Cerabino: The foundation of Trump’s charity is self-promotion

New York Attorney General’s lawsuit against Donald Trump puts focus on president’s flawed business model.

This week’s undressing of the Donald J. Trump Foundation by the New York Attorney General’s Office  made me think of that time I found myself gazing at the giant model of Trump’s yacht inside Mar-a-Lago

It was the first time I was inside Mar-a-Lago in the mid-1990s, and a few years after then-real-estate developer Donald Trump was forced to surrender his 282-foot yacht, the Trump Princess, to Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Co. for a failure to repay the $25.7 million loan he took to buy it.

Trump no longer owned the Trump Princess, but an expensive oversized model of a luxury yacht with the Trump name on the stern was prominently displayed in a glass case for all to admire as they walked out of the mansion’s dining room.

For a moment, I imagined it was real. That somewhere in a nearby harbor, the Trump Princess was moored and awaiting its next Trumpian voyage. But the real story wasn’t so glossy.

The bank that took it back had already sold the yacht to His Royal Highness Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, who renamed it The Kingdom 5KR until eventually wanting an even bigger yacht, which he named The New Kingdom 5KR.

So why would Trump maintain a yacht model for all to see?

I’m guessing it’s because it helped his brand, and that the people he wanted to impress (everybody?) would think he was still a yacht owner.

Just another success story.

It’s like Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches, the twin-tower condos on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach that he was forced to relinquish to Marine Midland Bank for $60 million in loans he couldn’t repay.

Even after losing the building, Trump paid for a full-page ad in the Palm Beach Daily News to crow about the buildings he no longer owned as “one of Florida’s great success stories.”

Why display a yacht you lost? Why pay for an ad to crow about a condo that was successful after you had to sign it away?

This only makes sense if a key element in your business plan is convincing people that you are wealthier than you really are.

So that’s how I looked at New York’s move to shut down The Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was characterized in the 41-page civil lawsuit as a sham charity that existed as an arm of Trump’s self-promotion efforts.

The lawsuit called for shutting down the charity and banning Trump from running one for the next 10 years.

In its litany of abuses, it catalogued various examples of Trump appearing to use his own money to support a charity, or settle political or business debts, but instead drawing the money from his charitable foundation — an entity funded by the donations of others and solely controlled by him.

Like the model of the yacht, it’s a game that relies on self-puffery and deceptive appearances.

A great example in the lawsuit was the time he used his own charity to buy a portrait of himself to hang in one of his private clubs.

The Mar-a-Lago charity event in 2014 was a $250-per-person event to benefit the Unicorn Children’s Foundation, a Boca-Raton based charity that helps children and young adults with developmental disorders.

One of the items being auctioned was a 4-foot-tall acrylic portrait of Donald Trump painted by Miami Beach artist Havi Schanz. Trump paid top dollar for the canvas of himself, forking out $10,000.

Whatever vanity was on display from that act might have been overshadowed at the moment by his philanthropy. Playing the role of the wealthy billionaire, he shelled out for a worthy cause at the event.

Except that he wasn’t buying the portrait with his money.

He used his charitable foundation’s money, money he had raised from other people, to pay for the portrait of himself, which ended up hanging on a wall in his other South Florida private club in Doral.

Trump has blasted New York’s action against his foundation, calling it “ridiculous” and adding, “I won’t settle this case!”

But, in some ways, he already has.

In the matter of the portrait, which was first reported by David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post two years ago, Trump’s foundation subsequently filed forms with the IRS that should have been reported immediately. And the portrait was returned to the foundation with Trump paying rent for the time it hung on the wall of his private club, the suit contends.

This isn’t the way charities are supposed to be run. And all for what end?

Petty vanity. Shameless self-promotion at any cost.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these traits were already on display long ago with the model of the Trump yacht.’

Want more Frank? Here’s a link to his recent columns.

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