As Donald Trump began making noise about a possible bid for president in 2011, South Carolina conservative activist Oran Smith caught the celebrity businessman’s eye as a particularly vocal and potentially influential critic.
"Trump would get thumped here,” Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a social conservative public policy group, told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “He is a celebrity, but an apprentice at politics.”
Smith’s comments appeared in a March 2011 CBN story alongside feedback from other key national evangelical leaders such as Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins. Shortly after the story ran, Trump called Smith and invited him to meet at Trump Tower in New York, Smith told RealClearPolitics, “to see if he could convince me those things weren’t true.”
“It probably had something to do with, I was in an early primary state,” Smith said. Trump was “laying the foundation for a ... campaign,” Smith thought at the time, although “it was difficult trying to tell if he was serious about running for president or not.”
During their meeting in Trump’s office, they discussed Christian faith and religious liberty. Smith was struck by “a different Donald Trump than I expected.” On his way out the door, Smith asked that Trump consider donating to the Palmetto Family Council.
“He was never heavy-handed about any quid pro quo,” Smith said.
But Trump delivered.
“It was a quiet donation that came with a simple cover letter,” Smith said. It read: “Great meeting with you and your wife in my office,” dated May 6, 2011. Enclosed was a check for $10,000 from the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
That check is one of at least several donations to suggest Trump used his private foundation, funded by outside donors, to launch and fuel his political ambitions. Such contributions, if they were made solely for Trump’s benefit, could violate federal self-dealing laws for private foundations.
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