The report released by the inspector general of the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week painted a vivid picture of the past. It shows that in 2016, James Comey, then the FBI director, inexcusably broke the rules in advertising his department’s investigation into Hillary Clinton while simultaneously following the rules in keeping its investigation of Donald Trump under wraps.
Trump has mischaracterized the report, in the way Trump routinely does. But it’s unclear, ultimately, how much all this history matters politically.
For a more prophetic vision of the future, you should read the complaint against Trump, his children and his foundation by New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood.
Why prophetic? Because it’s likely a preface to the report or complaint that special counsel Robert Mueller will bring. The alleged crimes described by Underwood are not similar to those being investigated by Mueller. But the behavior is.
One stumbling block to public understanding of the Mueller probe, in addition to a steady stream of propaganda and lies designed to undermine it, is that it’s hard for even a cynic to accept the premises of what is being investigated.
U.S. history simply doesn’t offer a lot of reference points for a major-party political candidate who so casually subverts the law and sells out the nation’s highest values. How many Richard Nixons are there?
To believe the accusations that Trump colluded with Russia, laundered vast amounts of money and/or put American foreign policy on the auction block in return for the enrichment of his family requires an awkward leap of faith. You have to believe this leader is both profoundly corrupt — far more so than Nixon — and staggeringly sloppy — again more so than Nixon.
This is essentially the portrait that Underwood paints in the detailed accusations against the head of the Trump Foundation: that of a shady huckster who engages in “persistently illegal conduct” and is buffoonishly sloppy along the way.
To give credit where it’s due, the New York attorney general is building on the case built in 2016 by Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, whose search for legitimate charitable activity by Trump’s foundation consistently left the reporter comically empty-handed.
What Fahrenthold detailed was Trump’s utter disregard for the law in taking in tax-deductible contributions to his foundation and proceeding to spend the money on his personal and business needs:
“New findings, for instance, show that the Trump Foundation’s largest-ever gift — $264,631 — was used to renovate a fountain outside the windows of Trump’s Plaza Hotel.
“Its smallest-ever gift, for $7, was paid to the Boy Scouts in 1989, at a time when it cost $7 to register a new Scout. Trump’s oldest son was 11 at the time. Trump did not respond to a question about whether the money was paid to register him.”
Take a moment to savor that last detail. A man claiming to be worth billions of dollars — and who certainly flaunted the lifestyle — appears to have illegally diverted $7 from a charitable foundation to pay his son’s Boy Scouts registration fee.
Trump’s foundation is organized “exclusively for charitable, religious, scientific, literary or educational purposes either directly or by contributions to organizations that qualify as exempt organizations under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”
Instead, as Underwood’s complaint shows clearly, he used it to pay settlements incurred in business lawsuits and to advance his 2016 political campaign. The foundation took in millions in donations for veterans. His campaign then directed the foundation to issue checks to Iowa veterans groups in advance of the Iowa caucuses as he sought to curry political favor.
How does Underwood know campaign personnel were involved in spending decisions? Because the Trumpsters are so recklessly contemptuous of rules that they left a trail of this blatant violation of campaign-finance law on their e-mails. At least one e-mail thread included Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski weighing in on where he wanted the foundation’s tax-deductible funds directed.
The foundation also made a $25,000 contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who subsequently determined that fraud charges against Trump’s university were not a proper matter for her office. The foundation listed the contribution as going to a Kansas nonprofit with the same name as Bondi’s political committee.
“The Foundation has no credible explanation for the false reporting of grant recipients to the IRS and the State of New York,” Underwood concluded.
Trump will likely claim he was uninvolved and unaware. But Underwood’s complaint has that covered, too:
“Mr. Trump, who was the sole signatory on the Foundation’s bank accounts, approved all grants and other disbursements from the Foundation. Accounting staff for the Trump Organization had responsibility for issuing checks from the Foundation, and issued the checks based solely on Mr. Trump’s approval before presenting the checks to Mr. Trump for signature.”
Indeed, the foundation’s board didn’t provide much of a check on Trump’s personal whims, owing to the fact that, in violation of the law, it “has not met since 1999 and does not oversee the activities of the Foundation in any way.”
It took the attorney general’s office months to investigate this narrow corner of the Trump universe — even though the evidence was lying around in plain sight. Mueller’s investigation is far broader and more consequential. His complaint may yet take a while. But it should be a doozy.