Analysis: There’s a possible connection between the Trump Foundation and Vince McMahon’s newly-revealed unrecorded payments

WWE stated in a public filing on Tuesday it found an additional $5 million in unrecorded company expenses related to two payments former CEO and chairman Vince McMahon made in 2007 and 2009.

Many, including me, initially thought the additional money had to do with McMahon’s series of alleged pay-offs to women for nondisclosure agreements, but after some research, it seems more likely it’s connected to Donald Trump.

According to IRS filings, WWE spent a total of exactly $5 million in contributions to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in the same two years, 2007 and 2009. The records indicate the contributions came from WWE, and use its headquarters address, with no specific person named; the latest years-old comments from WWE’s media relations attributed the donations to Vince McMahon and his wife Linda McMahon, personally.

We asked a WWE spokesperson this week whether the similarities in the payment amounts and years are an unrelated coincidence, but have yet to hear back.

Tuesday was WWE’s stated target date for publishing reissued financial statements and its second-quarter earnings, but instead, the company wrote the report was being delayed.

Vince McMahon resigned on July 22 from the company he’s been closely identified with since the 1980s, amid an investigation by WWE’s board of directors into his alleged sexual misconduct and money paid to multiple women for NDAs between 2006 and 2022. The previously concealed pay-offs, which, until Tuesday, the company stated totaled $14.6 million, should’ve been recorded in WWE’s financial reporting because they benefited the company.

The unrecorded expenses WWE states it needs to catch up on have grown to $19.6 million.

“[T]he Company has determined that two additional payments totaling $5.0 million, unrelated to the allegations that led to the Special Committee investigation, that Mr. McMahon made in 2007 and 2009 should have been recorded in the Company’s consolidated financial statements,” the company wrote in the Tuesday filing.

WWE was by far the biggest contributor to the Trump Foundation in 2007 and 2009, giving the organization $4 million and $1 million in those years, respectively, and in round numbers — which adds up to match the $5.0 million mentioned in the new WWE filing. Those were also years when the future U.S. president made rare appearances on WWE television programs.

Trump and McMahon supported opposing wrestlers on pay-per-view at WrestleMania in 2007 in what was billed “The Battle of the Billionaires” and resulted in McMahon having his head shaved as a stipulation of his side losing. In 2009, Trump, in an on-air storyline, “bought” WWE’s weekly Monday Night Raw program and “sold” it soon after.

Despite the IRS filings listing WWE as the contributors to the Foundation in those years, a WWE spokesperson in October 2012 said the money came directly from Vince McMahon, as opposed to the company, or both Vince and Linda. The WWE comment was made weeks before the election in which Linda was running for U.S. Senate for the second time.

Later, in 2016, a WWE spokesperson denied the Foundation contributions served as Trump’s appearance fees and that “WWE paid Donald Trump appearance fees separately.” But this time WWE said both McMahons personally made the contributions to the Foundation. “Vince and Linda McMahon made personal donations to Donald Trump’s foundation,” the spokesperson told the Huffington Post at the time.

WWE gave a comment consistent with that in 2017 after former chief operating officer Donna Goldsmith theorized the donations were in exchange for Trump’s appearances.

It wouldn’t be the first time Trump did something like that. He accepted donations to the Foundation in exchange for other work he did in entertainment, including from NBCUniversal and Comedy Central.

“My guess is that [the contributions to the Trump Foundation] did come directly from Vince,” Goldsmith told Forbes in 2017. “It was probably a payment for the [2007] ‘Hair Versus Hair’ match.”

Trump’s appearances at and leading up to WWE’s biggest pay-per-view event of the year in 2007 possibly being related to a $4 million contribution, and his 2009 appearances on Raw possibly being connected to a lesser $1 million contribution, could reflect the difference in the agreed-upon value of those two sets of appearances.

As for the possible motivation for compensating Trump through his Foundation for performing on WWE television, doing so may have allowed Trump to avoid paying taxes, something he’s made an effort to do in other cases. Likewise, claiming a large charitable donation to the Trump Foundation might have eased the McMahons’ personal tax burden in those years. Whether any of that is legal is another question.

And there’s one more coincidence, but with less reason yet to believe it’s related to the latest details on the scandal surrounding Vince McMahon. The wrestling company’s disclosure on Tuesday came just a day after the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Beyond the timing and the relationship between Trump and the McMahons, there isn’t more evidence yet that the search, seemingly related to the suspected removal of classified documents from the White House, is connected to McMahon. The Department of Justice on Thursday moved to unseal the search warrant and the itemized receipt of what was taken by the FBI.

The scandal that led to Vince McMahon’s resignation began emerging to the public in June when The Wall Street Journal broke the story. Allegations include a coerced sex act with one of his former female wrestlers, sending unwanted nude photos, and having inappropriate relationships with his employees.

Federal investigations scrutinizing the scandal are underway, according to a report from the Journal last month. The report said those investigations played a role in compelling McMahon to permanently step down from WWE. He remains the company’s controlling shareholder. Another executive who is a subject of misconduct allegations, John Laurinaitis, who headed the company’s talent relations department, was fired.

Linda McMahon, who is a former WWE executive, served in Trump’s cabinet as Small Business Administrator from 2017 to 2019. She’s continued leading political organizations supporting Trump even after his presidency ended.

Trump and the McMahons have a long relationship that goes back to the 1980s when Trump’s venues in Atlantic City hosted the McMahons’ WrestleMania events in 1988 and 1989.

Since Vince’s resignation, Stephanie McMahon (his daughter) and Nick Khan have taken over as co-CEOs. Stephanie assumes his place as chairman of the board of directors. Stephanie’s husband and Vince’s son-in-law, “Triple H” Paul Levesque is now in Vince’s former role as head of creative and in Laurinaitis’s former role as head of talent relations.

Donald J. Trump Foundation’s Form 990-PF for period ending December 2007, page 16. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.

Donald J. Trump Foundation’s Form 990-PF for period ending December 2009, page 16. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.

WWE’s Form 12b-25, published August 9, 2022, page 2. Highlight added by Wrestlenomics.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer. For more, see our About page.

Donald and Vince, Vince and Donald

Yes, the two billionaires collaborated at Wrestlemania events in 1988, 1989, and 2007. And, yes, Linda McMahon was appointed to head the Small Business Administration; and, yes, she now chairs and heavily donates to the president’s official SuperPAC. Yes, they’re both known for telling people, “You’re fired,” on TV. Yes, they both inherited power from their fathers — although they will remind you they were loaned, not given, money from their dads. And yes, they each have been accused of sexual assault more than once. But it doesn’t end there.

Reporters and pundits are repeatedly struck by what they see as Donald Trump’s new presidential tone, suggesting that — after years of inflammatory speech, gross mismanagement, and an inability or unwillingness to distinguish truth from wishes — he might finally begin behaving like a normal president. He never does.

Reporters and pundits are repeatedly struck, too, by what they see as Vince McMahon’s new approach to WWE creative, suggesting that after years of terrible TV shows, a chronic failure to develop stars, and an inability or unwillingness to distinguish his consumers’ taste from what he wishes it was — he will finally get Raw and Smackdown back on track. He never does.

The cabinet members surrounding the president turnover rapidly. They’re introduced with effusive praise before they’re cast off with insults. The naive among us buy the notion that the aides are indeed the problem.

The members of the creative team surrounding the CEO turn over rapidly. They may be introduced with effusive praise, although Vince doesn’t insult them publicly on the way out. (To his credit he lacks his friend’s degree of pathological narcissism.) The naive among us buy the notion that it’s “the writers” who are the problem.

Despite being the wealthiest nation and the supposed leader of the free world, Donald has set the country on a track through which those notions are not sustainable, if they are even still true.

Despite being the wealthiest wrestling company and the supposed industry leader, Vince has set his company on a track through which those notions are not sustainable, if the latter is even still true.

Donald disdains the media that covers him; he calls them “fake news”. Well before Donald did so, Vince disdained the media that covered him; he calls them “the dirt sheets“.

Speaking of which, Donald thinks he’s brilliant when it comes to branding and redefining language in his favor: “fake news”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Sleepy Joe”, “China Virus”. Vince thinks he’s brilliant in this regard as well. He doesn’t have wrestlers; he has “superstars”. He doesn’t have fans; he has “the WWE Universe”. He’s not in the wrestling business; he promotes “sports entertainment”. These terms are generally adopted only by their most sycophantic supporters.

Donald has affection for the Saudi government. Despite a host of ongoing human rights offenses, they’re an extremely lucrative business partner. Vince has affection for the Saudi government. Despite a host of ongoing human rights offenses, they’re an extremely lucrative business partner.

His reactions to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic show how Donald lacks the discipline for long-term planning. He’s recklessly optimistic in the face of serious challenges. He’s unable to act on anything but quick fixes, nor can he discern good advice from that which affirms his ego. Whether it’s hydroxychloroquine or a fast reopening or unsafely rushing a vaccine. Not to mention, Donald is wary to embrace coronavirus testing; for fear testing may tell him bad news.

Vince’s reactions to crises like declining TV ratings show how he lacks the discipline for long-term planning. He’s recklessly optimistic in the face of serious challenges. He’s unable to act on anything but quick fixes or distinguish good advice from that which affirms his ego. Whether it’s Raw Underground or the Thunderdome or bringing back legends from the past. Not to mention, Vince was wary to embrace coronavirus testing; for fear testing may tell him bad news.

They both seem to appeal disproportionately to an older and less educated audience, prone to conspiratorial beliefs.

Both of their cults of personality are apparently capable of turning people who were once lionized — like Lindsey Graham and Rudy Giuliani … or Seth Rollins and Edge — into shameless disciples of power who’ve internalized a familiar victim complex. Those who escape the cult are either deafening in their silence — or, they write books … or record interviews with Chris Jericho, describing the chaotic and dysfunctional scenes of their former workplace.

Vince will control WWE creative for the remainder of his functioning life. Donald jokes (or is it a joke?) about running for an unconstitutional third term as president. Regardless of occasional and thinly veiled messages to the contrary, their behavior only supports the notion that their personal philosophies are one of Darwinian libertarian anarchy and self-aggrandizement. The only thing they value more than money is their power and ability to control their environment. Without objective moral values, they resort to value people only insofar as they are loyal to them personally. As Vince protected Pat Patterson, so did Donald protect Roger Stone.

They both have first-born sons who conspicuously sweat heavily when they speak on TV. They each have more effective daughters. And each of those said daughters married men with a calculation for consolidating power within the family’s world, despite a lack of corporate experience (in Paul Levesque’s case) or political experience (in Jared Kushner’s case).

The fate of the United States is far more serious than that of a company like WWE, obviously, yet the parallels between the chief executives of the two entities are remarkable.

There are noticeable differences, too, though, if only relative to their differences in power. Despite his hubris, Vince seems capable of warmth. He cries talking about the Ultimate Warrior after he died. He gets emotional talking about his dad. He gets emotional when he feels appreciation for his son (even if it requires his son jumping off a cage dozens of feet high). He takes Ric Flair, who in two separate eras was a key talent in a rival company, as an adopted family member. He’s able to reconcile with even his most disgruntled former associates, like Bret Hart, Bruno Sammartino, and the aforementioned Warrior, for reasons that are partly but seem not entirely driven by business. In response to tragedies, whether national ones (like 9/11), or even tragedies he arguably bears responsibility for (like the deaths of his active wrestlers), he seems genuinely affected, but also defensive. And indeed, Vince manages to keep his stream of consciousness away from Twitter, using it most memorably only to wish friends and family a happy birthday.

Where are the respites from macho bluster in Donald? He claims to have never cried in his adult life. Does he have tender moments with his family members? By all public evidence, he’s devoid of emotion not driven by indignation or hostility. He’s incapable of empathy, at least the kind that’s any more genuine than one of his innumerable lies. He’s at best capable of gestures that point vaguely in the direction of warmth, but do not express it. Attempts at human connection are written for him and lifelessly recited. Others are a coordinated part of necessary campaign messaging. Mourning bores him. Consoling the bereaved requires notes. Hundreds of thousands of deaths from coronavirus under his watch as president, as well as his immediate reaction to 9/11, concern him less with lives lost and more with the chances of his reelection and the relative height of his buildings.

Certainly, too, Donald must be envious of Vince’s class B shares. Class B shares are even better than the Electoral College. If only the president too personally held the majority of the voting power in the country, as Vince does in his company. Annually, not just every four years, Vince gets to reelect himself Chairman. As long as Vince retains a small portion of his stock, he can’t be removed from office or even told what to do, no matter the opinion of any number of average people. 

Unfortunately for Donald, for now, that’s not the case.

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