The Washington Post and the Trump Foundation

A reporter is curious about how Trump the presidential candidate compares to Trump the private billionaire when it comes to charity. By systematically double-checking Trump’s claims, he found an even better story.

Table of contents

The investigation into Trump's foundation by WaPo's David Fahrenthold is a great example of how a reporter who knows data and documents can find something compelling and decisive, even on a story that everyone else in the world is chasing.

How it started

By following one of the oldest rules of journalism – "If your mom says she loves you, get a second opinion". Or, in this case, when Trump says he's donated money to a charity, ask the charity:

Meet the reporter who’s giving Donald Trump fits

FIX: When did you decide to start looking into Trump’s charitable giving through his foundation? Why?

Fahrenthold: The real start of it was the fundraiser that Trump had for veterans in Iowa in late January. He said he'd raised $6 million — and then he toured around Iowa and New Hampshire handing out big novelty checks to local vets groups. But then Trump stopped. And he hadn't given away anywhere near $6 million. That started us looking. We found that Trump seemed to have stockpiled a lot of the vets money in this oddball Trump Foundation, which had no staff and very little money. In fact, for a long time, it seemed the Trump Foundation had actually made money on the vets fundraiser, because it had given out far less than it had taken in from other donors (who expected it to quickly pass on their donations to vets groups).

The vets saga ended strangely: Trump's people said he'd given the $1 million secretly. We checked. That was false. Trump hadn't given the $1M away at all. Then, he finally did, in the middle of the night. Then Trump held an angry press conference where he denounced the media for, in effect, forcing him to explain what he'd done with the money other people had entrusted to him, the money in the Trump Foundation. That made us more interested.

It can start with being curious

I also became interested in researching Trump's broader history of charity. If this was how he would act under the microscope of a presidential campaign, how had he acted in past years, back when nobody was looking?

"Data journalism" can be thought of as little more than being systematic if your fact-checking:

Fahrenthold: I started calling charities in June, asking dozens of them if they'd ever received a personal donation, from Trump's own pocket. At that time, I knew Trump had promised he'd given millions of dollars out of his own pocket — but he wouldn't tell us which groups he'd given to, or when. I didn't expect to find all of Trump's giving.

It's OK to predict what you'll find

I didn't expect to find all of Trump's giving. But I thought I might find the tip of the iceberg: I'd discover a few large and previously unrevealed gifts from Trump to charities, which would show that he really had been giving his money away in private.

After 150 or so, I hadn't found the iceberg. Charity after charity told me they'd never received a cash gift from Trump — or that, if they had, it had been before 2009.

That's when I started to realize that there might not be any iceberg. Instead, whenever I found a recent gift from Trump to a charity, it was always the Trump Foundation's money. Which, as you said, was other people's money.