Candidate Charities Feature Prominently but Not Well in Final Presidential Debate

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October 19, 2016; Washington Post

In the third and final presidential debate, the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, brought up the subject of the Clinton Foundation and allegations of ongoing contact between State Department personnel and Clinton Foundation staff, resulting in preferential treatment for foundation donors. NPQ recently featured its own analysis, “Clinton and Trump: A Tale of Two Foundations.” Questions and statements about the candidates’ foundations kicked off a series of evasions and misstatements by both Clinton and Trump.

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, during your 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, you promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with your dealing with the Clinton Foundation while you were secretary of state, but e-mails show that donors got special access to you. Those seeking grants for Haiti relief were considered separately from non-donors, and some of those donors got contracts, government contracts, taxpayer money.

Can you really say that you kept your pledge to that Senate committee? And why isn’t what happened and what went on between you and the Clinton Foundation, why isn’t it what Mr. Trump calls pay to play?

Clinton began by saying, “Well, everything I did as Secretary of State was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values. The State Department has said that. I think that’s been proven.” She then asserted that “We at the Clinton Foundation spend 90 percent—90 percent of all the money that is donated on behalf of programs of people around the world and in our own country.”

As noted in NPQ’s recent feature story about the two candidates’ foundations, according to the Form 990 filed by the Clinton Foundation, the foundation spent $91,281,145, of which 79.48 percent was reported as program service expenses. However, the separate, yet related Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) reported spending $138,346,274, of which 93.13 percent was itemized as program service expenses. When the expenses for the two nonprofit organizations are combined, 87.71 percent of expenditures are for program service expenses. This number does track very closely with the claim made by Clinton during the debate. Clinton didn’t address the issue of conflicts of interest, “pay to play,” or donations to the foundation and its related entities from foreign governments.

Both Clinton and moderator Wallace brought up the Trump Foundation and its problems. Clinton said, “And I’d be happy to compare what we do with the Trump Foundation, which took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald. I mean, who does that? It just was astonishing.” NPQ mentioned this painting in a nonprofit newswire involving another painting of Trump, purchased at a charity auction with foundation funds and found “in storage” hanging on the wall of a bar at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

TRUMP: I’d like to mention one thing. Trump Foundation, small foundation. People contribute, I contribute. The money goes 100 percent—100 percent goes to different charities, including a lot of military. I don’t get anything. I don’t buy boats. I don’t buy planes. What happens—the money goes to them.

WALLACE: Wasn’t some of the money used to settle your lawsuits, sir?

TRUMP: No, it was—we put up the American flag. And that’s it. They put up the American flag. We fought for the right in Palm Beach to put up the American flag.

WALLACE: Right. But there was a penalty that was imposed by Palm Beach County, and the money came from your foundation…

TRUMP: There was. There was. And, by the way…

WALLACE: …instead of Mar-a-Lago or yourself, sir.

TRUMP: …the money—the money went to Fisher House, where they build houses—the money that you’re talking about went to Fisher House, where they build houses for veterans and disabled vets.

NPQ has reported on the $100,000 settlement of the lawsuit against Trump and his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort paid using Foundation funds. Trump evaded Wallace’s question about whether the payment was appropriate (or even legal) by bringing up Fisher House, as though the invoking of a respected charity answered all questions in his favor. Wallace could also have asked about another legal settlement involving Trump, where $158,000 was sent from the Trump Foundation to a plaintiff’s foundation to end a lawsuit against Trump—not the Trump Foundation. We should also note that Trump did not give to his own foundation from 2009 until at least 2014, and possibly not until earlier this year, when he contributed about $1.1 million of more than $5 million distributed to 41 veterans charities.

Trump turned to the issue of the Clinton Foundation’s role in Haitian relief efforts in the wake of the 2010 earthquake disaster. “And you take a look at the people of Haiti. I was at a Little Haiti the other day in Florida. And I want to tell you, they hate the Clintons, because what’s happened in Haiti with the Clinton Foundation is a disgrace. And you know it, and they know it, and everybody knows it,” said Trump.

Clinton defended the foundation’s efforts.

CLINTON: But when it comes to Haiti, Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. The earthquake and the hurricanes, it has devastated Haiti. Bill and I have been involved in trying to help Haiti for many years. The Clinton Foundation raised $30 million to help Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake and all of the terrible problems the people there had.

We have done things to help small businesses, agriculture, and so much else. And we’re going to keep working to help Haiti…

WALLACE: All right.

CLINTON: …because it’s an important part of the American experience.

Much has been written about the ineffectiveness of Haitian earthquake relief, especially as a result of an investigation by ProPublica and NPR of $500 million in Red Cross spending with meager results. However, the most embarrassing indictment of disaster relief efforts in Haiti comes from Chelsea Clinton. In a February 2010 e-mail released by the State Department in 2015, Chelsea Clinton talks about her inspection trip to Haiti. She wrote:

The incompetence is mind numbing. The UN people I encountered were frequently out of touch…anachronistic in their thinking at best and arrogant and incompetent at worst…There is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system.

As reported in Politico, Chelsea’s proposed solution—giving greater power to Bill Clinton as UN Special Envoy for Haiti and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission—unfortunately not only failed to improve the situation, it may have made it worse.

The irony is that, after pages of scathing analysis about the failure of international responders to understand and respect ordinary people in Haiti, Chelsea Clinton’s plan would have created an even more powerful foreigner operating at an even greater remove.

To be generous, political campaigns—and especially presidential debates—are not easy places to make a case for one’s charity, or most other issues. However, last night’s debate performance by Clinton and Trump did them, and their charities, no favors. It reconfirms cynical public impressions of rich people using charity as a tool or a plaything to polish their reputations, advance their careers, and avoid taxes. And that’s bad news for the rest of the nonprofit sector.—Michael Wyland

  • Tom Hosmanek

    It’s great to see a discussion of this without a political slant, which has been all too prevalent in “analyses” by some nonprofit websites, including IMHO this one at times. The last paragraph says it all, and it’s food for thought – should political figures, present or past, be allowed to monetize their connections gained at taxpayer expense and then use them for opaque or not so opaque purposes. It degrades, and injects a bit of danger to, the valuable structure and role of nonprofits in our country.