This happened just 11 years ago.
Photo: Carlos Osorio (AP Photo

On Tuesday, the New York State Attorney General’s Office announced that they had reached a settlement in their suit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation over its (prolific) self-dealing and other assorted misdeeds. Beyond the usual Trump-scented malfeasance in which the foundation engaged, one detail especially jumps out: the foundation’s biggest donors were WWE founder Vince McMahon and his wife Linda, the latter of which is now a member of Trump’s cabinet. The actual story of how the McMahon’s money wound up in Trump’s Foundation is quite a bit more complicated than that, though, most notably because the Foundation’s official filings say that it was in fact WWE, the McMahons’ publicly-traded company, made the donations. This goes against multiple contradictory denials that the company has made over the years regarding its responsibility.

The connection between the Trump Foundation and the McMahons was first reported by The Smoking Gun in April 2011, as the site did an investigation into the foundation and determined that Trump was “the least charitable billionaire.” The article, which has no byline and includes images from the Foundation’s 990 forms in question, states outright that the donations were made “in return for the developer’s assistance in working a couple of televised angles along with WWE boss Vince McMahon.” That’s a logical enough conclusion given that the donations are listed in the filings as coming directly from WWE and that their timing coincides with Trump’s storyline involvement with the company—in 2007, which was when Trump and Vince put their hair on the line at WrestleMania 23, and then 2009, when Trump “bought” Monday Night Raw from Vince only to sell it back at a profit the following week.

If we operate under the assumption that the filing is correct—well, and also tune out the Foundation being both a gigantic mess and a self-dealing scam—it doesn’t even seem controversial. It reads as if WWE, in lieu of paying Trump personally, instead paid his charitable organization so that he could direct the funds to the worthy charities of his choice. WWE’s long history of very public charitable partnerships only makes this more convincing.

The 2011 story, which was picked up by prominent wrestling media like PWInsider (link may contain malicious ads), 411Mania, and Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, drew no public comment from WWE at the time. The Christian Science Monitor picked up the story as well and included the bit about WWE, although their reporting left out the part about the donations being payments for Trump’s appearances. It wasn’t controversial and fell out of the news cycle quickly. Reached by Deadspin to see if The Smoking Gun had heard from WWE about the story, site founder William Bastone said that they had not.

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If WWE was aware of that 2011 report, it took 18 months for them to say anything about it. Just 13 days before Election Day in 2012, Trump tweeted a link to a YouTube video, which has since been removed from The Trump Organization’s YouTube channel; it’s archived by The Guardian and various third party YouTubers. In it, Trump offers to donate $5 million to a charity of then-President Barack Obama’s choosing if Obama produced his “college records and applications” and “passport application and records.” Just days after the Smoking Gun article ran in 2011, Obama had responded to Trump’s hectoring over his birth certificate—which he had in fact produced years earlier—by getting Hawaii to release a scan of the original from 1961. With that particular racist conspiracy theory killed, to the extent any such thing ever dies, Trump instantly pivoted to a new one about Obama having something to hide in the aforementioned other records.

Trump’s buffoonish attempt at an October Surprise failed, and that $5 million offer led to TSG boosting the 2011 story, which in turn led a Hearst Newspapers reporter to contact WWE. “WWE has not made any donation to the Donald J. Trump Foundation,” a WWE spokesperson told Hearst on the evening of October 24, 2012. “However, as I understand it, the Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation has donated $5 million in total to the Donald J. Trump Foundation.” That didn’t help matters, as Linda was running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut for the second time after a failed bid in 2010. She was positioning herself as a moderate Republican at the time, to the point that she reminded voters that they didn’t have to vote straight party lines, and so could vote for her and Obama.

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Being linked to Trump’s latest race-baiting gambit—especially via the suggestion that he would be spending the $5 million that the McMahons, their company, or their foundation had given him—was not exactly something McMahon needed at the time, much less from a WWE spokesman. The next day, the same spokesman told Hearst that the donations actually came from Vince McMahon personally, without any involvement from Linda, their foundation, or WWE. A Trump publicist did not return their request for comment. In fact, the Trump side has never commented anywhere about this story, beyond filing the forms attributing the donations to WWE.

Obama won again, McMahon lost again, and the story went dormant for years. While it came up during Trump’s presidential campaign, it was usually as more of a curiosity noted in the broader Trump Foundation reporting. In 2017, though, after Linda was appointed to Trump’s cabinet as the administrator of the Small Business Administration, interest in the story was reignited again. By that point, it was clear that the Trump Foundation was a grift of some kind, and a mysterious and notably large donation to that foundation that may or may not have been made by a cabinet member was a topic worth exploring. That brings us to April 2017, when Dan Alexander, a Forbes staffer on the Trump beat, published the deepest dive to date on the mystery of the WWE/McMahon donations.

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Alexander’s story cuts to the chase quickly: according to a WWE spokesperson, who was not named or directly quoted, “the money did not actually come from the company—as the filing states—but instead from WWE’s wealthy cofounders, Vince and Linda McMahon.” That, of course, contradicts WWE’s final 2012 statement, although it echoes one they gave the Huffington Post’s Christina Wilkie in 2016. When reached for comment on the discrepancy and to see if he’d forward the text of the statements that WWE sent him, Alexander declined. (“I’m just going to let the story stand for itself at this point,” he wrote.) His story does add some credibility to the idea that the $5 million wasn’t a WWE donation by noting that the company’s SEC filings didn’t mention any such donations.

“But that raises additional questions,” Alexander wrote. “Did the Trump Foundation make an error in recording its biggest donation of the year? And why would the McMahons give so much money to the foundation of a New York City real estate tycoon who was not especially known for his charitable giving?” Later, Alexander mentions that not only would WWE not provide proof of the donations’ true origins, but that 2007’s $4 million donation, at least, was out of sync with the McMahons’ own philanthropy. The couple gave $5 million to their own Vince & Linda McMahon Family Foundation that year, with their outside biggest donation being $1 million to Sacred Heart University. “Why would the McMahons give four times as much to Trump’s foundation?” asks Alexander.

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Perhaps more importantly, why would the Trump Foundation misreport the origin of the donations that formed the vast majority of the money flowing into it for those years? Not that they were above misreporting such information or any other kind of information, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason for the Foundation to have done so. Former WWE executives Donna Goldsmith and Michael Sileck told Alexander that they didn’t remember any such donations, but agreed that it was probably from Vince personally. Goldsmith, though, did theorize that it was still a payment for Trump’s services as a performer. After all, there appeared to be similar connections for some of the other large donations to the Trump Foundation.

Comedy Central donated $400,000 in 2011, the year that the network roasted Trump. It had been reported contemporaneously by the New York Post that at least one past special, 2005's roast of Pamela Anderson, saw the network donate to PETA for the star’s participation, so the idea of such a donation is supported by past precedent. (A Comedy Central spokesperson, when asked if the Trump Foundation donation was similarly in lieu of an appearance fee, told Deadspin that “we have no on-the-record comment to add to your piece.”) And People Magazine contributed $150,000 in 2006, the year that the magazine ran exclusive baby photos of Barron Trump. (As of this writing, neither People’s former parent company Warner Media nor current owners The Meredith Group have responded to a request for comment on whether the donation was in lieu of a fee for the photos.) Norwegian Cruise Line, though, confirmed to Huffington Post in 2016 that the company’s $100,000 donation in 2005 was in lieu of paying an appearance fee to Melania Trump.

So we know that the Foundation taking a contribution in lieu of an appearance fee for something Trump-related happened in the same general time frame as the disputed donations from the McMahons and Trump’s WWE appearances. In an email, William Bastone told Deadspin that this was why the 2011 Smoking Gun article drew the conclusion that the donations were for Trump’s WWE appearances. Still, WWE disputed Goldsmith’s theory in an email to Alexander. “The donations to the Trump Foundation were personal donations made by the McMahons and not tied to appearance fees,” a spokesperson wrote. “Separate appearance fees were paid to Trump by WWE.” This, at least, was consistent with WWE telling Hearst in 2012 that the company personally paid Trump a $1 million appearance fee for WrestleMania 23 in 2007.

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(For what it’s worth, the Trump Foundation’s 990 form for 2013, the last year in which Trump appeared for WWE, does not list WWE as a contributor. That appearance, less than six months after the initial controversy over the donations, was for his induction into the “celebrity wing” of the WWE Hall of Fame in a ceremony at Madison Square Garden. Trump was booed heavily by the thousands of fans in attendance, as were his sons when they were introduced; Ivanka did get cheers.)

The Forbes article was basically the last word on this particular mystery until now, and more recent breadcrumbs are far from definitive. Matt Flegenheimer’s profile of Linda for the New York Times from this past February aligns with the Forbes story in noting that the donations came from Vince and Linda personally, but doesn’t cite any sources for that claim. When reached by Deadspin, Flegenheimer said that he’d have to check for specifics, but believed that a separate researcher was responsible for that being stated factually in the story. To the best of his recollection, it did not come up in his interview with Linda.

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When asked by Deadspin about the contradictory stories, and the implication of the Trump Foundation misreporting a McMahon family donation, and whether there was any documentation to back up their version, what did WWE say? The same thing they told HuffPo and Forbes: That the contributions were “personal donations from Vince and Linda McMahon,” providing no further proof or comment, like an explanation of the changing stories. One more mystery for the pile, then.

As of this writing, Deadspin has not received on the record responses to requests for comment sent to the Small Business Administration, the Trump White House, and Trump Foundation attorney Alan Futerfas. This article will be updated if that changes.


David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.