In November 2019, a constellation of Facebook posts appeared, collectively making one claim: that United States President Donald Trump was fined $2 million after a judge ruled that funds he had raised were improperly diverted to finance his campaign.
That one featured a photograph of the President surrounded by men in military uniforms and said “go ahead and fact check all you want,” and “it is a fact that draft dodger Trump stole charitable donations that were meant for our Veterans.” On November 11 2019, another two posts were shared (archived here and here):
The first read:
If you believe a black man kneeling to peacefully protest racism dishonors veterans but Donald Trump stealing $2.8 million in charity from veterans doesn’t — you need to stop disguising your racism as patriotism.
And the second said:
On this Veteran’s Day, it is important to remember that Donald Trump stole money he raised for veterans to pay his own bills.
In the aggregate, the posts made a broader set of allegations — that Donald Trump had raised more than $2 million for veterans, illegally used the money for his own campaign, and that as a result, he was fined $2 million. Two of the four posts we located were initially covered by a large Facebook pop-up stating that the claims were false information:
Underneath an “i” (“information”) icon, boldface text read “False information,” and under that, “Checked by independent fact-checkers” and a button reading “See Why.” At the lower left corner, as seen in the bottom image, readers were shown a “See Photo” button, familiar from content tagged graphic.
Clicking on “See Why” would trigger the following dialogue window to pop up (TruthOrFiction.com is familiar with Facebook content restrictions, having been under one for the better part of two months as of November 2019 due to the social network’s tagging of our content as “clickbait“):
At the top it read “Conclusion: False,” and a lightbulb icon beneath those words accompanied text reading “The primary claims in the information are factually inaccurate.” A third line indicated that the conclusion originated with a Factcheck.org fact-check titled “Posts Falsely Claim Trump ‘Stole’ From Vets,” and a partial subheading which read “Viral Facebook posts falsely claim that President Donald Trump “stole …”
We concluded the claim was “highway sharked,” a term meaning redoing an article about a stubborn piece of disinformation that has come up multiple times (recently coined with fellow fact checkers after “prebunked,” which means using transparent information to inoculate against anticipated disinformation ahead of time, was newly purposed.) To put it another way, FactCheck.org had evaluated the information first and, according to Facebook, rated it “false.”
On November 12 2019, FactCheck.org’s assessment was published. Although the piece was in a category called “Debunking False Stories,” it did not seem to feature a truth rating — a common structural element of fact-check pages indicating the claim is true, not true, a mixture of veracity, out-of-context, or unknown:
Pages on TruthOrFiction.com typically open with a “claim” statement, the standard being a concise version of the rumored information we are examining. FactCheck.org also lacked a claim field, opening instead with a “Quick Take,” which appeared to combine a claim with a conclusion centering around a January 28 2016 fundraiser hosted by then-candidate Trump in Iowa:
Viral Facebook posts falsely claim that President Donald Trump “stole” charitable donations meant for veterans. A court ruled Trump illegally used his foundation for political purposes when it held a fundraiser for veterans, but all of the money raised went to veterans’ groups.
At the top of this page, we set a claim field. Summarizing the claims made in these various memes, it reads:
President Trump was fined $2 million for using funds collected as donations to veterans for his 2016 campaign.
In a section labeled “Full Story” (we left out the portions transcribing the memes, as they appear above in our own fact check), FactCheck.org reported:
President Donald Trump was recently ordered to pay $2 million to several charities to settle a lawsuit over the dealings of his now-defunct charitable organization, the Trump Foundation. But social media posts have distorted the facts about the court order to falsely claim that the foundation “stole” money earmarked for veterans.
Those posts, spread during Veterans Day, misrepresent the facts of the case and the court order that resolved it.
One of the Facebook posts linked by FactCheck.org was no longer available, but we were able to find a different version of it:
… it’s false to claim that Trump “stole” the money and that “none of the veterans groups that were supposed to get the money got a single dime.”
A November 7 2019 press release from the Office of the New York State Attorney General was titled “AG James Secures Court Order Against Donald J. Trump, Trump Children, And Trump Foundation.” It too began with a “Quick Take” of sorts, which read:
AG James Achieves Restitution of Misused Funds, Dissolution of Foundation, and Restrictions on Charitable Activity After Donald J. Trump’s Abuse of the Trump Foundation
Trump to Pay $2 Million in Damages for Illegal Activity During 2016 Election
FactCheck.org’s assessment, quoted above, acknowledged that Trump was “recently ordered” by the state’s Attorney General to pay $2 million, adding that “social media posts have distorted the facts about the court order to falsely claim that the foundation ‘stole’ money earmarked for veterans.” And all four of the Facebook post we linked or embedded mentioned a variation of “stealing” the funds.
It is definitely true that Trump was ordered to pay $2 million in damages, in the words of the Attorney General of New York State, “for improperly using charitable assets to intervene in the 2016 presidential primaries and further his own political interests.” The November 7 2019 press release’s following two paragraphs said that he admitted to “personally misusing [Trump Foundation funds]” and a stipulation imposed required that he report any future attempts to create a charity.
The press release further explained that “funds that were illegally misused are being restored,” wording suggestive that misappropriated donations remained outstanding and unrestored as of the November 7 2019 release:
As part of the [$2 million] settlement, Attorney General James also announced that her office entered into multiple stipulations with the Trump Foundation and its directors to resolve the remaining claims in the lawsuit. Chiefly, Mr. Trump admits to personally misusing funds at the Trump Foundation, and agrees to restrictions on future charitable service and ongoing reporting to the Office of the Attorney General in the event he creates a new charity. The settlements also include mandatory training requirements for Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump. Finally, the settlements name the charities that will receive the remaining assets of the Trump Foundation as part of its dissolution.
“The Trump Foundation has shut down, funds that were illegally misused are being restored, the president will be subject to ongoing supervision by my office, and the Trump children had to undergo compulsory training to ensure this type of illegal activity never takes place again,” said Attorney General James. “The court’s decision, together with the settlements we negotiated, are a major victory in our efforts to protect charitable assets and hold accountable those who would abuse charities for personal gain. My office will continue to fight for accountability because no one is above the law — not a businessman, not a candidate for office, and not even the President of the United States.”
In that statement, the Attorney General’s Office referenced nearly $1.8 million in assets held by the Foundation at that point and plans for their distribution:
The $1.78 million in assets currently being held by the Trump Foundation, along with the $2 million in damages to be paid by Mr. Trump, will be disbursed equally to eight charities: Army Emergency Relief, the Children’s Aid Society, Citymeals-on-Wheels, Give an Hour, Martha’s Table, United Negro College Fund, United Way of National Capital Area, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The charities — which were required as part of the resolution to be entities that did not have any relationship with Mr. Trump or entities he controlled — were approved by the Office of the Attorney General and the court.
Another document referenced and linked by FactCheck.org was an October 2018 motion filed by the State of New York against President Trump, his foundation, and his children. On pages five and six of the document, Judge Saliann Scarpulla wrote:
Mr. Trump’s fiduciary duty breaches included allowing his campaign to orchestrate the Fundraiser, allowing his campaign, instead of the Foundation, to direct distribution of the Funds, and using the Fundraiser and distribution of the Funds to further Mr. Trump’s political campaign.
The Attorney General has argued that I should award damages for waste of the entire $2,823,000 that was donated directly to the Foundation at the Fundraiser. In opposition, Mr. Trump notes that the Foundation ultimately disbursed all of the Funds to charitable organizations and that he has sought to resolve consensually this proceeding.
As stated above, I find that the $2,823,000 raised at the Fundraiser was used for Mr. Trump’s political campaign and disbursed by Mr. Trump’s campaign staff, rather than by the Foundation, in violation of [laws and or statutes]. However, taking into consideration that the Funds did ultimately reach their intended destinations, i.e., charitable organizations supporting veterans, I award damages on the breach of fiduciary duty/waste claim against Mr. Trump in the amount of $2,000,000, without interest, rather than the entire $2,823,000 sought by the Attorney General. Further, because the parties have agreed to dissolve the Foundation, I direct Mr. Trump to pay the $2,000,000, which would have gone to the Foundation if it were still in existence, on a pro rata basis to the Approved Recipients.
In the above-quoted decision, Scarpulla described:
- A positive finding that Trump’s fiduciary breaches involved, in part, using the proceeds of a fundraiser to further the goals of his then-active election campaign;
- Trump or lawyers arguing on his behalf maintained that all of the funds in question were eventually released to their intended charitable destinations;
- A finding of $2,823,000 raised at one fundraiser in January 2016;
- That the $2,823,000 was initially used for Trump’s campaign at the time;
- The State of New York originally sought $2,823,000 (the entirety of money raised at a January 2016 event for charity) as damages;
- That she ultimately awarded damages of a reduced sum of $2,000,000, as the funds raised “did ultimately reach their intended destinations, i.e., charitable organizations supporting veterans.”
Regarding additional “penalty” damages sought by the NYS AG’s office to, in their words, deter future misconduct, Scarpulla ruled:
Here, Mr. Trump has stipulated to a number of proactive conditions so that the conduct which engendered this petition should not occur in the future. For this reason, I decline to award penalty damages.
FactCheck.org also linked to an archived [PDF] list (“The Donald J. Trump Foundation List of Contributions to Veterans 2016”), totaling $2,825,000. Disbursals on that list took place between January and June of 2016. Around 34 organizations appeared on the list, alongside sums totaling $100,000, $75,000, $40,000, $25,000, and $10,000. Seventeen $100,000 donations amounted to $1.7 million in disbursals, 14 $75,000 donations to $1,050,000, and one each at $40,000, $25,000, and $10,000. The sum total was $2,825,000:
As the list above demonstrated, more than half of the donations occurred on May 24 2016, and a check for the final donation was issued on June 28 2016. The first four checks (totaling $400,000) were cut one day after the fundraiser on January 29 2016. Ten more checks were cut in February, eight of which were for $100,000, and two for lower amounts, totaling $835,000. A total of $140,000 was disbursed in the month of March 2016, making the total share of the $2,823,000 disbursed between the January 28 2016 fundraiser June 23 2016 $1,375,000. The bulk of the remaining $1,448,000 was released on May 24 2016 specifically, and the final $100,000 on June 28 2016.
We looked for news for the months intervening between January 28 2016 and May 24 2016, the date on which most of the checks were written. That highlighted a separate discrepancy in what turned out to be something of a warmed-over controversy. The day after the fundraiser, multiple news organizations quoted the Trump campaign’s claim that it had raised $6 million in one night for veterans:
No one ever really doubted that Donald Trump could pull off a major counter-programing feat — even when competing with a GOP debate that was expected to draw millions of viewers. He did it [on January 28 2016], dazzling a crowd of hundreds of enthusiastic supporters by announcing that he had raised more than $6 million for veterans in one day — $1 million of it from his own checkbook. “We love our vets,” he said.
$6 million for 22 veterans’ groups
… The Trump campaign on [that] night released a list of 22 veterans’ organizations that will share the more than $6 million fundraising haul. The organizations run the gamut from groups focused on helping veterans with disabilities and mental health problems to those aimed at helping veterans reintegrate into civilian society.
On March 3 2019 (at which point fewer than half the checks had been cut according to the 2018 court document embedded above), the Washington Post reported controversy over whether the donations collected by Trump on that day in January 2016 had been issued to veterans’ groups. Once again, the total funds raised was placed at $6 million in that report, not the $2,823,000 cited in 2018 and 2019 court documents:
[On] January [28 2016], Donald Trump skipped a televised Republican debate in Iowa and held his own event instead — a rally to raise money for veterans. Trump said it was a huge success.
“One hour. Six million dollars,” Trump told a campaign rally in Iowa a few days later, boasting about the total raised. He listed more than 20 groups that would receive money. “These people that get these checks are amazing people, amazing people.”
More than a month later, about half of the money, roughly $3 million, has been donated to veterans’ charities, according to a summary released Thursday by the Trump campaign in response to inquiries from The Washington Post.
In recent days, after the campaign initially did not provide details of where the money had gone, The Post had undertaken its own accounting. After contacting each of the 24 charities that Trump had previously listed as his beneficiaries, The Post had accounted for less than half of the $6 million.
Contrasting March 2016’s news with November 2019’s left a confusing gap — according to Facebook popups, the meme’s claims were rated “false.” According to FactCheck.org, all $2.8 million collected by Trump for veterans eventually made it to charities, primarily on or about May 24 2016. And according to news from the date of the Iowa fundraiser through mid-2016, Trump claimed to have raised $6 million.
In the Washington Post‘s report slightly more than a month after the fundraiser, the newspaper spoke to purported beneficiaries of the funds, some of whom seemed to believe received donations were either light or missing “a large chunk” of money:
“Where’s the rest of the money going?” said Keith David at the Task Force Dagger Foundation, which offers support to Special Operations personnel and their families.
David’s group typifies the confusion over Trump’s money. It was listed by Trump as a group that would benefit from his fundraising. And soon after the Iowa fundraising event, the group got a check for $50,000. It came from Rahr’s foundation, with a note that mentioned Trump.
But was that it? The group’s board — noting the huge amount of money that Trump raised and the lesser amount of money Trump seemed to have given out — decided it could not be.
“There’s a large chunk missing. I’m just kind of curious as to where that money went,” David said. “I’d like to see some of it come to us, because we are on the list.”
As of that March 3 2016 report, the paper quoted the Trump campaign as saying “the Trump Foundation had given out about $1.1 million so far.” In our above calculations, the sum total of donations disbursed on the list before that date actually added up to $1,235,000. On March 7 2016, the Foundation distributed a further $40,000, and another $100,000 on March 22.
On April 7 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that two months had gone by since the $6 million was raised, and it appeared just over a third of the $6 million raised had been distributed to veterans’ groups:
More than two months after Donald Trump skipped a Republican debate to hold a fundraiser for veterans, the targeted beneficiaries are still seeing a fraction of the promised money raised from the Republican’s charitable foundation and his wealthy friends.
A survey by The Wall Street Journal of 19 of the 22 groups originally listed by Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign as the prospective recipients of the funds found that they had received roughly $2.4 million of the estimated $6 million in donations the campaign said the event generated. The total received by all of the groups is likely to be more.
One organization refused to disclose how much it received, another said it needed to submit more paperwork before a check would be forthcoming, and one didn’t respond to multiple inquiries.
All of the groups reported receiving checks from the Donald J. Trump Foundation or associates through the mail, and most arrived in late February in increments of $50,000 or $100,000. Three organizations reported getting smaller donations in March that averaged between $5,000 and $15,000.
CNN raised the same question on April 22 2016, noting that of 22 listed beneficiaries, “only nine groups confirmed they had received payments totaling $800,000, one group said no payment had yet been made, and the rest either refused to disclose contributions or did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.”
Both reports were published more than a month prior to the flurry of May 24 2016 checks were cut, according to records obtained by New York State in the 2018 court documents. As we noted above, the “bulk of the remaining $1,448,000 was released on May 24 2016 specifically, and the final $100,000 on June 28 2016.”
Three days before those checks appeared, the Washington Post published an article headlined, “Trump said he raised $6 million for veterans. Now his campaign says it was less.” It opened, reporting:
One night in January , Donald Trump skipped a GOP debate and instead held his own televised fundraiser for veterans. At the end of the night, Trump proclaimed it a huge success: “We just cracked $6 million, right? Six million.”
Now, Trump’s campaign says that number is incorrect.
Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said the fundraiser actually netted about $4.5 million, or 75 percent of the total that Trump announced.
Lewandowski blamed the shortfall on Trump’s own wealthy acquaintances. He said some of them had promised big donations that Trump was counting on when he said he had raised $6 million. But Lewandowski said those donors backed out and gave nothing.
“There were some individuals who he’d spoken to, who were going to write large checks, [who] for whatever reason . . . didn’t do it,” Lewandowski said in a telephone interview. “I can’t tell you who.”
Lewandowski also said he did not know whether a $1 million pledge from Trump himself was counted as part of the $4.5 million total. He said Trump has given that amount, but he declined to identify any recipients … The comments appear to be the first acknowledgment — almost four months later — that Trump’s fundraiser had brought in less than the candidate said. Lewandowski said he did not know the exact total raised or how much of it remained unspent.
In that report, the Post noted that “as the [2016 primary] race continued, the checks from the fundraiser began to come less frequently,” and that the “most recent check identified by The Post was dated March 25 .” As noted previously, one of two checks on the list above was purportedly issued on March 22 2016. The story concluded:
In the past few days [prior to May 20 2016], The Post has interviewed 22 veterans charities that received donations as a result of Trump’s fundraiser. None of them have reported receiving personal donations from Trump.
Did Trump make good on his promise to give from his personal funds?
“The money is fully spent. Mr. Trump’s money is fully spent,” Lewandowski said.
To whom did Trump give, and in what amounts?
“He’s not going to share that information,” Lewandowski said.
Four days after the Washington Post article was published, more than half of the donations were quietly disbursed to nearly twenty charities.
A complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center in July 2018 [PDF] cited the article quoted here, but further indicated that “the Fundraiser” on January 28 2016 raised a total of $5.6 million, $2.8 million of which was “contributed to the [Trump] Foundation.” Presumably, the $2.8 million portion of the $5.6 million total (a total that was challenged by the Trump campaign in May 2016) was the portion in dispute:
At the televised fundraising event, the podium was decorated with a sign that borrowed Trump Campaign themes and slogans, displaying the DonaldTrumpForVets.com website on a blue placard with a red border and star pattern identical to the design of Trump Campaign signs and billboards, with Mr. Trump’s name in capital letters and his trademarked campaign slogan, Make America Great Again! The Fundraiser reaped approximately $5.6 million in tax-free donations, some of which went directly from the private donors to veterans charity groups. Of that total, $2.823 million was contributed to the Foundation.
The Fundraiser reaped approximately $5.6 million in tax-free donations, some of which went directly from the private donors to veterans charity groups. Of that total, $2.823 million was contributed to the Foundation … Following the Fundraiser, senior Trump Campaign staff dictated the manner in which the Foundation would disburse those proceeds, including the timing, amounts, and recipients of the grants.
(Incidentally, it appeared the referenced domain — DonaldTrumpForVets.com — was registered on January 28 2016, the day of the fundraiser.)
At the end of the document, page two of twelve-page June 2018 letter from the New York State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) said of their investigation into the total money purportedly raised ($5.6 million), an amount was disbursed from the fundraiser to the Trump Foundation ($2.8 million):
The Investigation acquired substantial credible evidence that the Foundation disbursed in excess of $2.8 million to influence the 2016 Republican presidential primary election at the direction and under the control of senior leadership of the Trump presidential campaign committee and apparently with the candidate’s knowledge and approval. As such, the Foundation made — and the committee knowingly accepted — prohibited, excessive, and unreported in-kind contributions during the 2016 presidential election cycle. Moreover, the evidence of coordination and control further indicates that the Foundation and campaign may have violated the so-called soft money provisions of the Act as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (“BCRA”). Finally, we refer certain additional evidence relating to a $25,000 prohibited contribution the Foundation made in 2013 to the political committee of another candidate for public office for any further action that the Commission may deem warranted under the circumstances.
Among the OAG’s findings was a claim that Trump had “personally distributed promotional checks from the Foundation to veterans groups at official campaign rallies, just days in advance of the [February 2016] Iowa caucuses, [which] underscore that the grants were intended to benefit Mr. Trump’s ambitions as candidate — that is, for the purpose of influencing the presidential election — and thus constitute expenditures under the Act.” Much of the OAG’s letter focused on the political effects of the purportedly charitable drive, adding that even in practice, the fundraiser served as a political promotion under the bailiwick of federal election law:
[There remains] no genuine question that the rallies and events at which Mr. Trump and other campaign speakers promoted his Foundation’s philanthropic giving were Trump Campaign events that Mr. Trump attended in his capacity as a candidate for federal office. Moreover, the campaign committee’s extensive coordination of all the material elements of the featured charitable giving further confirms that publicizing the gifts of the Foundation in the context of a political event was intended to serve the purpose of promoting and advancing Mr. Trump’s prospects as a federal candidate in the looming election contest.
In November 2019, a number of viral claims about United States President Donald Trump and a levied fine over the misappropriation of donations made by the public to the Trump Foundation that was intended for veterans circulated on Facebook. Facebook “flagged” the claims, triggering a FactCheck.org assessment that did not explicitly give the claim a false rating. Nevertheless, FactCheck.org effectively labeled all the claims false, leading to their reduced distribution and what appears to be a new “flagging” mechanism hiding the memes from initial view, as shown above.
In sum, the claims were that Donald Trump was ordered to pay $2 million for “stealing” donations he collected for veterans; use of the word “stealing” appeared to be the hinge of the tacit “false” rating, as FactCheck.org ruled that the donations eventually were properly disbursed. In an attempt to replicate those findings ourselves, we came across a years-long controversy with many twists and turns. The controversy began in late January 2016, when the Trump campaign skipped a debate to hold a fundraiser for veterans. At the end of the night, Trump and the campaign claimed an approximately $6 million (or $5.6 million) haul of one-day donations.
In the ensuing months, news outlets reported difficulty in verifying the $6 or $5.6 million in funds raised, and additional difficulty in tracking their disbursal. On May 20 2016, former campaign staffer Corey Lewandowski told the Washington Post that the original $5.6 to $6 million figure was inflated, that “the fundraiser actually netted about $4.5 million,” and Lewandowski was unable to account for “whether a $1 million pledge from Trump himself was counted as part of the $4.5 million total.” Four days after that article was published, the Trump Foundation wrote multiple checks dated on or around May 24 2016, totaling more than a million dollars from either $6 million, $5.6 million, $4.5 million, or $2.8 million.
June and July 2018 investigations and complaints from organizations like the Campaign Legal Center and the New York State OAG were predicated on the collection of $5.6 million in donations for the fundraiser. The OAG issued a press release on November 7 2019 announcing that Trump had been ordered to pay $2 million following the investigation, that funds held by the Trump Foundation totaling nearly $1.8 million would be disbursed, and that the President “agrees to restrictions on future charitable service and ongoing reporting to the Office of the Attorney General in the event he creates a new charity.”
One of the November 2019 memes claimed that “on this Veteran’s Day, it is important to remember that Donald Trump stole money he raised for veterans to pay his own bills.” Another mused “Imagine a country where its president is fined $2 million for stealing money from a charity and nobody cares? You’re living there.” FactCheck.org and by extension Facebook rated those claims completely false owing to the fact that the $2.8 million was “ultimately” donated. But the underlying story was both messier than indicated and almost inarguably not false. What was originally promoted as a $6 million haul of donations was adjusted down to $3.5 to $4.5 million as outlets queried it, and the record of checks showed that more than half were not released at all until an unflattering May 20 2016 Washington Post article asked about them.
It is true that Trump was ordered to pay $2 million for — in the words of Judge Scarpulla’s decision — “using the Fundraiser and distribution of the Funds to further Mr. Trump’s political campaign.” The Trump Foundation was consequently shuttered, and “mandatory training requirements for Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump” were imposed as part of the settlement. Nearly four years after the fundraiser, there remained a great deal of confusion around the total amount collected and the timing of its disbursal, and while one meme’s apparent claim that no organizations saw “a dime” of the funds was untrue, the entire fundraiser was the subject of both extensive investigation, as well as the $2 million settlement and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Owing to the extremely complicated nature of a vast constellation of details, we have rated this complex claim as “mixed” — but it certainly is not false.