the election in 2016. Some examples, like using the charity to buy a portrait of himself to hang in one of his golf clubs, border on the comical; others, like getting the charity to cut a check to an org assisting Pam Bondi’s campaign for Florida AG, are far more swampy. Fahrenthold’s core finding had to do with Trump’s own charitable giving: Although he’d donated millions to charity in the past, since 2008 the Trump Foundation hadn’t received a dime from him. It had instead raked in more than $9 million from other donors, which is to say that the money coming out of the fund to pay Trump’s personal expenses wasn’t even from his own donations. It was from other people’s.