Donald Trump had a problem, and Pam Bondi could fix it.
Trump was under legal scrutiny for the so-called Trump University, a series of real-estate seminars that former students have charged was a scam. Bondi, the attorney general of Florida, was deciding whether or not to pursue a fraud investigation into Trump U. Meanwhile, Bondi, a Republican, personally solicited Trump for a donation to an organization backing her reelection.
It was just the situation Trump had described when he explained his past donations to politicians.
“As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in July 2015. “As a businessman, I need that.”
What Trump needed was for Bondi to quash an investigation into Trump University. On September 17, 2013, the pro-Bondi group, And Justice for All, received a $25,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Four days later, Bondi announced that the state of Florida wouldn’t pursue a legal case about Trump University or the Trump Institute, a similar but separate scheme. The donation was revealed by the Associated Press in June, but it’s under fresh scrutiny because the Trump Foundation’s gift was illegal, leading to a $2,500 fine paid to the IRS earlier this year, as The Washington Post reported last week.
Bondi and Trump both insist that the donation had no connection with the decision not to pursue the case against Trump, and there’s no definitive proof otherwise. There is, however, the strange timing, and Trump’s past statements, in which he assured audiences that, yes, the game was rigged; yes, politicians could be bought; yes, he had done the buying; and yes, he was the only one who could fix it, since he was honest about how the game worked.
Asked about his Journal comments during the August 6, 2015, Republican primary debate in Cleveland, for example, Trump said, “You’d better believe it. If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I've given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.”
He went on to defend his donations to Hillary Clinton specifically—and to the Clinton Foundation, which he has recently taken to bashing. “With Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why?” he asked. “She didn't have a choice because I gave. I gave to a foundation that, frankly, that foundation is supposed to do good. I didn't know her money would be used on private jets going all over the world. It was.”
In January, Trump said, “When I want something I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass. It's true.”
Now, he insists that isn’t true—or, at least, isn’t true in a case that looks a lot like what he described. Even though a Bondi consultant confirmed that she had spoken to Trump about a donation, Trump says he did not. “Never spoke to her about that at all,” Trump told reporters during a gaggle on Monday. Bondi later endorsed Trump and spoke at the Republican National Convention this July.
In a way, it’s a he-said, she-said story—Trump says he never spoke to Bondi about the donation, her representative says he did. But more importantly, it’s a he-said, he-said story: Trump said he could buy politicians off, and now he claims that isn’t true. Which is it?
Similar allegations have been made involving Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who was previously state attorney general, though that story is a little less direct than the Bondi one. In 2010, Texas started looking into Trump University and Trump Institute. A high-ranking state lawyer alleged that the state’s consumer protection division wanted to bring a lawsuit but was overruled by the attorney general’s office.
“The decision not to sue him was political,” John Owens, the deputy director of the consumer protection division, told The Dallas Morning News.“Had [Trump] not been involved in politics to the extent he was at the time, we would have gotten approval. Had he been just some other scam artist, we would have sued him.”
Abbott has denied the decision not to proceed was driven by politics. In any case, Trump later gave $35,000 to Abbott’s campaign for governor—but that was three years later—rather than a few days before, as in the Bondi case.
Trump has been criticizing the Clinton Foundation on a roughly daily basis for the last few weeks, finding in it an issue that strikes at Clinton’s core weakness with voters—questions about honesty—and one that engrosses the press and produces fresh information. But the danger is that Trump has also attracted fresh scrutiny for his own foundation. While there are unsightly suggestions of quid-pro-quos and crossover between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department, there’s actual proof of wrongdoing with the Trump Foundation.
Even as Trump assails the Clinton Foundation as a waste of money and a source of misdeeds, his own foundation has emerged as a husk of a real charity, and it had to pay a penalty earlier this year for breaking rules related to giving. Even if Trump’s donation to Bondi’s And Justice for All was not part of a “bribe” as critics allege, the Trump Foundation was legally barred from giving political donations because it is a nonprofit. The Post implies that Trump may have intended to give from his personal accounts rather than through his foundation. However, the Trump Foundation also erred in its filings, asserting that it donated to the Kansas-based Justice for All. That could have been an honest clerical error, but it effectively hid the donation to Bondi’s group in plain sight.
Eventually, a liberal watchdog group filed a complaint and Trump had to pay the $2,500 penalty. But federal law also requires the Trump Foundation to recover the money, and the treasurer of And Justice for All says her attempts to return the money have been rebuffed.
These revelations are the fruits of the Herculean labors performed by Post reporter David Fahrenthold during the course of the last few months. (The most specific metaphor is probably the Augean Stables.)
Farenthold has found that while Trump often talks about giving to charity, the Trump Foundation has in fact spent barely any of its namesake’s own cash. Most of its coffers come from other people’s gifts. On Celebrity Apprentice, Trump promised personal payments to charities of contestants’ choices, but the donations actually came from the Trump Foundation. In fact, NBC, which aired the show, made a major contribution to the foundation—more than enough, in fact, to cover the “gifts” Trump made on the air. On the charity front, Trump seems to have concluded that appearing to give to charity is more important than the actual act of giving to charity.
In politics, however, actually receiving the check matters. Is Trump a skilled veteran at buying off politicians when he needs favors? You’ll have to decide whether you believe Donald Trump or Donald Trump, and one of them isn’t telling it like it is.