Trump Promised Millions To Charity, But Gave Little To His Own Foundation

Donald Trump loves to say he'll give the proceeds away for a product or a speech. A BuzzFeed News review of 27 years of tax records for Trump's personal foundation revealed donations of far less to that entity, and some contradicted claims.

“I don't think I'm greedy,” Donald Trump told Playboy in 1990. “If I were, I wouldn't give to charities.”

That same year, Trump would begin licensing his name for products — and the Wall Street Journal reported, he would donate the money to charity. Not only that, the Los Angeles Times wrote, Trump emphasized he would give the proceeds from his new book, Surviving at the Top, to charity (though he later told USA Today he might keep the money).

“I give millions for charity each year,” he told Playboy.

At the time, his empire was collapsing: The diminished mogul was fighting for his financial survival. And despite his grandiose promises, Trump gave just $135,000 to his namesake foundation that year.

The dynamic has been a pattern over the years. In the media, Trump makes lofty claims that he will give the proceeds of a project to charity, only to give far less to his personal foundation.

When he founded the Donald J. Trump Foundation in 1988, the mogul gave half a million dollars, and donated another million the next year. But throughout much of the 1990s, Trump contributed little to his foundation. And despite his vaunted personal wealth allegedly totaling in the billions, according to publicly available records, Trump personally contributed $5,093,512 to his foundation between 1988 and 2014. (During that same time period, an additional $7,072,645 was donated by outside individuals and organizations.) In seven of those years, Trump personally contributed nothing.

The Trump Foundation’s records were accessed by BuzzFeed News through a FOIA to New York state, Guidestar, and the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis Foundation Center. Andrew Cohen, an accountant for the foundation, declined to turn over the records for past years, saying that they “do not have anything responsive to that request.”

“I feel a moral obligation to award them to the highest bidder,” Trump said of Tyson's fights.

During that 27-year period, Trump has claimed to donate millions to charity — especially when marketing products and events that bear his name. Some of those claims are in fact contradicted by the publicly available records. And while it’s impossible to estimate how much Trump has claimed to have raised for charity, the presumptive Republican nominee often touts his public-speaking fee at $1 million or more — and says he donates the fees to charity.

From the beginning, the claims follow a similar pattern. In 1988, the year he created the foundation, Trump was named to a board that would advise Mike Tyson on his business decisions.

''Anything I make from this position will go to charities fighting AIDS, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and helping the homeless,” Trump told reporters in Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel.

And, Trump said of Tyson’s future fights, “I feel a moral obligation to award them to the highest bidder.”

Later, Trump would reveal that his fee for advising Tyson was $2 million, and wrote a letter to the heavyweight champ asking that Tyson keep his “promise of a $2 million contribution to various charities as selected by me.” The money, Trump wrote, was to be put into his foundation.

According to foundation records, though, no donation was made.

That same year, Trump said he would give the $50,000 he made for appearing in a Pepsi commercial, according to New York magazine. The next year, 1989, the game show Trump Card was launched in Trump’s casino in Atlantic City, Trump said that it would produce millions in royalties — which would be given to charity, according to Reuters. “I give far more money in most cases than just about anybody else comparable,” he told a questioner on Phil Donahue’s show in 1988.

It’s also possible that Trump could have donated directly to charities without going through his own foundation. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks said that Trump makes charitable contributions personally.

Any such personal donation would show up on his tax returns; he has said does not have plans to release his tax returns, saying an IRS audit prevents him from doing so (something that IRS officials have disputed).

Even in some cases where foundation records show Trump likely did follow through, the donations don’t match the original lofty boasts. In 1989, for instance, Trump released “Trump: The Game,” a version of Monopoly. He bragged that the game would earn $20 million — and that he’d give it all to AIDS and cerebral palsy research and toward helping the homelessness.

Trump barely gave money to his foundation for most of the 1990s, however. 

Two years later, a lawsuit against Trump revealed that the game had earned him just $866,800 in royalties, with Trump speculating that the game was perhaps too complex to be a big seller. In that same lawsuit, Trump reportedly said he donated the full proceeds to his charitable foundation. He publicly said that total donations resulting from the game amounted to $1 million, an amount corroborated by public records.

After the large donation that year, Trump barely gave money to his foundation for most of the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1994, he gave less than $25,000 to his foundation. In 1995 he gave $60,000, then $52,500 in 1996. (In 1994, the foundation got a boost from news organizations paying for photographs of his wedding to Marla Maples. Publications like the Daily News donated $5,000 for the photos. The National Enquirer donated $20,000 — almost as much money as Trump gave to his foundation in the previous four years.)

During these same years, however, Trump promised on multiple occasions that he would donate to charity his various fees and earnings from business interests outside of real estate.

In 1995, Trump appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial with his ex-wife Ivana that aired during the NCAA championship. The Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, interviewed Trump and reported he was paid $1.4 million after turning down the initial payment of $700,000 for being too low. The New York Times reported Trump saying that all the money would be donated to charity, though he told the Herald Sun he would only donate a portion of his fee.

Trump seemed aware of the perception of how little his foundation was donating compared to other billionaires and self-described tycoons. When asked about his lack of charitable giving to his foundation in 2004, the real estate mogul said he actually intended to disburse his wealth after his death. Even then, he said, he might want to give the money to his children.

“I do give millions of dollars a year, but I do it personally. I just write checks and give it away,” Trump told Playboy.

“It's not what you'd call a living foundation,” he said. “It's set up for after I… when it's no longer my time. The foundation will become very active at that point.”

He contended his business was different than Bill Gates’s (“bricks-and-mortar buildings don't necessarily divide as easily as stock in a public company”), and that his children would enter the business or already had. “They all like the real estate business, and as long as that's the situation, I'd be more inclined to leave it to the children than give it all to charity.”

That perception had dogged Trump since the late 1990s when he first toyed with the idea of running for president on the Reform Party ticket. In 1997, Trump had given $80,000 to his foundation. In 1998, $215,000. Tax records accessed through Guidestar show disbursements totaling $158,000 in 1999.

In November of that year, The Smoking Gun accessed the Trump Foundation’s 990s, financial records non-profits file annually to the IRS. The New York Post declared Trump “the cheapest billionaire,” noting his foundation gave less money than similar foundations, like those of Gates, Ted Turner, David Geffen, Barry Diller, and non-billionaire (and former Goldman Sachs boss) Jon Corzine. Even Leona Helmsley — the so-called “Queen of Mean” who had served nearly two years in prison for tax evasion — gave more than Trump.

In the early 2000s, Trump’s contributions began to steadily increase, perhaps boosted by public speeches in which Trump said he’d donate his speaking fees to charity. In 2000, Trump gave $168,000. In 2001, Trump gave $306,000. In 2002, he gave $287,000. In 2003, he gave $184,000. In 2004, that number jumped to $700,000. Trump donated about $600,000 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

As in earlier years, despite the larger donations, some of Trump’s flamboyant charity claims still didn’t match up with his public declarations.

In 2002, Trump did a commercial for McDonald's co-starring Grimace because, as he said to Chicago Sun Times, the company was “a bit of Americana." The Sun Times cited “sources familiar with the terms of Trump's contract” to say he would get a million dollars for the commercial that would be donated entirely to charity. That year, Trump donated $287,000 to his foundation, so if he did receive that fee and donate the amount to charity, it did not entirely happen through his foundation.

In one instance, Trump boasted to Larry King that he would earn more than $1 million for every speech he gave at the Learning Annex, an adult education school in New York. Another time, this number was $1.5 million, which a press release dubbed the highest speaking fee ever (“$25,000 a minute”). And, of course, a large portion of that money was going to charity.

"Every time I make a speech, I give it away,” he said. "That’s one of the reasons I make speeches."

“I give two-hour speeches at the Learning Annex Wealth Expos,” Trump wrote in his book Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life, written with Learning Annex founder Bill Zanker. “I donate a large portion of my speaking fees to charity.”

Trump earned much more with the free media, Zanker noted. “If you consider the advertising, promotions, and everything The Learning Annex does to enhance the Trump brand, nationally and internationally, Donald gets much more than $1.5 million per speech — but he donates much of the money to charity,” Zanker wrote.

In a deposition however, Trump admitted his actual speaking fee was $400,000. (Trump also gave speeches for the Learning Annex in 2001, but the amount was not disclosed.)

In 2004, when the University at Buffalo paid Trump $200,000 for a speech, some were critical of the high fee. Trump, however, called the fee a discount from the $300,000 he normally charged — and pledged that he would donate it to charity.

“Every time I make a speech, I give it away,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I make speeches. I like giving away money to worthy charities.”

More recently, Trump kept promising to make charitable donations from his licensed products, notably from the infamous Trump Vodka. “I thought about it, and what I’ve decided to do is donate any and all money that I make from alcoholic beverages to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers,” he wrote on his “Trumped!” radio show blog. “I’m going to give 100% of that money to them in honor of my late brother, Fred Trump.”

A spokesperson for MADD told BuzzFeed News the organization did hear from Trump, but turned away the money as part of their policy of not accepting donations from the sale of alcohol. CNN reported that proceeds from Trump Vodka were donated to the Walter Reed Society. The charity said they received only a few hundred dollars.

In another instance, Trump relied on the donations of others and claimed them as his own. In 2007, Trump sued the city of Palm Beach after he was fined $120,000 for violating city codes by flying a massive American flag on an 80-foot pole at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump and the city reached a settlement, whereby Trump would donate $100,000 to charities supporting veterans in exchange for the city dropping its fines, and Trump replacing the flag with a smaller one.

In fulfilling his part of the settlement, Trump announced that he would donate the $100,000 to Fisher House, a charity that provides housing to family members of hospitalized veterans. Records show that the Trump Foundation did make the donation to Fisher House — but, that year, Trump himself only gave $35,000 to the foundation. Even if every dollar Trump donated to his foundation that year went to the Fisher House contribution, the majority of the contribution came from other Trump Foundation donors or previous Trump donations.

(By comparison, the WWE donated $4,000,000 after Trump promoted Wrestlemania. Over the years, the biggest donors to Trump’s foundation over years are in fact Vince and Linda McMahon, who’ve given millions after his promotional appearances for Wrestlemania.)

Trump hasn’t donated to his foundation since 2008, when he gave $30,000. During the last five years, Trump claims to have given $102 million to charity, but a thorough Washington Post analysis found that none of these contributions were in cash. Rather, they were free rounds of golf, land-conservation agreements, and gifts to other celebrities.

For the complete picture to be shown Trump would have to release his tax returns — something he steadfastly declined to do.

Other recent claims of charitable donations are impossible to prove. In 2009, for example, Trump made a deal to rent property to Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi. After the deal fell through, Trump said he donated money from the leader to charity. Politico, however, was unable to verify those claims.

In another instance, Trump said the fee for his 2011 Comedy Central roast would go to charity reportedly $2 million and to his foundation. (Another time, Trump said it was $1 million.)

"Well, you know, interestingly, Comedy Central — which was a tremendous success for them and for me because I raised a lot of money for charity — they paid me a lot, which I have given to charity, so therefore I could laugh a little bit more," Trump told CNN in 2011.

Trump’s foundation records from 2011 show just one donation from Comedy Central for $400,000. “A payment was made in conjunction with Donald Trump’s appearance on the ‘Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump,’” a spokesperson for the network said. “Appearance agreements are confidential in nature so we cannot disclose any contractual details related to his appearance.”

In 2010, New Zealand sold lottery tickets for a game called “Trump Up Your Life.” The winner, according to the New York Post got “$100,000, plus a luxurious trip to New York for four that included luggage, a six-night stay at Trump SoHo — when it finally opened — about $10,000 in spending money each, golf at Trump National, a chauffeur-driven limo on call and a possible meet-and-greet with The Donald.”

Trump wouldn’t say what his fee was but said, “I gave it all to charity anyway” to benefit AIDs and cancer. But the claim can’t be verified without tax returns; Trump’s Foundation doesn’t show any donations from New Zealand. In response to a request from BuzzFeed, a representative for the New Zealand lottery said she could not clarify where Trump’s fee went, as it would be a breach of privacy.

How much Trump has actually given to charity overall remains elusive.

The Trump Foundation's records don’t show how much he’s directly given to charity, such as when he donated $1 million dollars to complete the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the 1985, though this was made before the foundation was established.

In response to BuzzFeed News’s request for comment, Hicks, the press secretary for the Trump campaign, sent the following statement: “Your information is totally incorrect — he makes contributions personally and there's no way for you to know or understand what those gifts are or when they are made. We appreciate your interest in his charitable giving, which is generous and frequent.”

Hicks’s response did not address the discrepancies BuzzFeed News found between many of Trump’s public statements — such as the Tyson donation, the Comedy Central donation, and the donation to Fisher House — and the documented contributions to his foundation.

Nor did the campaign provide documentation of Trump’s personal contributions, or the names of charities to which Trump personally donated, when asked.

For the complete picture to be shown Trump would have to release his tax returns — something he steadfastly declined to do.

Skip to footer