Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston isn’t happy with the way the press has been handling Donald Trump. “The coverage has been extremely poor in my opinion,” Johnston, who at 67 clearly still enjoys making trouble, pronounced at no less a lions’ den than the National Press Club on Thursday night in Washington.
So Johnston, as he is wont to do when he sees something going wrong, decided to tackle the problem himself.
His just-released book,The Making of Donald Trump, is a 288-page compendium of “basically everything Donald Trump wants to make sure you do not know,” said Johnston, who has been following the real estate mogul for decades.
The main reason he has “been extremely critical of my colleagues,” in the media Johnston said, is they’ve been too buttoned-down and professional. “They’re covering him as though he is a serious person,” Johnston said of the Republican presidential nominee. Though Johnston believes there has been some good coverage of Trump, he faulted it for being too highbrow, “not written in tabloid style.”
“Donald is a master of manipulating the conventions of journalism,” explained the veteran reporter. He proceeded to shatter many of those conventions in a book talk that was frequently punctuated with the declaration “because Donald just makes it up.” Johnston also repeatedly dubbed Trump “a modern-day P.T. Barnum.” The book by the former man book already has provided fodder for the tabloids.
It chronicles the rise of Trump’s fortunes, beginning with the Republican presidential nominee’s grandfather, a German immigrant who, as Johnston put it in distinctly un-Timesian style, ran a “whorehouse,” and continuing through Trump’s father, whom Johnston described as an industrious businessman with some unfortunate views.
In 1927, Fred Trump was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Queens — something his son has tried furiously to deny, but, said Johnston: “I have the clips.” Later, as Johnston details in his book, the elder Trump, in trouble once before with the feds for allegedly bilking a federal housing program for returning GIs, was ordered by the federal authorities to stop discriminating against African-Americans who were trying to rent apartments he owned. The settlement came only after Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to get the allegations of racial bias thrown out by the courts — a lawsuit in which he was represented by Roy Cohn, former longtime aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), the disgraced Communist witch-hunt perpetrator.
Johnston sees Trump’s association with Cohn — who, he said, “taught Donald how to hurt people”— as part of a disturbing pattern. “We have never had a major party candidate for president with the kind of relationships Donald Trump has,” Johnston said. While some past presidents have had unsavory friends and business associations, Johnston continued, “They were not the mob. They were not drug traffickers.”
At the Press Club event, Johnston raised repeated questions about Trump’s ties to Felix Sater, a Russian-born stock fraudster and admitted fellow traveller with the mob. Sater is now a defendant in a tax fraud case; papers unsealed earlier this month name Trump and two of his children as “material witnesses.”
He invited his audience to contrast the treatment Trump gave a convicted drug dealer who ran a company that operated Trump’s helicopter fleet with what he did to his infant great-nephew, gravely ill with an ailment that caused seizures.
For his troubled helicopter provider, Joey Weichselbaum, the real estate mogul provided a luxury apartment, continued employment and a testimonial to the court after the Weichselbaum’s indictment for drug trafficking, Johnston recounts in his book. But Trump was much less accommodating to the grandson of his late older brother after the baby’s parents challenged the will of his father, Fred Trump (which cut them out), in court. Trump removed the ailing child from the family’s medical insurance policy. “I can’t help that,” Johnston quotes Trump telling a New York Daily News reporter who asked why he cut off the infant’s health care coverage (a court later restored it).
Vindictiveness is a point of pride for Trump, Johnston said. “His personal motto is ‘get revenge,’” said the reporter, who devotes an entire chapter to Trump’s speechifying and writings on the subject. Describing how Trump fired a female employee who, citing ethical qualms, wouldn’t call a banker friend on his behalf, Johnston quotes Trump’s own account from his book, Think Big:
“She ended up losing her home. Her husband, who was only in it for the money, walked out on her and I was glad… I can’t stomach disloyalty…and now I go out of my way to make her life miserable.”
In another outside-the-box move for a journalist, Johnston said he has reached out to some of the evangelical ministers who back Trump, offering to provide evidence of how much the candidate’s personal views deviate from the philosophy that Jesus Christ outlined in his Sermon on the Mount. “I’ve called them. I’ve offered to go,” Johnston said. So far none has taken him up on the offer.
Having covered Trump since he was the Atlantic City bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Trump was trying to break into the casino business in the New Jersey beach town, “I have probably the largest Trump document collection in the world,” Johnston said. An expert on tax law who lectures on the subject at the Syracuse University, Johnston said he believes, “in all likelihood, Donald has paid no federal income taxes for years.” That’s based on some documents that have leaked out from various court cases, Trump’s lack of charitable giving to his own family foundation (which suggested no need for deductions), and a gaping tax loophole available to real estate developers.
It’s also possible that Trump’s decision to break with long-standing campaign tradition and not release his tax forms could be based on his reluctance to reveal his true net worth. While Johnston says he believes Trump is “very rich,” he, like many others, questions whether he’s quite as rich as he makes himself out to be. Trump’s chief talent lies in “making deals to bring in money that supports a lifestyle” fit for a billionaire, Johnston said. “How many billionaires, who you really know are billionaires, do you see out hawking ties, steaks, bottled water and board games?”
For all his denunciations of Trump, Johnston’s journalistic career has made him uniquely qualified to understand the Republican presidential nominee’s appeal. “I started documenting the growing inequality in America when I started working for The New York Times,” he said. “Government rules take from the many and give to the already rich few.” The people who are being inexorably pushed out of the middle class are on the edge of despair, not least because their plight is so invisible, he argued. “They get almost nothing written about them.”
Johnston’s got a plan to tackle that problem too. He says the Trump book was an interruption from writing his real magnum opus. “I’m writing an entirely new tax code — soup to nuts,” he said.