WASHINGTON – The whole thing began with Donald Trump portraying himself as a philanthropist and promising to donate proceeds to charity. But the promised charitable contributions weren’t made.
The veterans fundraiser? Well, yes. But it turns out Trump did much the same thing with another of his undertakings in the news: Trump University.
In the case of the fundraiser, Trump claimed at the event in January – and for days after – that he had raised $6 million for veterans’ charities, including $1 million that he “gave.” But The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold discovered that he hadn’t forked over that $1 million, or much of the other money raised, until Fahrenthold began making inquiries on May 21. That earned Fahrenthold the Trump moniker “Nasty Guy.”
Nasty Guy’s reporting brought to mind a passage in a November article in Time magazine by Steven Brill.
“The records indicate,” Brill wrote, “… that Trump University collected approximately $40 million from its students – who included veterans, retired police officers and teachers – and that Trump personally received approximately $5 million of it, despite his claim, repeated in our interview, that he started Trump University as a charitable venture.”
A sales pitch by Trump University “lecturer” James Harris, distributed by Trump University executives, said Trump “only wants to leave a legacy.”
Brill continued: “Trump, too, told me that ‘all money that I made was going to go to charity.’ His marketing mailings similarly promised that he was launching the program as a way of ‘leaving a legacy.’ … Trump explained that to me by saying that he had planned to make the charitable donations from his personal accounts, but that because the university had had to shut down and was still paying legal expenses, those donations ‘never happened.’ According to Trump lawyer Alan Garten, Trump returned the money to the university from his personal funds once the legal troubles started.”
Trump portrayed himself as an altruist when he rolled out Trump University in 2005, saying it was about his “legacy as an educator” and “access for all” and his desire to “set an example for others to follow.” A legal complaint against him in New York charges that Trump University claimed it was “solely for philanthropic purposes” and that speakers said students’ payments would not go to Trump.
It will be up to the courts to decide whether Trump University was fraudulent, but the failure to make good on the philanthropic claims of Trump University is, at the very least, unseemly. The documents in the fraud case against Trump, released in response to the Post’s request, make the whole enterprise look tawdry.
“In today’s down market I’m telling people to buy, buy, buy,” Trump wrote in his letter to would-be “students” after the 2008 crash. “I think this is one of the most lucrative investment opportunities ever. Banks are selling foreclosed properties at pennies on the dollar.”
Trump was essentially teaching his pupils how to be vultures, profiting from the economic crash at a time when much of the national effort was devoted to limiting foreclosures. “We’ll help you by teaching you how to profit from the $700 billion bailout that has opened the door for unprecedented investment opportunities,” the sales material said.
Michael Sexton, Trump University’s president, wrote that foreclosures are “troubling for homeowners but a potential fire sale for real estate investors. Perhaps more importantly than teaching you how to profit from this foreclosure market, we show you how you can actually help the homeowner avoid potentially crippling credit problems. You can do something that will not only help your own financial future, but will also help a family in crisis.” By taking away their home? Best of all, Trump’s students would learn how to risk “Other People’s Money,” or “OPM.” “Our goal is to teach you how to acquire property using creative financing with little to no money down, also known as OPM,” the sales material said, suggesting students “use established lines of credit, like a credit card, utilizing the bank’s money, OPM, to handle their tuition.”
So, students, to review: Trump University encouraged people to run up high-interest credit card debt to learn how to profit from the financial collapse by borrowing more money to “help a family in crisis” by taking away their foreclosed homes. And all this was a public service by Trump, who pledged to give his proceeds to charity but never did – and who now is calling the U.S.-born federal judge presiding over his fraud case a “Mexican.”
By comparison, the veterans who waited four months to receive Trump’s largesse did relatively well.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.