Another day and another flamboyant claim from Donald Trump that turns out to be not what it seems.
In this case, it’s Trump often-told brag that he’s donated more than $100 million to charity in the last five years. It’s a boast that plays into his preferred image of a business tycoon who’s still looking out for the little guy. His campaign even compiled a list of nearly 5,000 contributions as supposed proof of his selflessness.
But according to the Washington Post, there’s no record of Trump donating any of his own money to charity in the last five years.
“Not a single one of those donations was actually a personal gift of Trump’s own money,” the Post reported. “Many of the gifts that Trump cited to prove his generosity were free rounds of golf, given away by his courses for charity auctions and raffles.”
Specifically, Trump listed nearly 3,000 rounds of golf as charitable gifts, even though some of the golf passes were given to his business clients and wealthy celebrities. As the Post explained, the donations list “reveals how Trump has demonstrated less of the soaring, world-changing ambitions in his philanthropy than many other billionaires. Instead, his giving appears narrowly tied to his business and, now, his political interests.”
The Post story caused some media waves for a news cycle or two this week. But the press attention seems to have faded rather quickly, as have so many instances of Trump prevarications. For instance, the Post donation story broke on April 11. The next night CNN hosted a 60-minute town hall with Trump, but no questions were raised about the Post story and the candidate’s debunked claims of charitable giving. (That, despite Trump volunteering on CNN that he donates his earnings from paid speeches “to charities.”)
So yes, the Washington Post deserves credit for doing a deep dive into Trump’s finances (with some help from the Associated Press); for effectively debunking a rather outrageous Trump tale about his supposed generosity.
But let’s not pretend the coverage this week approached scandal-like attention and commentary. And let’s not pretend there’s any indication the Trump charity story has legs and will be revisited time and again in coming months as a template to raise doubts about the candidate’s character.
To date, that kind of charitable second-guessing has been reserved only for the Hillary Clinton charity story; the one where she has helped raise nearly $2 billion to aid poor people around the globe via the Clinton Foundation.
Talk about Bizarre World: Trump refuses to make personal donations to charities while Clinton helps bankroll a wildly successful charity, but she’s the one who’s been x-rayed by the press for the last year on the topic.
Have you forgotten the Beltway media’s Clinton Foundation witch-hunt from last year? Last May, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins published Clinton Cash by longtime Republican partisan Peter Schweizer. A sloppy, book-length attack on Clinton Foundation donors, the book tried (and failed) to show how foundation donations corrupted Clinton's decisions during her time as secretary of state; how the foundation acted as a side door for millionaires to buy influence inside the Clinton camp. Media Matters at the time documented more than twenty errors and distortions in the book.
Why? The Clinton Foundation in 2015 represented a major news story inside the Beltway because there might be something unethical going on. (To this day journalists still raise the specter of widespread corruption.) Yet one year and hundreds of news reports later, conservatives and the various mainstream outlets chasing the story still haven’t been able to prove that the foundation is some sort of “conflict of interest” slush fund that pocketed most of the donations.
“There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor,” former New York Times editor Jill Abramson recently concluded, as she pushed back on the media’s conventional wisdom about Clinton being untrustworthy.
As Vox's Jonathan Allen pointed out last year while detailing the press corps' "unspoken rules" to covering Hillary, "the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise." That explains why the media’s foundation feeding frenzy was rooted in the newsroom assumption that the Clintons are always hiding something, that they’re not truthful, and cannot be trusted.
In lots of those news accounts, the fact that the Clinton Foundation is a charity was often downplayed, including that the organization helps AIDS/HIV suffers around the world get cheaper, better medicine. Or that the foundation battles global health, economic inequality, childhood obesity, and climate change. (Still, it’s described as a “so-called charitable enterprise” by some journalists fixated on taking down the Clintons.)
Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine what the hysterical Beltway press reaction would look and sound like if the Washington Post discovered millionaires Bill and Hillary Clinton hadn’t donated one dollar out of their own pockets to charity in recent years, and especially if the Post debunked lofty Clinton claims to the contrary.
It’s true that this Clinton/Trump comparison is slightly apples-to-oranges since the news about Trump charities revolves around his giving of funds (or lack thereof), and Clinton’s charity news centers on her raising of funds.
So what about her giving? According to their 2014 tax returns, the most recent one available, Hillary and Bill Clinton gave $3 million to charities, which represents $3 million more than Trump has given in the last five years, according to the Washington Post’s reporting.
But even when it comes to giving, the press has at times tried to spin the Clinton’s deep-pocketed generosity as something nefarious. The suspicion surrounding their 2014 donation? $1.8 million of their giving was “channeled” to the Clinton Foundation.
The charity coverage nearly perfectly captures how the press deals with Trump and Clinton: Trump’s stunning embarrassment is noted but not obsessed over, while Clinton’s charitable success is deemed to be scandalous.