January 27, 2016; Weekly Standard
NPQ knows a little something about veterans’ charities that aren’t very charitable. Veteran charity scams are one of the long-embedded scourges of the philanthropic world, and if you have not been following our years of coverage into the scams, we urge you to take a gander. There are hundreds of these charities that use deceptive fundraising techniques, spend generously to pay aggressive and unethical solicitation vendors, and prey on the good intentions of unsuspecting donors to net millions of dollars in donations each year. Worse yet, many scams are going on right under donors’ noses.
That’s why when we heard Donald Trump was organizing a charity event for veterans as an alternative to the GOP debate Thursday night, we were intrigued. NPQ reported last September about the dubious nature of Veterans for Strong America, the charity that hosted Trump’s event on the deck of the U.S.S. Iowa.
According to NPQ, “For the most part, the press was hoodwinked. Veterans for a Strong America isn’t a real organization, even if it might have had 501(c)(4) status at some time or is a Super PAC. It’s just one guy, a political operative named Joel Arends.” Like other scammers, the organization boasted numbers of some hundred thousand phantom members and falsely advertised itself as a charity despite the fact its tax-exempt status was revoked. It was a swing and a miss for Trump.
Given what we, and now you, know about the pervasiveness of veteran charity scams, we dug into the spending and expense history of his charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation. In particular, we questioned whether Trump’s political motives and false rhetoric about veterans truly set him apart at all from the various charity scams. Perhaps unbeknownst to his supporters and eager donors who ventured to his event last night, Donald Trump’s charity has donated virtually nothing to veterans’ charities.
Most tellingly, according to the available 990s from 2009 to 2014, of the more than $5 million the foundation has donated in gifts and grants to nearly 300 charities, only seven of those organizations were related to veterans issues. According to these documents, he has not donated to any veterans’ charities in the past three years. In total, these seven organizations have only received $57,000.
(Update: According to the Federalist, the proceeds from last night’s events are not going directly to any veteran charities, rather they will be funneled into Trump’s foundation. If true, it has yet to be seen how or whether those donations will be delivered to veterans’ charities, the delivery of which is at the discretion of the foundation.)
Trump’s minimal philanthropy has not gone unnoticed by veteran groups. “Donald Trump is not a leader in veterans’ philanthropy, unless he’s donated a lot of money that nobody knows about,” according to Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America back in July of 2015. “We were founded in New York. We are headquartered in New York. I’ve been here 10 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen Donald Trump.”
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Rieckhoff isn’t the only one who has questioned the genuineness of Trump’s dedication to veteran issues. Veterans’ groups were in arms last year after he took a shot at former vice president John McCain, famously saying McCain was “not a war hero” because he was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. McCain solemnly said at the time, “There are so many men and some women who have served and sacrificed who happened to have been held prisoner—to denigrate that service I think is offensive to most of our veterans.” Trump himself avoided the draft for the war by receiving a medical deferment.
In response to Thursday’s event, Rieckhoff further reiterated his general distrust for Trump’s tactics on Twitter.
If offered, @IAVA will decline donations from Trump’s event. We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts.
— Paul (PJ) Rieckhoff (@PaulRieckhoff) January 27, 2016
Yet, this event is no anomaly: This isn’t the first time Trump seems to have exploited veteran issues to benefit his public image. At the end of last year, he asked CNN to pay him $5 million to come on their debate, which he planned to donate to the Wounded Warriors Project. Heroically, he said, “I won’t do the debate unless they pay me $5 million, all of which money goes to the Wounded Warriors or goes to vets.” Trump did eventually participate in the debate, but to the public’s knowledge, nothing was ever donated to Wounded Warriors.
Given his questionable history with veterans’ issues and charities, Trump’s philanthropic promises seem more and more hollow the longer the media (admittedly, NPQ included) allows him to occupy space. While he may not be operating a charity scam or knowingly violating IRS rules to launder donors’ money, is he any better, with his exploitative statements and rhetoric about veterans? For whatever it’s worth, Trump’s stunts help further spotlight the issue of people and organizations illegally misusing veteran issues to solicit donations.
Two veterans’ charities Trump has aligned himself with have been accused or investigated of misusing donations. While there are undoubtedly honest and hardworking members of the sector operating charities that genuinely help veterans, the pervasiveness of the scams illustrate this is an issue that deserves constant and continual state and federal vigilance.—Shafaq Hasan