Veterans Groups Split Over Trump’s Fundraising
The presumptive GOP nominee highlighted $5.6 million in donations to roughly 40 veterans groups. But vets worry about being used as political props.
In his first public accounting of his fundraising for veterans groups, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he did not want credit for trying to help American troops. Then he blasted the media for not giving it to him.
In all, Trump said Tuesday he raised $5.6 million for vets as the direct result of a January fundraiser that he held instead of attending a GOP candidates debate. His snub of that Fox News debate fueled accusations he was using veterans as a political prop, and prompted reporters to investigate whether he had, in fact, collected and dispersed the $6 million he boasted of raising.
“I wanted to keep it private because I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I want to send money to the vets,” Trump told reporters Tuesday at Trump Tower in New York. “Instead of being like, ‘Thanks very much, Mr. Trump,’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everybody’s saying, ‘Who got it? Who got it? Who got it?’ And you make me look very bad.”
The donations have stirred unease among some of the charities, and split the veterans’ community.
“We appreciate the generous contribution, as it will help immensely, but we do not support or oppose any political candidate or party,” said Joe Chenelly, a Marine Corps veteran and executive director for AMVETS, which accepted $75,000. “That cannot and will not change.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell his group “politely” declined when the Trump campaign offered funding last week.
“We must remain impartial, and we’re not going to be used as a political prop for any candidate,” Rieckhoff said.
The group Veterans of Foreign Wars didn’t receive any of the funds, said Joe Davis, director of public affairs. He called the questions over Trump’s fundraising “a non-issue.”
“Whatever amount that was raised did make a difference to the groups that were the beneficiaries. That’s where the media’s focus should be,” Davis told Foreign Policy. “Properly taking care of veterans, service members, and their families belongs to no political party or ideology.”
Trump did acknowledge some delay in distributing the money, citing a robust review of each group before checks could be cut. A few of the veterans’ charities are well-known and national organizations, but many are small or local. The donations range from $50,000 to a high of $1.1 million. They include:
- The Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of fallen U.S. Marines and federal law enforcement officers, according to the group’s site. It received $1.1 million, $1 million of which Trump said came from his own pocket.
- The Navy Seal Foundation, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which was founded in 2000 to help ease the stressors of serving as a SEAL. The group was given $465,000.
- The Green Beret Foundation, founded in 2009 by a former Green Beret, collected $365,000, according to Trump. The organization held a large fundraiser at the annual SOFIC Special Operations conference in Tampa, Fla., in May that raised thousands of dollars auctioning off weapons, humidors, and other items donated to the group. The event featured a buffet and an open bar aboard an old WWII-era Liberty Ship docked downtown.
Four other groups — 22Kill, Achilles International, Inc., Folds of Honor Foundation, and Racing for Heroes, Inc. — all received $200,000.
The website for 22Kill — which describes itself as a “global movement bridging the gap between veterans and civilians to build a community of support” — autoplays loud rock music repeating “Now! Now!” over photos of service members. The group, which officially became a tax exempt nonprofit in July 2015, seeks to slow the alarming suicide rate among veterans. A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study in 2012 that found that an average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
Retired Marine Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and an advisor to Trump on veterans’ issues, scolded reporters at the press conference for failing to focus on veterans’ suicide and other, more pressing concerns than the Republican’s donations. “Stop using veterans as political pawns,” Baldasaro said.
Nonprofit veterans groups are facing a tough financial climate amid a declining veterans’ population and donations base. A December 2015 report found that despite increased needs for the more than 21 million veterans in the United States, donations to veterans’ nonprofits from corporations, philanthropies, and individuals have declined since 2001.
The large majority of veterans’ nonprofits pull in less than $100,000 per year, according to the study’s author, Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran, former Army officer, and the director of veterans research at the Center for a New American Security — meaning for a number of the groups, a novelty check from Trump outmatches an entire year’s earnings.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran who serves as chairman of VoteVets.org, blasted Trump as a “walking, talking fraud” who only acted because he was “caught up in a PR disaster.” VoteVets.org describes itself as nonpartisan, but also “the largest progressive organization of veterans in America.”
Karen Meredith, a military families’ liaison for VoteVets.org and also a Gold Star mother who lost her son Ken in 2004 in Iraq, said in a VoteVets.org statement that she is now certain Trump “feels no respect for the fallen.”
“I know I speak for a great many Gold Star mothers when I say that he has no place being commander in chief,” Meredith said.
FP reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this article.
Credit: Spencer Platt / Staff