At the heart of the lawsuit to shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation for “persistent illegal conduct” is one event: the January 2016 televised fundraiser for veterans that Trump held in lieu of attending a GOP debate.
TPM re-watched the footage of the fundraiser at Des Moines’ Drake University to see if, as Trump Foundation attorney Alan Futerfas has argued, any political benefit Trump drew from the event was “intangible.”
The short answer: that’s something of a stretch.
The hour-long fundraiser had all the trappings of a Trump campaign rally, with the candidate devoting the bulk of his 30 minutes of remarks to boosting his 2016 race. Viewers are left with the distinct impression that a vote for Trump is a vote for veterans, who would benefit from his personal largesse and that of his wealthy friends.
At a hearing in a stuffy Manhattan courtroom last week, Futerfas insisted that Trump was simply raising money for a good cause—something politicians do all the time. Futerfas, who is pushing to get the suit brought by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood thrown out, accurately noted that “every penny” that the foundation took in ultimately went to deserving charities.
But those remarks didn’t tackle the meat of Underwood’s allegation: that the event amounted to an improper in-kind contribution from Trump’s foundation to his campaign, with the candidate fusing resources from both entities to boost support among conservatives in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses.
The events’ funds were raised “in a manner designed to influence the 2016 presidential election at the direction and under the control of senior leadership of the Trump presidential campaign,” Underwood alleged. Her office wants to recoup the $2.8 million the foundation raised at that event because it was the campaign, not the charity, that directed where the proceeds would go.
Let’s play back the tape.
Trump took the stage at Des Moines’ Drake University to an announcer calling him “the next president of the United States.” A banner on the podium had a link to the site to send donations, “DonaldTrumpforVets.com” along with his campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again!”
He tells the crowd that he “didn’t want to be here.” He’d prefer to be at the Fox News debate down the road but had been “treated badly” by the network. In his lengthy opening remarks, Trump took pot-shots at the “horrible” Iran nuclear deal, boasted about his poll and crowd sizes, and lamented that he was “turning down millions” so he could continue to claim he was “self-funding” his campaign.
Trump mocked “low-energy” rival Jeb Bush and floated nominating his friend and casino magnate Phil Ruffin to handle China in his future administration.
Talk of veterans focused mainly on the donations he’d managed to pull in on their behalf in the 24 hours since he’d announced the fundraiser. Many came from “very good friend[s],” including former Trump economic adviser Carl Icahn and real estate magnate Richard LeFrak. One came from himself.
“Donald Trump gave one million dollars, okay?” Trump told the crowd, to cheers.
A rotating cast of guests then join Trump on stage, including three former soldiers, then GOP-campaign rivals Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, and, for some reason, pro-Trump video bloggers Diamond and Silk.
Santorum and Huckabee offered the first sustained remarks about veterans. The former Pennsylvania senator lamented the high rates of suicide among returning soldiers, while the former Arkansas governor praised veterans for allowing us to “breathe every free breath of air we breathe.” Both men praised their opponent for inviting them to the event.
John Wayne Walding, a former Green Beret who lost his leg in Afghanistan, was up next. Though he said he was “not here for politics,” he went on to applaud the “unapologetically American” movement Trump started.
“America is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to this planet in its existence and why should I ever say I’m sorry for that?” Walding asked. “Mr. Trump, he says things that may not make you feel good but it’s the better thing for this great country.”
Walding was joined by two former military buddies including Jacob Schick, executive director of a veterans’ suicide organization, who presented Trump with a “personal honor ring.”
“We hope you wear it with pride so we can make America great again together, brother,” Schick told Trump.
Capping things off were Diamond and Silk, social media personalities with no discernible connection to the military or veterans.
Hugging the nominee, one of the sisters said, “We all know that this is not a rally, this is for our veterans, but I want you all to know that it is imperative that you get out and caucus for Donald J. Trump and vote for Donald J. Trump.”
In total, the event pulled in around $5.6 million in tax-free donations. Some $2.8 million went to the Trump Foundation, and the remainder was given directly by private donors to veterans’ charities.
Emails obtained by the attorney general’s office show that Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer and the Trump Foundation’s treasurer, flew to Iowa with a checkbook the day of the fundraiser in case money needed to be doled out. Weisselberg subsequently went to Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski to ask where the donations should be disbursed and in what amount.
Weisselberg was visible in the front row of the Des Moines event, sitting next to the three eldest Trump children, who sat on the foundation board. None of those individuals had a say in how the funds their charity received would be spent, the attorney general’s office has alleged.
Additionally, as government attorney Yael Fuchs said at last week’s hearing, the “timing and manner of distribution was also controlled and directed by the campaign for the political benefit of Mr. Trump.”
Trump held five political rallies around Iowa in the days after the fundraiser, including two on the day of the caucuses, handing out enlarged $100,000 checks from the foundation to veterans’ charities. At one of those appearances, he claimed his poll numbers had likely gone up because of the event.
Judge Saliann Scarpulla declined last week to weigh in on the merits of the attorney general’s allegations, but said that at this point in the proceedings, she had to accept them as true.