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Examining The History Of The Trump Foundation After Trump Pledges To Dissolve It


In a statement yesterday, Donald Trump said he plans on dissolving his namesake charitable foundation. But that plan was quickly called into question by the New York Attorney General's Office, which said in a tweet that the foundation cannot be dissolved until the AG's investigation into it is completed. That tweet was sent to Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold who joins us now from Aruba.

David, thanks for joining us on Christmas Day.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Hey, no problem.

AUBREY: So you've been looking into the foundation for quite some time. For people who haven't, give us a sense of what this foundation is all about and why it's causing the president-elect so many headaches.

FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has been around since the late '80s, which is sort of a foundation that's set up to give Trump's money away. But it's actually not that at all. For many of the recent years, between 2009 and 2015, it didn't actually get any money from Trump at all. Instead, he gave away other people's money to the people who thought they were getting Trump's money.

AUBREY: So take us to yesterday. What's the news, and why is it significant?

FAHRENTHOLD: Well, what happened yesterday was that Trump said, according to The New York Times - they reported it originally - that he was going to shut down this foundation. It's significant in that it's showing him, in a very small way, trying to get rid of some of the conflicts of interests and conduits for influence peddling which surround him. So he said he's shutting it down, but he can't actually shut it down, at least in a legal sense, because it's still under investigation by the New York attorney general.

There are a number of things that the Trump Foundation needs to provide. One is it's currently been shut down for fundraising. It can't raise any money, so they're going to have to supply audits of past years, basically to tell New York AG - did they violate the law by spending money on things that benefited Trump himself? And also, they've said - without giving details - that in past years, they've violated these laws against what's called self-dealing, you know, buying things that benefit Trump or his businesses. So that has to happen, at least, before the investigation can end.

AUBREY: And you've reported on some of these instances of self-dealing, instances in which Trump appeared to use the Trump Foundation's money to buy items for himself or to help one of his businesses. You mentioned the portraits. What are a few other examples?

FAHRENTHOLD: Well, the portraits are two big examples. There was one he bought for $20,000, one he bought for $10,000. He also bought a Tim Tebow signed football helmet for $12,000 that we don't know where that is. But it belongs to Trump. These things - if the foundation buys them, he has to use them for a charitable purpose. So we're trying to think of - what could be a charitable purpose for a giant picture of himself or a Tim Tebow helmet? The big-ticket items, ones that really stand out, are these two payments, one for $100,000, one for $158,000 where, basically, his clubs had gotten into legal trouble. And as a condition of settling their lawsuits, the business has said - OK, I'm going to donate money to a particular charity. Is what Trump did was take the money out of his charity, the Trump Foundation, and use it to pay off those obligations that his businesses had incurred?

AUBREY: Right. And you've mentioned that this is problematic because the money his foundation is using is not coming from him. It's coming from other people, other donations.

FAHRENTHOLD: Right. And also, once money goes into a charity, it is tax exempt, so that's a benefit you get. And in return, you have to use the assets of the charity to serve the public good. So if Trump is using this money basically to save his businesses, the money isn't helping people. That's a violation of the letter and the spirit of law.

AUBREY: What should we be watching for going forward? Are there other legal issues that might pop up?

FAHRENTHOLD: Well, with the foundation specifically, we should be watching the New York attorney general to see what they find and what sort of penalties they impose. The other thing will be, all of Trump's businesses - his hotel businesses, his buildings overseas - those things are far more complicated. And they are potentially far more problematic for him when he becomes president.

AUBREY: David Fahrenthold is a reporter for The Washington Post. He was kind enough to join us from Aruba on this Christmas Day. I wish I were there.

David, thanks so much for joining us.

FAHRENTHOLD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.