In 1996, the Association to Benefit Children charity held a ribbon-cutting in Manhattan for a new nursery school serving children with Aids. The bold-faced names took seats up front.

There was then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Mayor David Dinkins. Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford were major donors. And there was a seat saved for Steven Fisher, a developer who had given generously to build the nursery.

Then, all of a sudden, there was Donald Trump.

"Nobody knew he was coming," said Abigail Disney, another donor sitting on the dais. "There's this kind of ruckus at the door, and I don't know what was going on, and in comes Donald Trump. [He] just gets up on the podium and sits down."


Trump was not a major donor. He was not a donor, period. He'd never given a dollar to the nursery or the Association to Benefit Children, according to Gretchen Buchenholz, the charity's executive director then and now. But now he was sitting in Fisher's seat.

"Frank Gifford turned to me and said, 'Why is he here?'" Buchenholz recalled recently. By then, the ceremony had begun. There was nothing to do. Afterward, Disney and Buchenholz recalled, Trump left without offering an explanation. Or a donation. Fisher was stuck in the audience. The charity spent months trying to repair its relationship with him. "I mean, what's wrong with you, man?" Disney recalled thinking of Trump, when it was over.

For as long as he has been rich and famous, Donald Trump has also wanted people to believe he is generous. He spent years constructing an image as a philanthropist by appearing at charity events and by making very public - even nationally televised - promises to give his own money away.

It was, in large part, a facade. A months-long investigation by the Washington Post has not been able to verify many of Trump's boasts about his philanthropy. Instead, throughout his life in the spotlight, whether as a businessman, television star or presidential candidate, the Post found that Trump had sought credit for charity he had not given - or had claimed other people's giving as his own.

It is impossible to know for certain what Trump has given to charity, because he has declined to release his tax returns. The Post was able to identify US$7.8 million in charitable giving from Trump's own pocket since the early 1980s.

In public appearances, Trump often made it appear that he gave far more. Trump promised to give away the proceeds of Trump University. He promised to donate the salary he earned from The Apprentice. He promised to give personal donations to the charities chosen by contestants on Celebrity Apprentice. He promised to donate US$250,000 to a charity helping Israeli soldiers and veterans. The Post has been unable to verify that he followed through on any of them.

Instead, the Post found that his personal giving has almost disappeared . After calling 420-plus charities with some connection to Trump, the Post found only one personal gift from Trump between 2008 and the northern spring of this year. That was a gift to the Police Athletic League of New York in 2009. It was worth less than US$10,000.

The charity that Trump has given the most money to over his lifetime appears to be his own: the Donald Trump Foundation. But that charity, too, was not what it seemed. It has been funded largely by other people. Tax records show the Trump Foundation has received US$5.5 million from Trump over its life, and nothing since 2008. It received US$9.3 million from other people.

One of the foundation's most consistent causes was Trump himself.

New findings, for instance, show that the Trump Foundation's largest-ever gift - US$264,631 - was used to renovate a fountain outside the windows of Trump's Plaza Hotel. Its smallest-ever gift, for US$7, was paid to the Boy Scouts in 1989, at a time when it cost US$7 to register a new Scout. Trump's oldest son was 11 at the time. Trump did not respond to a question about whether the money paid to register him.

At other times, Trump used his foundation's funds to settle legal disputes involving Trump's for-profit companies and to buy two large portraits of himself, including one that wound up hanging on the wall of the sports bar at a Trump-owned golf resort. Those purchases raised questions about whether Trump had violated laws against "self-dealing" by charity leaders.

In advance of this story, the Post sent more than 70 questions to the Trump campaign. It did not respond.

"All of this is completely consistent with who Trump is. He's a man who operates inside a tiny bubble that never extends beyond what he believes is his self-interest," said Tony Schwartz, Trump's co-author on his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. Schwartz has become a critic of Trump.

"If your worldview is only you - if all you're seeing is a mirror - then there's nobody to give money to," Schwartz said. "Except yourself."

Of the US$7.8 million in personal giving that the Post identified, about 70 per cent - US$5.5 million - went to the Trump Foundation, which was founded in 1987. All of that giving came before 2009; since then, the foundation's tax records show no donations at all from Trump to his foundation. Its coffers have been filled by others, including US$5 million from pro-wrestling executives Vince and Linda McMahon. At least US$1.1 million of Trump's giving has come in the last six months.

At times, Trump seemed to make light of others' expectations about his generosity.

In 1997, for instance, he was "principal for a day" at a public school in an impoverished area of the Bronx. The chess team was holding a bake sale, Hot & Crusty danishes and croissants. They were US$5000 short of what they needed to travel to a tournament.

Trump had brought something to wow them.

"He handed them a fake million-dollar bill," said David MacEnulty, a teacher and the chess team's coach. The team's parent volunteers were thrilled. Then disappointed. Trump then gave them US$200 in real money and drove away in a limousine.

Why just US$200?

"I have no idea," MacEnulty said. "He was about the most clueless person I've ever seen in that regard."

The happy ending, he said, was that a woman read about Trump's gift in the New York Times, called the school and donated the US$5000. "I am ashamed to be the same species as this man," MacEnulty recalled her saying.