David Fahrenthold is one of the journalism stars of the 2016 campaign due to a string of revelations about Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack of same).
His latest disclosure prompted instant action from the state of New York, prompting state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to suspend the foundation’s charitable activities in the state.
During a break amid cable TV appearances Monday night, he discussed the latest story, as well as his notable use of crowdsourcing in his reporting.
How did this come about?
Two weeks ago I was doing a story about how people who owed him money were told to give to the foundation. I was looking for tax attorneys who were experts and found guys at Caplin & Drysdale who said he couldn’t respond because he was conflicted. But he gave me the name of a law professor I didn’t know. She didn’t want to be named and suggested that I look at a particular provision, which shows that they weren’t registered. I had no idea. Would never have known in a million years.
This wasn’t crowdsourcing. It was just luck. It started with the usual calling of experts. And nobody had realized the significance (of a relevant filing by the foundation), not even the Attorney General. She (the professor) knew it was wrong.
I had emailed her about some other matters and said I had some general questions. She took it upon herself to find that the designation was not what it was supposed to be. It was a complete surprise.
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When did you decide to crowdsource some of your reporting? Did the success of anybody else in particular pique your interest?
It is something I had never done before. Stories I had done in 2013-2014 were about government waste and bureaucracy, and I would do them in traditional way. Then in 2015 I did profiles of presidential candidates, like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.
Using social media this way got started in May of this year. I wondered if he (Trump) had given the million dollars (to veterans groups) he said he did. Then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said yes but wouldn’t say to whom. That it was secret. I said, “huh?”
But the world of veteran’s charities is very big. I could publicly reach out to the big ones, they would see what I was looking into and so might others. Maybe I would get answers from people I wasn’t asking initially. I did it for a day, tweeting, and thought it was initially a waste. But Trump did a tweetstorm, and then gave the money after I asked for it on Twitter.
So I then realized that I could do it (use social media) in broader way, looking for all the money he had given away — not just to veterans.
I’m sure there are, but I have had really good luck. I have gotten a lot of things that people sincerely offered, like the (tip on the) 6-foot portrait of Trump. I think I’ve seen all of them, but not the ones I was looking for originally. I wish some of tips had come true! But I have to say I am amazed at how positively people have reacted. That they are interested and want to help.
There was a reporter I had read for a long time and admired. I got a direct message from him at home as he was going through prom photos at Trump’s golf course in Westchester (County, outside New York City). He was looking for photos of Trump, hoping to find a portrait of him in the background him, that was unsuccessful. But all sort of people have contacted me on social media.
There was the $10,000 4-foot portrait. I only found out about it because somebody had seen I was writing about it on Twitter. I got a call from someone in Palm Beach, who said to Google (artist Havi Schanz) and Trump, and that Trump had bought it. I then found the artist and a photo.
That night, a reader on Twitter goes to the TripAdvisor site for Trump’s golf course in Miami, the Doral. He goes through about 365 user photos of the Doral. And there was one (portrait of Trump) on a wall. Then, a TV anchor (Jorge Acevedo) for Univision who worked nearby sees that and checks into the Doral and later tweets out that he had found it.
He checked into a room at 12:30 at night and convinced a member of the cleaning staff to open up door to a bar so he could find it. All of this happened in three days.
So, beyond the use of social media, what is your advice to journalists based on your campaign experience?
My advice is about how important it is to organize your research so you can use it again and again. I started on the Trump Foundation stuff in March. I read through all the documents and made Google spreadsheets of incoming and outgoing donations. It was organized so I could search and search again.
I started knowing nothing about charity law and now come back to things I found six months ago but didn’t understand. Now I realize I had discovered something that was illegal. It’s important to organize information and be able to refer back to it months later. Otherwise, you keep redoing the same stuff.
What’s been Trump’s reaction, generally speaking?
Generally, unreactive. In the beginning they responded to some of my questions, not all. As is often the case, he may not respond to me, but I will hear their response on television. A good example is the portrait at the Doral and why it was bought with charity money. They claimed it was ‘in storage’ on the wall (of the bar).
Their most common reaction has not been hostile. The first time I had phone interview in a long time was two weeks ago, about how money comes into the foundation. They tried to tell me that what happened had never happened. He (a lawyer) said, “Prove me wrong.” So I gave other examples. It wasn’t confrontational.