When New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit the other day against Donald Trump and his children, accusing them of “persistently illegal conduct” with regards to their family foundation, I didn’t think much of it beyond the headlines. (Trumps behaving badly? Not exactly news.)
The allegations were primarily about how the Trumps used money donated to the charity foundation to fund Trump’s presidential campaign, pay off Trump’s debts, decorate Trump’s golf clubs, and stage lavish events to benefit (who else?) Trump. They didn’t really help other human beings because… well, why start now?
But when you say you’ve set up a charity, the expectation is that you run it as a charity, with proper governance and oversight, and following all the laws our country has for non-profit groups. The Donald J. Trump Foundation is accused of having done none of that.
There is, however, another aspect to this case I didn’t think about. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues that Trump may have violated a rule we typically associate with the cause of church/state separation.
Whenever we talk about the Johnson Amendment, we’re usually referring to the rule prohibiting religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. A pastor can’t tell his congregation who to vote for without putting his church’s tax exempt status at risk.
But Boston says Trump’s shady foundation may have violated the same rule.
Think about it this way: The Johnson Amendment isn’t really about churches. It’s about non-profits. The same rule that bars pastors from endorsing candidates also bars the ACLU and the NRA and AARP from doing the same thing. (They can advocate for their issues, but they can’t say “Vote for Candidate X.”)
Yet some of the allegations against Trump’s foundation say that he used his charity’s money to prop up political candidates:
[New York Attorney General Barbara] Underwood asserts that in 2013, Trump’s foundation donated $25,000 to a political group in Florida that was working to reelect Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R). Someone at the foundation must have realized that was a problem because the foundation later tried to cover it up by falsely claiming in a report to the Internal Revenue Service that the $25,000 had gone to a nonprofit group in Kansas.…
… During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s campaign held an event in Iowa (ostensibly designed to raise funds for veterans) that it coordinated with the foundation.
In court documents, Underwood says Trump knew that the event was designed to boost Trump’s campaign. She asserts that the foundation “acted in a persistently illegal manner by repeatedly intervening in Mr. Trump’s campaign for president in 2016 by, among other things, making expenditures during the first five months of 2016 that were intended to influence his election for president.”
Added Underwood, “Mr. Trump’s wrongful use of the Foundation to benefit his Campaign was willful and knowing.”
In short, Trump’s foundation frequently used funds to boost political candidates — including himself. That’s a direct violation of the Johnson Amendment, for the same reason pastors can’t tell their congregations how to vote.
When Trump started talking about how he’d like to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, I just assumed that Jerry Falwell Jr. or another one of his Religious Right lackeys fed him the line because, unlike most religious leaders in America, they are eager to politicize their pulpits and issue orders on how congregants ought to vote. But it turns out a move like that could be a huge benefit to Trump himself.
He’s right. Whether or not Trump ever admits it, when he vows to repeal the Johnson Amendment, he’s not just promising to check off an item on the Religious Right’s wishlist. He’s considering a rule change that would really benefit himself. (Surprise!)
All the more reason for Congress to block any attempt at a repeal.
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