Nearly all of the $706,000 in donations made by the Donald J. Trump Foundation in Palm Beach County since 2008 went to charities that hosted lavish fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago — the president’s highest-profile business in the county.
While the timing and frequency of the donations suggest charities that fete at Mar-a-Lago — especially those that return after fundraising at other venues — are rewarded for their loyalty, several local charities said the donations were not a quid pro quo or a reward for doing business with Trump.
An event planner instrumental in moving one of the more popular fundraisers to Mar-a-Lago four years ago said receiving a donation from Trump was completely unexpected.
“It was a surprise,” said Chase Scott, who arranged for the Salvation Army’s gala to be moved from The Breakers in 2014.
Other factors, including availability and preference for Mar-a-Lago’s setting, are indisputable elements. Nonetheless, a Palm Beach Post review of the Trump Foundation’s tax records found a pattern — donations, typically $25,000 — to eight charities after they relocated their events to the Trump family’s private Palm Beach club. That list included the event widely considered the grandest gala of the island’s social season, the Red Cross Ball.
The Red Cross received a $21,000 donation in 2015 — the year it decided to move its tiara-studded event from The Breakers back to Mar-a-Lago. It is the only donation the foundation made to the local chapter of the Red Cross between 2008 and 2016 — when the foundation announced it would dissolve. The local chapter of the Red Cross declined to comment.
Trump Foundation tax returns show Trump himself has not contributed his own money to his foundation since 2008. Among the biggest donors to the foundation, casino mogul Phil Ruffin, ticket broker Richard Ebers, NBC, Comedy Central and a $1 million donation from part-time Palm Beacher, Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel Comics CEO Ike Perlmutter.
Ike Perlmutter pledged $1 million in January 2016 to Trump’s efforts to raise money for veterans organizations. The Trump Foundation’s 2016 tax returns show donations of over $1 million to groups that support veterans.
But how the now-defunct foundation spent other millions of dollars it raised remains under scrutiny.
Most recently, the expenditures were the subject of a two-year investigation that prompted the New York Attorney General to file a lawsuit on June 13. The lawsuit alleges Trump and three of his five children, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr., violated IRS rules by using millions of dollars it raised as a slush fund to promote Trump-owned businesses and the president’s campaign.
“As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” said New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood in a press release. “This is not how private foundations should function and my office intends to hold the Foundation and its directors accountable for its misuse of charitable assets.”
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment on the New York attorney general’s lawsuit.
Mar-a-Lago versus The Breakers
The fundraising season in Palm Beach runs from November through April. A single ticket to a fundraising gala, luncheon or dinner can cost from hundreds of dollars to more than $1,000. The most prestigious events are invitation-only. Guest lists, menus, music, photographers and decorations are crucial, but the venue can just as easily make or break an event.
The opulent ballrooms in The Breakers hotel offered the largest oceanfront venue for high-society events until Trump added a ballroom onto Mar-a-Lago in 2005. Both feature tall ceilings, gold leaf and architectural features of the Italian Renaissance and Spain’s Golden Age.
The main difference: The Breakers is a public hotel. Mar-a-Lago is a private club.
Changing venues for these galas, which can be as much about raising money for causes as about being seen in society, means not only new logistics and vendors but also breaking with tradition.
Take the Salvation Army’s decision to leave the Breakers in 2009 after 37 years. After several years at other venues, it returned to the Breakers in 2012, then to Mar-a-Lago in 2014 — the same year the Trump Foundation made a $25,000 donation to the group.
Trump was subsequently named the holiday cheer ambassador for the Salvation Army’s Dec. 12, 2014, event. Guests were treated to ice skaters on a “frozen pond” and falling snow at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump gave a brief speech, then handed over a check for $25,000. After that, the foundation made no more contributions to the local group, according to Trump Foundation tax returns.
Event planner Chase Scott said the reason for the move to Mar-a-Lago had to do with scheduling, not seeking a donation from Trump. Scott said the Breakers was booked the night the Salvation Army sought and he had to find another venue. Also, the group wanted to make the event more private and upscale.
Trump did not shave $25,000 off the bill or offer the money as an incentive to move the event to Mar-a-Lago, Scott said. The Trump Foundation simply donated the money, Scott added: “It was not a quid pro quo.”
The Salvation Army stayed at Mar-a-Lago through 2016 but moved back to the Breakers in 2017, one of nearly two dozen charities that defected from Mar-a-Lago following the president’s comments after deadly racially-motivated protests in Charlottesville, Va.
Philanthropy and politics
Other local groups also received donations from the Trump Foundation after they booked their fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago.
The MorseLife Foundation, a West Palm Beach charity that supports programs that care for seniors, held its annual dinner dance at the Breakers in 2009 and 2010 while hosting a spring luncheon at Mar-a-Lago.
In 2011, MorseLife moved its dinner dance to Mar-a-Lago. In 2012, the Trump Foundation made a $25,000 donation.
MorseLife remained at Mar-a-Lago until 2017, when it joined the charity exodus from Mar-a-Lago after Charlottesville. This year, the dinner dance will return to the Breakers. The MorseLife Foundation did not comment for this article.
Other charities, in fact, may have received checks from the Trump Foundation for reasons other than having held a gala at the would-be president’s private club.
In April 2011, a year after Leukemia and Lymphoma Society moved its event to Mar-a-Lago, Trump called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show during Limbaugh’s annual Leukemia/Lymphoma Cure-A-Thon. Trump pledged to give $100,000, “in honor of you,” Trump told Limbaugh and his nationwide audience. His foundation made a $101,500 to the group’s national headquarters in White Plains, New York.
In 2014, when Palm Beachers John Scarpa and his wife chaired the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s gala at Mar-a-Lago, the Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to the local Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
But one charity that benefited from the Trump Foundation’s generosity both before and after moving its event to Mar-a-Lago also found that the association with Trump via Mar-a-Lago could be a double-edged sword.
In the summer of 2017, Dana Farber was among the first to defect from Mar-a-Lago over politics.
The Dana Farber Cancer Institute had begun hosting its fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago in 2011 after the Trump Foundation donated $100,000 to the institute’s headquarters in Boston in 2010. Melania was named honorary chairwoman of the 2013 gala at Mar-a-Lago.
The Trump Foundation followed up with a $25,000 donation to the group’s Palm Beach office in 2014 and Melania remained the honorary chairwoman. It received another $22,500 donation in 2015.
Then came a polarizing presidential election and a slew of controversial executive orders by the new Trump administration.
In early 2017, staff at the prestigious Boston hospital and Harvard medical students saw President Trump’s so-called travel ban as conflicting with the hospital’s mission. Unable to move its February 2017 gala on short notice, Dana Farber stayed at Mar-a-Lago that season.
President Trump’s surprise appearance at the Feb. 18 gala didn’t seem to override the political-based friction. In the post-gala newsletter there is no mention of the venue or Trump’s appearance, according to the health publication STAT.
This year Dana Farber will hold its fundraiser at The Breakers.
By far, the local charity that has received the most money from the Trump Foundation is arguably also the most loyal to Mar-a-Lago: The Palm Beach Police Foundation, headed by Scarpa. For years it has hosted its annual gala at Mar-a-Lago and remains among a few that did not retreat from the president’s private club a year ago after Trump’s remarks about the Charlottesville.
Between 2010 and 2012, the Trump Foundation donated $175,000 to the charity, which raises money to support the town’s police department. The foundation’s first and single largest donation — $100,000 — came in 2010 when the police charity gave Trump its Palm Tree Award for “selfless support of the foundation.” The Trump Foundation made a $50,000 donation in 2011 and $25,000 in 2012.
Number Two on the Trump Foundation’s donation list was the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, receiving $150,000 in three donations between 2012 to 2015. Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, created the foundation in 2004 to provide families access to world-class pediatric healthcare.
The Trump Foundation’s first donation, $25,000, came in 2012 after Trump heard Barbara Nicklaus speak during a Honda Classic tournament broadcast about their efforts to expand pediatric health care in South Florida, said Rachel Azqueta, a spokesperson for the Nicklaus foundation. In 2013, the year Nicklaus helped redesign Trump’s new Jupiter course, the Trump Foundation made a $100,000 to Nicklaus’ foundation.
“The Trump Foundation has been a kind supporter of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation,” according to a statement issued by the Nicklaus foundation. “The Trump Foundation and the Trump family have significant long-standing ties to South Florida, particularly Palm Beach County, and that is where the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation has its roots and its greatest impact.”
Another $25,000 donation arrived in 2015. That donation followed two annual galas at Mar-a-Lago for the Benjamin School, chaired by Nicklaus’ son Steven and his wife, Krista.
Barbara Nicklaus launched the annual gala in 1985 to raise money for the exclusive private school in North Palm Beach, where some of their children and grandchildren have attended school, along with the children of Tiger Woods.
Although the school’s fundraiser has not been held at Mar-a-Lago since the Nicklaus’ chaired it in 2014 and 2015, Trump donated a two-night stay at Mar-a-Lago for the auction at the 2016 fundraiser. Since elected, Nicklaus has been spotted golfing with the president.
There was no connection between the donations and the Benjamin School’s galas at Mar-a-Lago, Azqueta said.
A zoo, treatment center and schools
The Palm Beach Zoo — a regular at the Breakers — received a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation in 2013, which was the year it moved to Mar-a-Lago. The group went back to the Breakers for its January gala in 2014 and 2015 fundraisers but returned to Mar-a-Lago in 2016 and 2017. But the group moved back to the Breakers this year as part of the Charlottesville exodus.
Caron Treatment Centers received a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation in 2009, the fifth year the Pennsylvania-based drug treatment center hosted its annual fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. Trump and Melania were honorary chairman and chairwoman. The evening raised more than $770,000 for Caron, which has a facility in Boca Raton.
Three local schools received donations — Bak Middle School, Dwyer and Boynton Beach high schools — received donations totaling $30,500 from the foundation after student bands or choruses performed at events at Mar-a-Lago or one of Trump’s golf courses, according to tax records and school officials. A school district official said the schools’ musical groups had agreed to appear at no charge, as they often do, and that the donations came only afterward.
Moving to Mar-a-Lago: Who got how much and when
A sampling of the charities that received a donation at the time they moved their fundraisers to Mar-a-Lago.
- The International Red Cross received a $21,000 donation in 2015, the year it decided to move its event from The Breakers back to Mar-a-Lago.
- The Salvation Army received a $25,000 in 2015, the year after it moved its event to Mar-a-Lago from the Breakers.
- The MorseLife Foundation moved its dinner dance to Mar-a-Lago in 2011 and the next year the Trump Foundation made a $25,000 donation.
- The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society moved its event to Mar-a-Lago in 2010. In April 2011, Trump called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show during Limbaugh’s annual Leukemia/Lymphoma Cure-A-Thon and pledged to give $100,000. The foundation then made a $101,500 donation.
- The Dana Farber Cancer Institute began hosting its fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago in 2011. A year before, the Trump Foundation donated $100,000 to the institute’s headquarters and the foundation followed with a $25,000 gift in 2014 and another $22,500 in 2015.
- The Palm Beach Zoo — a regular at the Breakers — received a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation in 2013, which was the year it moved to Mar-a-Lago.