Melania Trump bid $20,000 on a six foot painting of Donald Trump—and the Donald J. Trump Foundation paid the bill

Even Trump’s charity involves vanity.
Even Trump’s charity involves vanity.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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Donald Trump’s understanding of charity is a little different from most people’s. The Republican nominee hasn’t donated to his own foundation since 2008, according to the Washington Post, which dug deep into the Trump Foundation’s financial history. The charity also made donation to political campaigns, and reported donations to charities that never received the money.

What best encapsulates Trump-style philanthropy—or Trump-style anything, really—is the tale of his speed-painted mega-portrait.

The setting is Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s palatial Florida estate, where a children’s charity was holding a benefit on a balmy evening in 2007. The big show that night Michael Israel, a “speed painter” who generates huge portraits in less than seven minutes. His subject, naturally, was Trump. After Israel finished his six-foot-tall portrait, the work would be auctioned.

When it came time to bid on the mammoth Trump picture, Melania, Trump’s wife, opened with $10,000. When no one else bid, the auctioneer urged her to double her bid, saying her participation had driven out would-be bidders. Melania complied, winning her husband’s speedily painted image for a cool $20,000.

But neither Trump nor Melania paid that $20,000 bill. The Trump Foundation did, reports the Post. Based on the recounting of the bidding, it seems Melania had no choice but to enter the auction. Otherwise the lack of bids would’ve humiliated Trump, and we know Trump does not countenance humiliation well.

However, Trump could have spent his own money to buy the painting. When you consider that in 2007, Trump gave his foundation $35,000, subtracting the cost of the painting, he only made a donation of $15,000 that year. The rest of his foundation’s funds are raised from other charities, to be disbursed by the Trump Foundation. It’s a style of philanthropy that closely resembles Trump’s modus operandi in business—using other people’s money to finance his projects. It’s similar to how he’s financed much of his presidential campaign.

Whatever his reason, Trump’s use of his foundation’s money was illegal. The move is what the US government calls “self-dealing”—when a charity’s head spends their non-profit’s money to buy personal items—and it’s against Internal Revenue Service rules.

It’s not the only time Trump has done this; he also used $12,000 of his foundation’s money to buy a football helmet signed by quarterback Tim Tebow, as the Post reported in early July. That incident was in 2012, long after Trump stopped donating his own money to his charity.