For a public figure interested in dropping a piece of news with little to no scrutiny or pushback, there are few opportunities better than a Christmas holiday weekend after an election. Reporters are checked out for the holidays and desperate for a few days to unplug after an insufferably long campaign season. Much of the rest of the country is in the same frame of mind. Nobody wants to read the news.
So it’s not entirely surprising that President-elect Donald Trump waited until Christmas Eve to announce that he intends to shutter the Donald Trump Foundation, his unorthodox charity that has faced persistent allegations of corruption and self-dealing. But Trump put the best possible face on this decision, claiming that he wants to close the foundation to head off any potential conflicts of interest. “To avoid even the appearance of any conflict with my role as President,” Trump said in a statement, “I have decided to continue to pursue my strong interest in philanthropy in other ways.”
As my colleague Matthew Rozsa notes, closing the charity won’t be so simple, given that the foundation is still under investigation by the New York attorney general’s office and can’t be dissolved until that inquiry wraps up. But let’s take a step back and grapple with the broader argument Trump is making: As the incoming president, he has to close his charity to head off the appearance of conflicts. For anyone else, this would be a prudent measure and a show of commitment to ethical governing principles. For Trump, however, it’s just another lie.
It’s not actually possible for Trump to “avoid even the appearance of any conflict” with the Trump Foundation, because those conflicts already exist. One of the largest donors to the Trump Foundation over the past few years has been WWE co-founder Linda McMahon, who (along with her husband Vince) directed several million dollars to the charity. McMahon was recently tapped by Trump to be the next head of the Small Business Administration. In 2013, the Trump Foundation sent an illegal donation to a political group connected to Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who at the time was weighing the possibility of suing Trump over his Trump University scam. Bondi secured a position on the Trump transition team shortly after the election.
Those are conflicts. They’re pretty flagrant, and they exist because Donald Trump cultivates such conflicts as a way of enriching himself. Shutting down the foundation now doesn’t undo those conflicts, but it does give the (completely unjustified) impression that the president-elect actually gives a damn about ethics in governance.
As is so often the case, Trump longs to be viewed as the hero in this situation. It’s not enough for him just to try and shut the foundation down quietly. He has to argue, against all the available evidence, that the Trump Foundation was one of the world’s great philanthropies and not an elaborate slush fund.
Here’s what Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning:
Well, there’s charity, and then there’s what the Trump Foundation does: It abuses its nonprofit status to benefit Donald Trump. We know this because the Trump Foundation keeps getting busted for its shady practices. That donation to the Bondi-related group, for example, resulted in Trump paying a $2,500 fine to the IRS. The Trump Foundation has used funds to purchase items for Trump and his businesses, and it has acknowledged violating the ban on self-dealing in its tax filings. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Trump Foundation money have been used to settle Trump’s legal problems. So yes, Trump’s nonprofit has directed money towards legitimate charity organizations, but all too often those acts of giving were intended to redound to Trump’s personal benefit. He got to play the philanthropist while skimming off a little something for himself.
That is the legacy of the Trump Foundation: Its founder took advantage of irregularly enforced nonprofit rules to spend other people’s money on projects that benefited himself. The foundation should close down, but not before the relevant regulatory bodies have had sufficient time to pore over its dodgy finances and scummy practices. When the Trump Foundation does eventually meet its end, it will be critical to keep in mind that Donald Trump consciously cultivated precisely the sorts of conflicts he now claims he wants to avoid.