Opinion
June 03, 2016

A Toxic Brew: Trump’s Bullying, Dirty Tricks, the Media Spotlight, and Philanthropy

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP, Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to veterans and supporters after an event at the annual Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" parade ahead of Memorial Day.

For anyone interested in reconnoitering the boundaries between politics and philanthropy, this madcap presidential campaign has proved an extraordinarily fruitful season.

It’s been conducted, after all, in the shadow of the Clinton Foundation, that strange institutional beast that has put down its stakes at the intersection of those domains. And in the past few weeks, we’ve been treated to two controversies that provide exaggerated versions of starkly different attitudes about how those boundaries should be policed.

They are, in a sense, distorted fun-house mirror images of each other, featuring the walking, hustling caricatures that now populate much of the political arena. One involves efforts to treat a philanthropist like a politician; the other, to treat a politician like a philanthropist. Together, they force us to think more carefully about the relationship among politics, philanthropy, and the press.

In the May 30 issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer published a follow-up to her deep reporting on the donor network led by the libertarian Koch Brothers, David and Charles. This one opens with a narration of a masterly executed blunder.

One day this March, a program officer working on democracy promotion at the Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic network created by financier George Soros, received an unusually long voice-mail message. The speaker identified himself as Victor Kesh and claimed he was a Hungarian-American who represented another foundation that wanted to work with Open Society on democracy issues in Europe.

It turns out, though, that it wasn’t really Victor Kesh. It was James O’Keefe, the right-wing provocateur who has gained a following by orchestrating hidden-camera "sting" operations on progressive institutions. (He took down the community-organizing nonprofit Acorn with one enterprise and claimed the scalp of a former NPR chief executive through another.) We know this because after leaving the message, Mr. O’Keefe forgot to hang up the phone.

So the program officer’s answering machine recorded Mr. O’Keefe’s remarks to his minions after he assumed the call was over. The conversation that ensued made it clear that this was an opening salvo in an effort to uncover dirt on Mr. Soros’s network of progressive philanthropy. Scores of more calls, made under similarly false pretenses, would follow. Undercover operatives would be assigned. The truth would out.

Mr. O’Keefe, however, wasn’t able to realize his grand ambitions. His answering-machine misstep compromised the mission, and in May he announced he was abandoning his "ambitious undercover investigation into billionaire left-wing financier George Soros." The battle was lost; the war continued. As Chris Stone, president of Open Society, told Ms. Mayer, "You read the transcript and you can’t help but laugh. But the issues here aren’t funny."

In fact, as Ms. Mayer’s article makes clear, Mr. O’Keefe’s stunt was part of a larger campaign by right-wing organizations to subject leading progressive donors and activists to the same brass-knuckle opposition research that is now routinely directed at politicians. Environmental donors, such as hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, find themselves especially in their cross hairs.

Mr. O’Keefe has organized his efforts into a nonprofit, Project Veritas, with both 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) arms, meaning that he can accept unlimited contributions from secret donors. (And Ms. Mayer highlights the fact that he has received considerable funding from Donors Trust, a conservative-aligned donor-advised fund.)

The secret funding of conservative philanthropists of campaign-style dirt-digging into the affairs of progressive philanthropists, reported on by a progressive-leaning investigative reporter: It’s all a bit dizzying.

To make sense of it, one could argue that conservatives are simply repaying the attention that progressives (and especially Ms. Mayer) have lavished on the Koch Brothers. But this is a false analogy, since the investigations directed by Mr. O’Keefe and his allies, unlike Ms. Mayer’s, are largely funded anonymously and, conducted outside any media organization, do not follow the sorts of professional norms that govern a New Yorker profile.

One could also forgive the aggressive monitoring of philanthropists as the comeuppance meted out to donors who sought to impose their preferences on public policy. They strayed into the political realm — so they shouldn’t whine when the war instruments of the political campaign rumble onto their front lawns.

Is Opposition Research on Donors Fair Game?

This rationale has a little more weight behind it. In fact, I’ve written in the past about "the importance of criticizing philanthropy," even when it gets a bit uncomfortable for donors. And in The Chronicle, I’ve suggested that progressives who lambaste the Kochs for their political philanthropy need to think about how the principles behind those attacks would apply to progressive donors. Mr. O’Keefe justified his attempt to ensnare Mr. Soros by arguing that the influence of billionaires like him is "the most important topic undermining democracy."

You switch the names to include some supporters of the Heritage Foundation, and plenty of New Yorker readers would likely agree.

But the efforts to subject donors to the rigors of campaign-style oppo-research should give us all pause. They seem only nominally motivated by the need to hold donors accountable and more so by an effort to intimidate them — and to deter future donors from emerging. The responsible critique of philanthropy should be performed in the ultimate service of philanthropy. It needs to be animated by the belief that your opponent has as much of a right to give to a cause you disfavor as you do to give to a cause you champion.

It’s essential that political philanthropy be exercised transparently. Donors who commit to funding political causes are fair game to responsible, vigorous inquisitors. But this doesn’t mean we should erase entirely the distinction between the philanthropist as private citizen and the political candidate as public one, open to all manner of humiliations and intrusions.

Ms. Mayer’s article leaves hope that there are those who practice the dark arts of negative campaigning who appreciate this distinction: She relates that some progressive donors to American Bridge, a group that supplies opposition research to Democrats, wanted the organization to begin sending video trackers to trail the Kochs, a standard practice on the campaign trail. But its head declined, determining the practice, according to Ms. Mayer, "to be unethical."

Trump’s Benefit to Veterans Group an Afterthought

Of course, the desire to maintain those distinctions can be exploited. And here’s where the second recent controversy comes in, featuring Donald Trump.

At an event on Tuesday, Mr. Trump berated the assembled press corps for doing basic due diligence regarding the candidate’s recent philanthropic campaign. He called them an "unbelievably dishonest" group and singled out one ABC reporter as a "sleaze" for purportedly misreporting the facts.

Back in January, when Mr. Trump was in the middle of a feud with Fox News, he ditched a debate that the network was hosting and instead held a competing event to raise money for veterans organizations. During the event, he took obvious pleasure in announcing pledges from his wealthy friends, but he took even more pleasure in using the occasion to thumb his nose at his Republican rivals and at the party more generally.

And he did so before a large contingent of reporters, whom he didn’t seem to mind at the time. "This is like the Academy Awards," he declared. "We are told that we have more cameras than they do by quite a lot."

Commentators marveled at how effortlessly Mr. Trump was able to overshadow the GOP debate; the fact that veterans groups would benefit from the gambit seemed something of an afterthought.

Mr. Trump did claim at the time that the event raised $6 million for vets and that he would donate $1 million himself. Over the following months, the press began to poke: How much had really been raised and how much had actually made it into the coffers of veterans organizations?

Mr. Trump resented the questioning from the start, but it became clear that considerably less had been brought in by the event and that even less still had made it to vets groups — and that Mr. Trump’s own pledged donation had not yet been forthcoming, even though his campaign manager had claimed that the money had already been given away.

Last month, Mr. Trump’s camp reduced the amount raised to $4.5 million. Apparently some of those who had pledged funds to Mr. Trump hadn’t paid up. And more than a third of the funds collected had made it to the beneficiaries only in the previous week. The press’s prodding seems to have provoked Mr. Trump into getting the money out the door. This included his own contribution of $1.1 million to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, made days after an article in The Washington Post questioned the gift’s status.

At the press event on Tuesday, in which Mr. Trump announced the final figures ($5.6 million raised) and released a final roster of the organizations that benefited from the funds — and brandished a photocopy of his own million-dollar check — he made clear that he thought the press’s prying into his philanthropy represented a grievous slight.

"The press should be ashamed of themselves," he huffed. If it took time for him to get money out the door, it wasn’t because he was less than solicitous toward the need of vets when the cameras weren’t rolling, it was only because his camp had to screen all the several dozen organizations that received funds.

"The money’s all been sent. I wanted to keep it private. If we could, I wanted to keep it private, because I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I want to send money to the vets."

During another exchange, he insisted that he resented the press’s desire to verify the contributions (even though he had trumpeted news of them at various campaign events), because "I wanted to make this out of the goodness of my heart." It’s as if the Academy took offense that reporters would dare to inquire about who was getting the Oscar for Best Picture.

Mr. Trump claimed that he had received multiple calls from vets commiserating over his rough treatment. He clearly believed that reporters should have treated his philanthropic enterprise with more deference.

"Instead of being, like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone is saying, ‘Who got it? Who got it? Who got it?’ " (He undercut this argument a bit by insisting that the press focus instead on the wrongdoings of the Clinton Foundation.)

Philanthropy’s Entitlement to Privacy

Mr. Trump is an equal-opportunity press-basher. He doesn’t particularly care for the work of journalists no matter what feature of his campaign or his private life they cover (and no doubt appreciates that press-bashing resonates with his base). As many commentators have observed, Mr. Trump’s bullying of reporters assigned to cover him seems a rebuke to the tradition of deep respect for a free press in a democratic society.

But in this case, Mr. Trump is tapping into another tradition, one that runs deeper than politicians’ disdain for the "nattering nabobs of negativism": a belief that philanthropy is an entirely private vocation, one that should be shielded from the snooping of regulators or journalists; that it should be the concern of the giver, the beneficiary, and perhaps of some superintending deity.

It’s a tradition that has been eroded over the past century by the public’s demands for accountability and transparency from its leading philanthropists. But it’s also been revived in recent years by a renewed sense of entitlement among the very wealthy, a belief that they can intervene in public policy without bearing the encumbrance of public scrutiny — what Josh Marshall calls the "brittle grip" syndrome.

This is a dangerous attitude and one that should be soundly discredited. Public scrutiny is the price donors must pay for attempting to shape public policy.

But it’s worth asking, how do the personal donations of political candidates and politicians fit into this exchange? Does it leave no room for philanthropy and charity to be cultivated in a private sphere of individual or familial discretion? That’s a more difficult question to answer, but it’s one that the donations that filtered out of the January Trump event do not truly address, since they were conceived in the glare of the television cameras. (Whether or not the organizations that accepted the funds have a right to have the fact of that paternity remain unpublicized is another matter.)

These sorts of questions will only become more insistent in this brave new world in which we are increasingly confronted with hybrid figures who blur the indistinct lines between the public and private realms: the politician wealthy enough to be a major philanthropist, the philanthropist so enmeshed in advocacy that he or she can claim as much of a hand in shaping policy as many politicians.

Although the last few weeks have not provided any definitive answers, they have set up the parameters in which they must be addressed, clarifying the outer bounds of attitudes regarding how to scrutinize philanthropists.

And in Jane Mayer’s reporting, and in the diligent inquiries of the presidential press pack who followed the braying, buffoonish quarry that is Donald Trump into the thickets of the nonprofit world, we have evidence that the territory in between those posts is particularly fertile. It wouldn’t be surprising if the contentious scene at the press briefing this week inspired a host of others journalists to do some digging into philanthropic contributions from other high-profile citizens. So in this one respect, maybe Donald Trump has done his part to help make nonprofit journalism great again.

Benjamin Soskis is a historian of philanthropy at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University and a co-editor of the HistPhil blog.