Just days before Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi decided not to investigate Trump University, she requested and received a $25,000 check from Donald Trump’s charitable foundation. Although Trump denied he ever discussed his scandal-plagued Trump U with Bondi, and praised her as “a great representative of the people,” the curious timing of the donation has prompted the inevitable question: Are there pay-to-play scandals lurking in his past?
The New York Times, among others, documented Trump’s “decades-long” record of evading campaign finance rules, giving big sums to politicians whose help he needed. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump said earlier this year.
But look back into his career, and you'll find that Trump was even blunter. According to Wayne Barrett’s 1992 biography Trump, the Deals and the Downfall, Trump had boasted he could “buy” a U.S. Senator for $200,000 and gleefully recounted once how Hugh Carey, New York’s governor, would do “anything” for a campaign contribution.
And when I researched Trump for my own book, I found that Trump’s record of seeking political favors stretched much farther back -- and began with his first role model, his father, who established the family real estate empire after the Great Depression.
Trump has often credited his father, Fred Trump, with teaching him the ins and outs of business and life. “My father taught me everything I know,” was how he put it at his father’s funeral in 1999.
Fred Trump’s Political Connections
Fred Trump first gained national notoriety when the Eisenhower administration investigated abuses in a program to finance housing for World War 11 and Korean War veterans. Eisenhower had been outraged by what he considered to be excessive profits made by developers who used taxpayer dollars. His justice department uncovered evidence that builders were sending gifts – televisions and watches were common – to bureaucrats who decided which applicants got access to cheap government construction loans.
The elder Trump, who was friends with a top federal official implicated in the scandal, was identified as a profiteer in this program and called before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1954.
Fred Trump, like the other developers who testified, said that what he did was within the letter, if not the spirit of the law. But his testimony was more entertaining than most. In a display of verbal trickery that foreshadowed his son’s presidential campaign rhetoric, Trump tied the committee in knots with convoluted, oblique answers to questions about his manipulation of the government program.
At one point the committee’s lawyer asked him why he took a 5% architect’s fee for himself when no architect was employed for a project.
“And it is provided in the regulation,” explained Trump.
“What is provided by the regulation?” asked the lawyer.
“The 5% architect’s fee.”
“Have you ever seen a regulation that says that?”
“No, I’m a builder.”
“Then how do you know these regulations provide for a 5% architect’s fee?”
“They wouldn’t have allowed it if they didn’t.”
Fred Trump also adamantly rejected federal investigators’ claims that he had improperly pocketed $4 million in taxpayer funds, declaring that he had suffered “untold damage to my standing and reputation” due to the FHA investigation.
More damage was done to the elder Trump’s reputation when he joined a crowd of real estate developers at a restaurant to honor New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, a Democrat, running for re-election. The builders pledged to donate a total of $25,000 to Wagner’s campaign, $2,500 of which was to come from Fred Trump. Trump also had received a bit of help from city government – a change in zoning – that moved along an apartment complex he was building in Brooklyn.
The developers’ donations were described as a “shakedown reminiscent of Boss Tweed” by Wagner’s opponent, who was referencing the bad, old days of corruption in New York politics. Wagner eventually said he’d give back the money, and Wagner’s campaign aide who arranged the gathering, a lawyer named Abraham Lindenbaum, was forced to resign. As veteran journalist Wayne Barrett reported in his 1992 biography Trump, the Deals and the Downfall, Fred Trump was Lidenbaum's close friend. The two men often lunched together with future New York City Mayor Abe Beame.
"I could buy a United States senator"
When Trump and I discussed his father’s scrapes with the Eisenhower investigators and the Wagner campaign donation, he said he had been too young to know about them when they happened. (He was about eight at the time of the Eisenhower probe and 14 when the Wagner scandal erupted..) But in 1974, he was 27 and well schooled by his father in the ways of New York politics and real estate. When he needed to prove he had the clout to pull off his first big deal in New York City, Donald Trump called on his father’s old pal, Abe Beame.
Elected mayor in 1973, Beame was part of a Brooklyn Democratic Party organization that the elder Trump new very well. At the appointed hour he welcomed Donald Trump, his father, and Ned Eichler, who was managing the old Penn Central Railroad’s dispersal of properties in Manhattan. Donald wanted to develop them. According to Barrett, Beame announced, “Whatever Donald and Fred want, they have my complete backing.”
As Eichler would later tell Barrett, Donald Trump informed him, "I could buy a United States senator for $200,000," and that Governor Hugh Carey would “do anything for a developer who gives him a campaign contribution.” The Trumps contributed more than $35,000 to Carey’s first campaign for governor. When Donald needed planning board approval and tax breaks as he redeveloped the old Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Terminal, he got them.
"When They Call, I Give"
Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, is among those who have received campaign money from Trump. (He also gave $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation.) Trump has crowed about how Clinton attended his third wedding, but he has never been able to point to a more substantial quid-pro-quo.
Trump, in fact, has never publicly admitted to receiving any benefit from a politician, aside from a willingness to take his phone call (or attend his wedding). But as with so many things about Donald Trump, what he says and what he does often is contradictory.
Even while he derides Clinton as "crooked" and claims she can be bought (without providing specifics), in his own career, he has boasted about paying money in order to gain access. “When they call, I give,” he has explained. “And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”
The father who taught Donald Trump everything he knew was routinely asking for favors from politicians who received his financial support. And the record shows that Trump took up the practice in the 1970s and continued it ever since. Although he's occasionally been fined for breaking the rules, most recently in the Pam Bondi case, when he used Trump Foundation charity dollars to make an illegal campaign donation, he's apparently passed on the lessons to his children, too.
The Trump's newest hotel in Washington D.C. just opened, and The Daily Beast reports that mogul's daughter, Ivanka, and son Eric, along with their father, have donated generously to two local (and Democratic) D.C. officials, who played a key role in the hotel's development.
“There’s no evidence of anything illegal about it,” Lawrence Noble of the Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast. But, he added, “the closer you are to doing something specifically for somebody, the more it raises ethical questions.”
Michael D’Antonio is author of The Truth About Trump, a 2016 biography of the candidate published by St. Martin’s Press.