On Nov. 15, shortly after midnight, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a link to a New York Post headline:
“Tax filings reveal Biden cancer charity spent millions on salaries, zero on research”
Waking up later that morning, Fox News host Laura Ingraham and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, gleefully lent their voices to the now-familiar cacophony of disinformation. A day later, Fox News host Sean Hannity joined their chorus.
For those just tuning in, the president was retweeting a story about the Biden Cancer Initiative, a small organization that is not to be confused with the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot, a bipartisan effort to increase funding for cancer research.
The Moonshot demonstrates President-elect Joe Biden’s deep understanding of cancer and defines Biden’s legacy in the Obama administration (The Cancer Letter, Nov. 13, 2020). The Post story and the subsequent brouhaha are noteworthy because of their failure to recognize the fact that Biden had already obtained $1.8 billion for cancer research via the 2016 Moonshot—and their failure to distinguish between the Moonshot and a small nonprofit that was never intended to fund research. Creating confusion—conflating—seems to be the point.
Let’s untangle this knot:
The Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot is a government program resulting from an unprecedented bipartisan effort to double the rate of progress in cancer research. In 2016, then Vice President Biden’s leadership and steadfast congressional support for biomedical research culminated in the Moonshot legislation, which authorized $1.8 billion over seven years for cancer research (The Cancer Letter, Dec. 16, 2016).
The Biden Cancer Initiative, the object of coverage here, was a short-lived cancer nonprofit that was launched in New York on June 26, 2017, in the afterglow of the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot of 2016 (The Cancer Letter, June 30, 2017). The organization ran for two years, suspending operations during the Biden presidential run.
The New York Post is factually correct on one point: The Biden Cancer Initiative funded no research. That’s because, again, it was never intended to.
The anatomy of disinformation
After The Cancer Letter published this news analysis Nov. 13, the New York Post and the Daily Mail ran stories lambasting the Biden Cancer Initiative for spending “ZERO” dollars on cancer research.
The two articles stirred the Trumpian Twitterverse into a frenzy, as tens of thousands of consumers of alternative media retweeted the alleged scandal, screaming “CROOKED BIDEN!” and “LOCK THEM UP!”
The New York Post story was written by Isabel Vincent, a Canadian. The Daily Mail story had no byline. The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the Daily Mail is a London-based tabloid.
The stories demonstrate zero understanding of either the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot or the Biden Cancer Initiative:
“A cancer charity started by Joe Biden gave out no money to research, and spent most of its contributions on staff salaries, federal filings show,” Vincent wrote.
“President-elect Joe Biden’s cancer charity spent the majority of its money on staff payroll and gave none to research, it has been revealed,” an anonymous “DailyMail.com Reporter” wrote.
Concerned citizens of Twitter responded to this disinformation by countering with a link to the Nov. 13 story published in The Cancer Letter. Soon enough, The Cancer Letter received a barrage of emails accusing its reporters of supporting a “corrupt politician,” committing “fiction,” playing a “bad joke,” etc.
Contemporaneous coverage by this reporter demonstrates that from the outset, the Biden Cancer Initiative was not designed to be a grant-giving organization.
It was created to allow Biden to continue playing the role of convener, and to maintain momentum generated by the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot, which at that time had already slated $1.8 billion for NCI over seven years and $500 million over a decade for FDA.
Shortly after Congress overwhelmingly approved the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot—and months before the Biden Cancer Initiative was formed—Biden said the nonprofit’s primary purpose was not philanthropy (The Cancer Letter, Dec. 22, 2016).
“It’s not so much about raising money or philanthropy—though there will be some of that—but it’s more about keeping these guys cooperating and changing the culture,” Biden said Jan. 3, 2017 to a woman who came up to greet him after a ceremonial swearing in of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). “I’m going to be based out of Penn for foreign policy. I’m deliberately not associating with any one medical center.”
At the 2017 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., Biden laid out his mission plan for the Biden Cancer Initiative:
“The initiative will focus on improving data standards, and giving patients some mechanism to share their data so they can help many other patients going through the same fight, so researchers can use data to find new patterns and new answers, working with community care organizations help improve access to quality care so outcomes aren’t wholly dictated by the patient’s ZIP code, convening a national conversation with the pharmaceutical companies, insurers, biotech companies and others to ensure patients can actually access the treatments that become available and as are needed,” Biden said at the time (The Cancer Letter, April 7, 2017).
On July, 15, 2019, the Biden Cancer Institute announced that it has suspended operations, three months after the former vice president and Jill Biden stepped down as co-chairs to refocus their efforts on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign (The Cancer Letter, July 19, 2019).
The Post story and the subsequent brouhaha are noteworthy because of their failure to recognize the fact that Biden had already obtained $1.8 billion for cancer research via the 2016 Moonshot
The nonprofit’s 990s from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 show that it received a total of $4,809,619 in “gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees,” which includes $2,886,167 in “public support.” These filings can be downloaded here.
Of the over $4.8 million, $3,070,301—or 63.8%—was spent on payroll over two years. Other large expenses include a total of $799,671 over two years for conferences, conventions, and meetings.
According to the New York Post, then-BCI president Gregory Simon “raked in $429,850 in fiscal 2018 (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019), according to the charity’s most recent federal tax filings.”
Those filings show that Simon received a total of $654,389, or $327,194 each year when averaged over the two years.
“The president’s salary is determined by the board of directors using comparative data,” the filings state. “Staff salaries are determined by the president with consultation of the board of directors and within the structure determined by the board approved annual operating budget. The last salary review took place in July 2018.”
It’s not uncommon for large nonprofits to pay their CEOs and presidents millions of dollars every year. For instance, the American Heart Association pays its CEO nearly $2.4 million, while the Prostate Cancer Foundation pays its president over $1.3 million, according to Charity Watch. The CEO of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, made over $2.2 million in 2018.
990 filings for smaller nonprofits in health care and oncology that are more comparable to the Biden Cancer Initiative show that the top executives receive similar compensation packages:
$348,609 for the president/CEO of The Livestrong Foundation in 2018
$352,567 for the president of Prevent Cancer Foundation in 2018
$580,713 for the executive VP of American Institute for Cancer Research in 2017
$617,217 for the president/CEO of The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation in 2018
$655,137 for the CEO of The Milken Institute in 2017
Trump is in no position to gloat on the subject of charities, including those dealing with cancer.
In November 2019, a New York state judge ordered Trump to pay a $2 million judgment for improperly using his Trump Foundation charity to further his 2016 presidential campaign.
In a controversy involving donations for pediatric cancer, Forbes published a report in 2017 stating that, based on filings from the Eric Trump Foundation and other charities, more than $1.2 million “has no documented recipients past the Trump Organization.”