This is the same foundation that’s being investigated by the pro-Hillary Democratic attorney general of New York for having engaged in fundraising despite not being properly registered to do so under the law. If you think that’s why Trump is dissolving the charity, to try to end that investigation by rendering it moot, think again: The charity can’t dissolve legally until the investigation is finished, at least according to the AG himself.
So if he’s not trying to nuke the investigation, why dissolve the foundation? Per Trump’s statement, he’s concerned about the mere appearance of impropriety, an unusual pang of ethical concern from a man who’s about to turn the family business over to his sons rather than to independent trustees as he assumes the presidency:
“The Foundation has done enormous good works over the years in contributing millions of dollars to countless worthy groups, including supporting veterans, law enforcement officers and children,” Trump’s statement indicated. “However, to avoid even the appearance of any conflict with my role as President, I have decided to continue to pursue my strong interest in philanthropy in other ways…
Trump’s statement continued: “I am very proud of the money that has been raised for many organizations in need, and I am also very proud of the fact that the Foundation has operated at essentially no cost for decades, with 100% of the money going to charity, but because I will be devoting so much time and energy to the Presidency and solving the many problems facing our country and the world, I don’t want to allow good work to be associated with a possible conflict of interest.”
He made that announcement over the weekend, a few days after he complained on Twitter about the scrutiny being given to his son’s charity:
My wonderful son, Eric, will no longer be allowed to raise money for children with cancer because of a possible conflict of interest with…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2016
my presidency. Isn't this a ridiculous shame? He loves these kids, has raised millions of dollars for them, and now must stop. Wrong answer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2016
If Eric’s charity is ethically problematic, Trump’s own charity must be ethically problematic too, right? Well … not necessarily. The hitch with Eric’s charity is that it’s designed to raise funds from the general public, not just from the Trump family. Remember that auction event involving coffee with Ivanka that got shut down a few weeks ago when the media started paying attention to it? That was for Eric’s group. The ethical concern with a politically-connected charity that depends on the public for most of its money is that it can be exploited to buy access to the family that runs it. If you’ve ever heard the words “Clinton Foundation,” you know how it works. A rich donor kicks in half a million dollars (or much more in the Clinton Foundation’s case) and the grateful family agrees to meet with them to say thanks. And if, perchance, the topic of government contracts should come up at the meeting or some other matter related to U.S. policy in which the donor has a financial interest, well, the least the family can do to say thanks to such a generous benefactor is to politely hear them out. The charity could become a conduit for government influence peddling.
But … what if the charity doesn’t raise funds from the public? What if it’s just a family foundation, like many thousands of rich Americans have? That’s how Trump’s foundation was set up, with Trump himself as the sole donor. (That’s also how it was registered in New York, which is why its later fundraising activities are being investigated. Family foundations aren’t supposed to fundraise.) If it were to continue that way, with only Trump and his kids donating to it, there’d be no serious ethical concerns in keeping it going. Because the foundation would be receiving no funds from the public, there’d be no risk of any special interests sending gifts to the charity to buy influence with the First Family. For an extra layer of ethical protection, the family could appoint an independent trustee to decide which charities should receive funds from the foundation. Independent trustees wouldn’t so easy to come by in the case of a “blind trust” created to hold Trump’s business assets, as there are many different kinds of assets and the process of divesting would be long and complicated. Relatively few people would be qualified to serve in that role. In the case of a small charitable trust like Trump’s, though (with barely more than a million dollars in assets as of the end of last year), virtually anyone could serve as independent trustee. All the Trumps would need to do is cut a check to the foundation from time to time and let the trustee handle the rest. No ethical problem.
All of which is to say, why shut the foundation down? Just restore it to its original role, as a middleman for the family itself to give to charity, and your dilemma is solved. One possible answer is, quite simply, that he doesn’t give much to charity and therefore doesn’t need the foundation anymore. The last donation he made to the Trump Foundation, according to its public records, was in 2008. That may be one of the reasons it turned to public fundraising, in fact — Trump wanted it funded and wasn’t willing to do it himself, so the foundation started accepting checks from outside the family. He may want it dissolved now precisely because he knows the media will be checking each year going forward to see how much he’s donated to it, and the answer “zero” will be politically embarrassing. Better to just get rid of it. But there may be a deeper reason to shut it down: It’s a way to sour the public on the idea of policing Trump’s conflicts of interest. “Why, just look what these vicious media liberals have done now — they’ve forced the president-elect to shut down a perfectly good charity, all because of their paranoia about influence peddling. How many children will starve next year because the Trump Foundation isn’t there to feed them?” Put that idea in people’s heads, that the media is not only overreacting to ethical concerns about Trump but actually hurting people by doing it, and they’ll be more receptive next month when Trump announces his plans on how to handle the much, much, much greater potential conflicts that surround his businesses.
In fact, he’ll probably point back to this when (if?) he eventually holds that press conference explaining his plans. “I’ve already made a good-faith effort to reduce the conflicts of interest I have by shutting down the Trump Foundation,” he can say. “What more do you want?” Meh. It really is a shame, though, that Eric Trump has to step back as chief fundraiser for his own charity, as he’s raised big bucks for it over the years and they’ve put it to good use, donating more than $6 million to St. Jude’s Hospital in a six-year span. According to Eric himself, he’s raised more than $15 million for the hospital in total since he was 21. Hopefully some other (politically unconnected) big name will read about his dilemma and step in to try to fill the void in his absence.