Exclusive: Trump Tried to Pay Vets To Be Props
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump wanted a small veterans charity to be his political prop. They said no.
Liberty House is a scrappy veterans group in New Hampshire, with a small, $300,000 annual budget—one of the 22 organizations chosen to benefit from Trump’s multimillion-dollar fundraiser for vets.
On Friday, Liberty House executive director Keith Howard received a call from a Trump campaign staffer, who conveyed that Trump would like to publicly present them with a six-figure check at a Londonderry rally on Monday, right before the Granite State primary.
It’s an enormous amount of money for a small charity. But Howard said he wouldn’t do it—risking the entire, substantial donation on a point of principle.
Howard, a 57-year-old Army vet, objected to the use of veterans for political purposes. He doesn’t believe that his charity—which clothes the homeless, feeds the needy, and provides housing to 10 formerly homeless vets—should be presented with money by a political candidate at a political rally.
“This is not directed at the Trump campaign,” Howard said. “This is about any campaign.”
Plus, Howard believed appearing at a political rally could jeopardize his group’s nonprofit status—something a call to an expert in the state attorney general’s office confirmed. And he found it strange that the call was coming from a Trump campaign staffer, rather than someone related to the foundation that raised money for veterans.
One campaign legal expert said the interaction between Trump’s campaign and the Donald J. Trump Foundation was a serious issue.
“The campaign utilizing the foundation to help support and promote campaign events is a potential legal problem for both the campaign and the Trump Foundation,” said Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.
The value of the work the foundation did to assist the campaign event could be considered an illegal campaign contribution. And the foundation is barred from getting involved in political activity, such as supporting a campaign rally, he continued. “Neither the foundation nor other charities should be working hand-in-hand with the campaign to promote Trump’s campaign events.”
Howard called the Trump staffer back Friday afternoon: “This is not the right thing to be doing,” he said. Howard suggested that someone to drop by the house for a lower-key check dropoff, or even mail the check.
Now, to be clear, Howard has no problem taking money from Trump’s fundraising.
“After we said that we would take the money, I got between 15 to 20 emails calling me a whore, a prostitute, and saying that I had sold out. I feel very comfortable with what we’re doing, with taking money to help homeless veterans.” Howard said. “But I’ll be god damned if I, in any way, support a political candidate or make a campaign appearance with any candidates. We stand for doing the right thing.”
On Saturday afternoon, the Trump campaign relented.
Trump supporter and New Hampshire State Rep. Al Baldasaro called Howard, telling him the mogul would present the check to Baldasaro, himself a vet. The state representative would then deliver the check to Liberty House after the primary in a more subdued way.
“Liberty House was told by an attorney they could lose their nonprofit status it they are on the stage with Trump... I disagree but respect Keith’s wishes. The check will be presented to me on Monday at the event and I will set up a time to come to Liberty House or do it at the Hall of Flags on behalf of the Trump Foundation,” Baldasaro told The Daily Beast.
“Liberty House got the mountain to move to us, instead of us going to the mountain of cash,” Howard told The Daily Beast. “I can take pride that we maintained our position. I am glad that the Trump campaign has found a way to follow through on what it promised to do.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not the first time Howard and Liberty House have taken a principled stance, putting their own organization at risk in the process. In January, Liberty House announced that it would no longer take federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, amounting to $40,000 of their organization’s budget. This is because HUD has made funding contingent on a policy called “Housing First,” which has no expectation of drug or alcohol sobriety.
“This, I fear, is pious nonsense,” Howard wrote at the time. “Liberty House’s population, many newly clean and sober, would struggle in an alcohol/drug-friendly environment.” Howard speaks from experience, as a recovering alcoholic and vet himself who has struggled with homelessness.
Ultimately, Howard is willing to put money on the line, challenging one of America’s most powerful political figures and businessmen, to stand for what he believes in.
“We are not afraid to do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing, and it would not be right for me to appear with any political candidate simply to be used as a prop or a tool,” Howard said. “We’re very thankful that the Trump Foundation is donating money, but we’re not going to change what we do in any way for a paycheck.”