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During the 2016 campaign, I spent a lot of time trying to answer a simple question: Had Donald Trump followed through on his many public promises to donate money to charity?
The answer, for the most part, was "no." Although Trump had spent years promising to give away his money - the proceeds from Trump University, his salary from "The Apprentice," the money he made renting a tent to Moammar Gadhafi - I couldn't find much evidence he'd actually done it. In fact, after trying 450 charities, I'd found only one gift to charity from Trump's own pocket in the years between 2008 and 2015. And it was for less than $10,000. I also found that Trump had used his personal charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation - which was filled with other people's money - in ways that seemed to break the law.
And, along the way, I learned something about the president's personality, by studying a lot of small decisions - when Trump gave money, and when he didn't - that Trump made when he thought nobody was looking.
Now that Trump is in the White House, some of the same behavior patterns have appeared again. There are three main lessons that we learned last year . . . and now seem to be learning again:
1. The president's decision-making is guided more by personal relationships than abstract ideals, and by short-term goals rather than long-term strategy.
One of the surprising themes of Trump's charitable record was that it seemed to have no theme. Even when Trump was giving away other people's money - through the Donald J. Trump Foundation - he didn't focus that money on a particular university, or hospital, or other charity. [Eric Trump, by contrast, largely funneled his charity's money to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis]. The money Trump gave away was instead scattered across a variety of vastly different nonprofits, everything from a charity for gay and lesbian youth to an outfit run by conservative provocateur James O'Keefe. When I dug into those individual donations, I found that they were often driven by Trump's social or business connections: he gave to charities that were honoring his friends, or to charities that rented ballrooms from him at the Mar-a-Lago Club.
The result was that Trump - a man who loves putting his name on things - wound up with almost no physical evidence of his charitable giving.
I searched for any items that a charity had named in Trump's honor, and came up with a theater seat in New Jersey, a theater seat in Florida, and a park bench in New York. By thinking only in the short-term, and tending to relationships rather than seeking a broader cause, Trump had missed a chance to make a real difference in the world - and to burnish his personal brand with a monument to his philanthropy.
As president, of course, Trump has seemed to prize personal relationships, and short-term wins, above long-term policy aims. He backed off tough rhetoric about China's role in North Korea, after getting a 10-minute tutorial from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was pulled away from his campaign-trail rhetoric on health care - promising to "take care of everybody" - by a desire for a policy "win," and the wiles of a strong negotiator: House Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows, R-N.C. In fits of pique, Trump has Twitter-roasted the very people whose help he will need later to make deals, like Freedom Caucus members and top Senate Democrat Charles Schumer, N.Y.
The result, after nearly 100 days, is a familiar one. Trump's list of presidential achievements so far looks like the policy equivalent of two theater seats and a park bench.
2. The president's social world is rather small, and the peer group he values most - seeking out their advice and company - is defined by wealth, and centered in South Florida and New York.
In my charity reporting, I was surprised to find that Trump - a businessman with a global reputation, and a candidate with a zeal for forgotten voters in rural America - had given almost all his donations to charities in just two places: New York and Palm Beach. There were exceptions to that rule, but not many. Trump gave to charities in Chicago and Los Angeles, but these turned out to be related to contestants he met on "The Celebrity Apprentice." He gave to a cancer charity in Buffalo, but that was related to a favor he'd asked of another guy named Donald Trump, who was a cancer doctor in Buffalo. He gave to a few conservative groups, as he was beginning his ascent in GOP politics.
But the lesson seemed to be that Trump divided his world into customers and peers (though the peers were often customers, too). He usually donated money to keep up relationships with peers, so his donations showed how narrowly his peers were clustered - in the two places Trump has spent the bulk of his adult life.
Now - even after winning an upset victory by capturing the hopes of rural and middle-class voters - President Donald Trump's most precious commodity has not been his money but his time. And he has given that time disproportionately to the same peer group he gave his money . Trump has spent about one-fifth of his presidency in Palm Beach, according to calculations by my colleague Philip Bump. He has not yet taken a trip west of the Mississippi River. And even within his inner circle, populists like former Breitbart News leader Steve Bannon are said to be losing ground to other advisers who came from the world of New York's wealthy elite. They include chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
3. The president's marketing strategy relies on promising big results -- and he relies on the assumption that public promises will be kept.
During my research, I went back and catalogued Trump's promises to donate money to charity. I was struck by how many he'd made: in all, Trump's public pledges after 2001 totalled $8.5 million or more. Usually, Trump didn't name which charity he planned to help, which made it hard to check whether he'd kept his word. I searched far and wide, and found little evidence he did. I also found at least one case where Trump had made a specific pledge to a specific charity - a $250,000 promise to a charity that helps Israeli soldiers and veterans - and didn't pay up (Another unnamed person paid Trump's pledge instead, the charity said.)
But Trump seemed to suffer little reputational damage. The media covered his promise, but -- since Trump was just a reality-TV star, not a presidential candidate -- they didn't usually check on the follow-through. During the campaign, when The Washington Post pressed Trump to supply details of his giving, he refused.
"I give mostly to a lot of different groups," Trump said in one interview.
"Can you give us any names?" asked The Post's Drew Harwell in May.
"No, I don't want to. No, I don't want to," Trump responded. "I'd like to keep it private."
Since his election, Trump has repeatedly used this tactic: promising major actions and revelations, and relying on the public belief that a president will keep promises. On a Saturday in late December, he promised to deliver major news about Russian hacking on "Tuesday or Wednesday." He didn't. Then, in January, he promised a major report on hacking "in 90 days." This month, the 90th day passed with no report. He promised a "major investigation" into voter fraud during the 2016 election, but since then media reports have indicated that the investigation is going slowly, or not at all.
But this tactic is far harder to pull off now, because Trump and his promises are under far more scrutiny. This week, a Gallup poll found that only 45 percent of Americans believe Trump "keeps his promises," a number that was down 17 points just since February.
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