Failed or Not, Trump's 'Donate or No Debate' Demands Raise Ethics Concerns
“Here’s my question: So if I go to CNN and I say, ‘Look, you’re going to have a massive audience,’ and if I say to them, ‘I want $10 million for charity, nothing for myself,’ what happens? I’m not showing up, right?” That's what Donald Trump told Time magazine for its August cover story. When we covered this little tidbit then, we wondered aloud how this "strong-arm philanthropy," as we called it, would go over. "Would CNN (or any network) agree to that kind of scenario?" we wrote. "Who knows (but we’re betting not)."
We were right. In September, ahead of CNN's GOP debate, Trump wrote a letter to the network demanding that it donate debate proceeds to veterans charities. CNN never issued a formal response. Trump showed up anyway.
Now, he's at it again.
Last Monday, at a rally in Georgia, Trump took the stage in front of the "Make America Great Again" faithful and threatened a boycott once again. “How about I tell CNN that I’m not gonna do the next debate?” Trump said, according to USA Today. “I won’t do the debate unless they pay me $5 million, all of which money goes to the Wounded Warriors or to vets."
There it was. The ultimatum cast. The stage set for drama. The September debate attracted 23 million viewers, a record for CNN and an affirmation that Trump was must-see TV. Surely, CNN couldn't and wouldn't risk a Trump boycott this time around—right?
“No,” said CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker at a Paley Center for Media event last Thursday, as reported by Variety. “We do not pay candidates to appear.”
Oh. Well, that settles it.
His bluff called, Trump reluctantly walked back his boycott threat. "When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate,” he told The Washington Post on Thursday. “I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal and I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So I’ll do the debate.”
Trump has a relatively comfortable 20-point lead in the polls, and is maybe the only candidate with the right combination of visibility, funding and bombast to even attempt a move like this. And still, the risks of not appearing in a major televised debate far outweighed the rhetorical gains. It's unlikely we'll see this become a trend—strong-arming big donations out of major organizations is not the future of philanthropy. We already knew that.
But the whole situation raises some ethical red flags. Demanding that CNN donate to charity "or else" is essentially extortion. And Trump naming veterans charities—specifically "Wounded Warriors"—in his demands is outright exploitation. If Trump wanted to help wounded veterans, he could easily do so ($5 million amounts to just 0.11 percent of his $4.5 billion net worth). Yet, for all his posturing, he's done little to help—according to Forbes, he's donated just $57,000 to veterans charities since 2009.
Clearly, it was a calculated move meant to play to Trump's supporters and put CNN in an untenable position, while drawing even more publicity for the Trump 2016 campaign. And in the latter regard, it was a success. But using charity as a political crowbar is the antithesis of what philanthropy should be about; using veterans charities is worse.
With CNN twice shooting down Trump's demands and Trump twice showing up anyway, this hopefully marks the last time we'll see this situation play out. We're betting not.