Our view: The bogus Trump Foundation voluntarily folds its tent after years of cheating the tax man, but will the participants be held accountable?
On the same day that former Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa was pleading guilty in federal court to failing to file income tax returns for three years and falsely claiming deductions he wasn’t due, New York’s attorney general revealed that the Donald J. Trump Foundation will be shutting down and a judge will be asked to ban the sitting U.S. president and other members of his family from serving on the boards of other nonprofits in New York. In other words, when certain public servants fail to pay the taxes they owe, they face three years in prison, as Mr. De Sousa now does, while others just have to keep away from local food bank or Catholic Charities board meetings.
If anything, Tuesday’s display of unequal justice was almost too poetical to be believed. This was the same day, after all, when President Trump was bragging about how the criminal justice reform bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate — a measure aimed at correcting the excessive prison sentences often handed to poor and minority defendants by reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal offenses — was a great bipartisan victory for the nation. “Criminal justice reform is about giving more Americans a chance at redemption,” he tweeted, “The House looks forward to sending it to the president to become law.”
Confused? You have a right to be. What Mr. De Sousa did was undeniably wrong, and what came out in court Tuesday made it appear all the worse. He persistently claimed deductions he wasn’t due including — somewhat mind-blowingly — mortgage interest deductions when he neither owned property nor held a mortgage. He deserves to face the consequences for his actions. Yet by other measures, Mr. De Sousa’s offenses were nickel and dime stuff compared to the Trump Foundation’s, adding up to less than $70,000 in unpaid taxes, or roughly one-third of his $210,000 annual salary before he stepped down as police commissioner in May after only a few months in office.
Now compare that to what New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood is discovering (along with The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose reporting on this subject has been particularly noteworthy) about what went on at the Trump Foundation, for which she is seeking $2.8 million in restitution (or 40 times the De Sousa tax bill). Foundation money was allegedly used to pay legal settlements for the Trump family’s business, to buy art for his clubs and to support his own political rallies. How much of a front was the foundation? It hadn’t held a board meeting since 1999, and officers like sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump along with daughter Ivanka Trump had never actually participated in any foundation board meeting — ever.
Dissolving the foundation doesn’t halt the investigation, of course, and there may yet be more serious consequences for the Trump family. But, at minimum, the participants in this fraudulent scheme should be ashamed. Here’s a good measure: When your phony baloney accounting values the foundation’s remaining assets — a Tim Tebow signed Broncos helmet and two Donald Trump portraits — at a combined $975 but the charity purchased them for $42,000, there’s some serious duplicity going on. Oh, and let’s not forget the $7 foundation check given the the Boy Scouts of America that appears to have covered the cost of enrollment for a then-11-year-old Donald Jr. in 1989.
Mr. Trump’s supporters may laugh all that off. They might even have the gall to label it all standard tax avoidance when, in reality, it’s the kind of thing that gives charitable foundations a bad name (and may well make fundraising all the more difficult for the worthiest of causes). The president has already called the investigation politically motivated, tweeting on Wednesday that he can “never be treated fairly” by the attorney general or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But the lesson here is not just about whether the Trump Foundation was bogus or not, it’s also about this very public lesson about who pays taxes and who goes to jail when they aren’t paid.
The lesson is this: Lie to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on a civil servant’s wage and face jail time; hide $264,231 to restore a fountain in front of the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel in New York and disguise it as a donation to the Central Park Conservancy, and you can continue to serve in the highest office in the land.