How much money did Donald Trump donate

This essay is part of a series The New Yorker will be running through the election titled “Trump and the Truth.”

Donald Trump is a rich man—even if just how rich remains an open question—and he and his campaign have long insisted that he is also a very charitable fellow. “I’ve given millions away,” Trump said in May. The sentiment was reiterated this week by Jason Miller, his campaign spokesperson. “Mr. Trump is generous both with his money and with his time,” Miller said, in a statement reacting to the latest Washington Post reporting on Trump’s charitable foundation. “He has provided millions of dollars to fund his Foundation and a multitude of other charitable causes.”

How many “millions of dollars”? People around Trump have answered that question in a number of ways. A couple of weeks ago, Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said that anyone “who knows about Donald Trump and his career knows that this is a man who’s given away tens of millions of dollars to charitable causes throughout his business life.” In July, Trump’s son Eric said his father had given away “millions and millions and millions of dollars.” Last year, on the same day that Trump officially launched his Presidential bid, his campaign provided a specific number: a “summary of net worth” document made public that day stated that Trump had given away $102 million between 2009 and 2014.

Trump’s charitable giving has now become a campaign issue, largely due to a series of Post articles written by David Fahrenthold and his colleagues. Back in April, Fahrenthold and Rosalind S. Helderman reported that they couldn’t find a single cash donation to charity that Trump personally had made over the previous five years. The Trump campaign had provided the newspaper with a list of donations made by the candidate, but many turned out to be gifts-in-kind from Trump’s businesses, such as free rounds of golf at Trump courses donated to charity auctions, and land-conservation agreements to forgo development rights on Trump-owned properties. The only cash donations were from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, the family charity that Trump established in 1988. But the Post also pointed out that Trump hadn’t given any of his own money to the Trump Foundation since 2008—almost all of its funding came from other people, including some of his business associates.

The Post has delivered other revelations. At the end of August, Fahrenthold reported that the Trump Foundation had violated tax laws in 2013 by making a $25,000 political donation to Pam Bondi, the attorney general of Florida. At the time the donation was made, Bondi had been considering whether to launch an investigation of the scandal-plagued Trump University. Democrats accused Trump of having tried to buy off Bondi, but Bondi denied that there was any connection between the campaign donation and her decision not to pursue an investigation. Regardless, charities aren’t allowed to make political donations. Trump’s aides said the payment from the foundation was the result of an administrative error, and that the money was supposed to have come from Trump’s personal account. Earlier this year, the foundation paid a $2,500 penalty to the I.R.S.

The list goes on. Earlier this week, Fahrenthold reported that the foundation has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars to settle lawsuits filed against Trump businesses. One of the settlements, for $158,000, went to a man who had scored a hole-in-one during an event at one of Trump’s golf courses, and who claimed he had never been paid a million-dollar prize he was promised. The Post noted that using the foundation’s money in this way may have been another violation of the law: in this instance, the law that prohibits “self-dealing” by charitable organizations.

Fahrenthold and his colleagues deserve a great deal of credit for their reporting, but they aren’t the first journalists to take a skeptical look at Trump’s charitable activities. As far back as the early nineteen-nineties, the investigative reporter David Cay Johnston was following up on Trump’s claims, calling up dozens of charities that Trump said he’d given money to. Johnston had difficulty confirming some of the payments. In 1999, when Trump was mulling an earlier bid for the White House, the Smoking Gun, a Web site that specializes in unearthing and analyzing legal documents, inspected the annual tax returns of the Trump Foundation. Although Trump has managed to keep his own tax returns private, the tax filings of his foundation are public documents. They detail how much money Trump and other donors have given to the foundation, how much the foundation has handed out, and who the recipients were.

The Smoking Gun looked at the period from 1994 to 1998, when Trump’s businesses were recovering from a severe economic downturn earlier in the decade that saw three of his Atlantic City casinos, along with his Plaza Hotel, in New York, file for bankruptcy. As the real-estate market recovered, so did Trump’s net worth. In 1999, Forbes magazine estimated that he was worth $1.6 billion. “With all that dough, you’d think the presidential aspirant might use some green to benefit society (because those garish skyscrapers and Atlantic City clip joints ain’t the grandest legacy),” a Smoking Gun article from November of that year said. “Alas, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has donated a paltry total of $475,624 over the past five years . . . Compared to other business barons like Bill Gates and David Geffen, The Donald looks like a lousy penny-pincher.”

On an annual basis, the Trump Foundation’s outlays came to about $95,000. But that figure was from the late nineteen-nineties. In the ensuing decade, Trump’s business fortunes rebounded: he became a highly remunerated reality-television star, and he got a lot wealthier. By 2010, Forbes had raised its estimate of his net worth to $2.4 billion, making him the 153rd-richest person in America. By this stage, Trump’s Web site was describing him as an “ardent philanthropist.” Had the nature of his charitable giving changed? In some ways it had, but not in the ways that Trump advertised.

In April, 2011, when he was again thinking about running for President, the Smoking Gun took another gander at the I.R.S. returns from the Trump Foundation. This time, the Web site examined the entire period from 1990 to 2009. Over those twenty years, it reported, Trump had “donated a total of just $3.7 million to his foundation.” That figure confirms Trump’s claim that he has given “millions” away, but it hardly amounts to “many millions,” “millions and millions and millions,” or a hundred and two million. For the period from 1990 to 2009, his annual donations to his foundation averaged $185,000 a year.

The Smoking Gun’s 2011 article concluded that Trump “may be the least charitable billionaire in the United States.” It also suggested that he was one of the wiliest. Years before the Posts stellar reporting, the Smoking Gun revealed that Trump had found a clever way for his foundation to give away more money—by using cash donated by other people.

In effect, Trump turned the Trump Foundation into a charity intermediary. Rather than donating money himself, he attracted donations from individuals and institutions he had done business with, or helped out in some way, then used this money to send out checks that bore the Trump Foundation’s name. One of the foundation’s biggest donors was Vince McMahon, the chairman and majority owner of World Wrestling Entertainment. ”Tax returns show that World Wrestling Entertainment has given Trump’s foundation a total of $5 million in return for the developer’s assistance in working a couple of televised angles along with WWE boss Vince McMahon,” the 2011 Smoking Gun article said. “The WWE gave Trump’s foundation $4 million in 2007 for his help in promoting that year’s WrestleMania festivities, and another $1 million in 2009.”