Introduction: Why we need reporters to investigate Trump
Typically, voters judge a candidate on three scales:
- character or public image. Do we like this person, identify with him or her, and trust this candidate to understand our lives and our problems?
- philosophy or policy. Do we agree with what the candidate proposes to do? Do we trust his or her overall approach to governing, so that we have confidence in the candidate to handle problems we can’t foresee?
- record in public office. Does he or she have a voting record in Congress that matches that professed philosophy and those policy proposals? Or experience running a state, a cabinet department, or a major city that demonstrates basic competence, expertise in major policy areas, or an understanding of how government works?
Occasionally a candidate passes these tests in some non-standard way. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, had never been elected to anything before running for president in 1952. But his experience as commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II gave him defense and foreign policy experience, as well as proving that he could manage a large, complicated enterprise.
Donald Trump, though, is unique in that his claim to the presidency is based almost entirely on his character. He has no record in public office, and much of his record in business is closed to public examination.
His political philosophy has changed many times over the years, if he can be said to have one at all. (He has been both a Democrat and a Republican, has been both for and against abortion rights, is both hawkish and isolationist on foreign policy, and now appeals to Evangelical Christians without ever repenting all the bragging he did about his sexual conquests.) His proposals are vague. (He will be “tough” with other countries and “put America first”.) They waver from week to week. (Will he deport all undocumented immigrants or just the bad ones?) And many of his supporters don’t believe he will do the things he talks about doing. (Maybe his wall will be virtual. Maybe Mexico won’t pay for it.)
But despite all that, he is Donald Trump. His name is on those big buildings. We’ve been seeing his picture on magazine covers and watching him on TV for decades. Unlike any previous presidential candidate, he is a brand. Attach Trump to something and our impression of it changes: Trump Tower, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump University.
So how does that translate to President Trump and the Trump administration?
Precisely because he is a brand, it can be hard to separate Donald Trump, the man and potential president, from the character Donald Trump we’ve seen on TV. Maybe they are the same, or maybe they are as different as Martin Sheen is from the President Bartlett character he played so convincingly on The West Wing. (Would Sheen react to a crisis as calmly and wisely as Bartlett did in scripts that Sheen had read and memorized before the cameras powered up? I have no idea, but I’d hate to bet my country on it.)
That’s why we need reporters to examine Trump, his life, and his record more than we’ve ever needed them to check out a candidate before. Most of the reporters who have written about Trump have not risen to that challenge. Some simply repeat his statements, or those of his campaign managers and surrogates, without bothering to find out what’s true or false. Others repeat scurrilous charges about him without gathering evidence to back them up. Neither of those kinds of articles is what we need.
I’m also not talking about analyzing the Trump phenomenon: who his voters are, how his movement either does or doesn’t fit into the recent history of the conservative movement, whether his authoritarian appeal represents some kind of danger to democracy, and so on.Those questions may be interesting in their own right, but answering them involves speculation rather than reporting.
What I’ve tried to assemble here is the best reporting about Trump, written by journalists who have taken the time and made the effort to investigate rather than simply call him names, or recite his legend, or psychoanalyze him, or navel-gaze to determine his historical significance. All in all, I think these investigations paint a devastating picture, but it is a portrait based in fact, rather than the fantasies of his political enemies.
Finally, a note because I’m sure someone will ask: I’m not including the NYT’s article Saturday about Trump’s taxes, because I don’t feel like we have the whole story yet. He could have avoided income taxes for 18 years, and he hasn’t denied the report, but we still can’t say that he definitely did. We also don’t know whether the $900 million loss in the story is real or the product of creative accounting. I have the feeling there’s another shoe that still needs to drop.
Also, there’s no Trump U story on the list, because there’s no singular article about it. Documents collected for the lawsuit against Trump were released to the public, and many news outlets covered what they said.
So here, in no particular order, are the best nine:
1. Newsweek’s “Donald Trump’s Many Business Failures, Explained“
If Trump’s claim that he can be an effective president rests on his business record, that record deserves some scrutiny. Kurt Eichenwald explains:
Trump’s many misrepresentations of his successes and his failures matter—a lot. As a man who has never held so much as a city council seat, there is little voters can examine to determine if he is competent to hold office. He has no voting record and presents few details about specific policies. Instead, he sells himself as qualified to run the country because he is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and his financial dealings are the only part of his background available to assess his competence to lead the country. And while Trump has had a few successes in business, most of his ventures have been disasters.
The successes primarily come from the investments and contacts he inherited from his father, Fred Trump.
Trump boasted when he announced his candidacy last year that he had made his money “the old-fashioned way,” but he is no Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg, self-made billionaires who were mavericks, innovators in their fields. Instead, the Republican nominee’s wealth is Daddy-made. Almost all of his best-known successes are attributable to family ties or money given to him by his father. … So to sum it all up, Trump is rich because he was born rich—and without his father repeatedly bailing him out, he would have likely filed for personal bankruptcy before he was 35.
His casinos went bankrupt. He bought Eastern Airlines and renamed it the Trump Shuttle before giving it to his creditors when he couldn’t pay its bills. Then he moved towards being a brand rather than a businessman.
Beginning in 2006, Trump decided to take a new direction and basically cut back on building in favor of selling his name. This led to what might be called his nonsense deals, with Trump slapping his name on everything but the sidewalk, hoping people would buy products just because of his brand.
Trump Mortgage started just in time to lose money in the real estate bubble. GoTrump.com failed as an online travel service. Trump Vodka. Trump Steaks. All failures.
But by licensing his brand to developers, and helping them use that magical name to convince middle-class people to make downpayments on condos that were never built, Trump managed to walk away with a profit on deals where everyone else lost: Trump Hollywood, Trump Ocean Resort Baha Mexico, Trump Tower Tampa. Finally, there is the outright fraud of Trump University.
But if he’s such a bad businessman, you might ask, why is he so rich? The answer is that no one knows how rich he actually is. He claims to be worth more than $10 billion, but refuses to release any information that might validate that. In reality, he may be worth little more than what his father left him.
2. The USA Today’s “Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills“
One admirable thing about billionaires like Bill Gates or Sam Walton is that they made a lot of other people rich too. If you worked for Bill or Sam back in the day and kept your stock options, you’re probably a multi-millionaire now. But with Donald Trump the exact opposite is often true: Signing a contract with Trump has been a good way to go broke.
Steve Reilly goes through court records to document a pattern of lawsuits against Trump and his businesses.
The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.
In the individual cases, Trump’s lawyers usually claimed that the work was substandard in some way. But in the aggregate that suggests a different problem:
[T]he consistent circumstances laid out in those lawsuits and other non-payment claims raise questions about Trump’s judgment as a businessman, and as a potential commander in chief. The number of companies and others alleging he hasn’t paid suggests that either his companies have a poor track record hiring workers and assessing contractors, or that Trump businesses renege on contracts, refuse to pay, or consistently attempt to change payment terms after work is complete as is alleged in dozens of court cases.
The cases that produce a public record may be just the tip of an iceberg. No one knows how many short-changed contractors decided that taking whatever Trump offered in payment was better than fighting his lawyers.
Edward Friel, of the Philadelphia cabinetry company allegedly shortchanged for the casino work, hired a lawyer to sue for the money, said his son, Paul Friel. But the attorney advised him that the Trumps would drag the case out in court and legal fees would exceed what they’d recover.
The unpaid bill took a huge chunk out of the bottom line of the company that Edward ran to take care of his wife and five kids. “The worst part wasn’t dealing with the Trumps,” Paul Friel said. After standing up to Trump, Friel said the family struggled to get other casino work in Atlantic City. “There’s tons of these stories out there,” he said.
The Edward J. Friel Co. filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 5, 1989.
Says the founder’s grandson: “Trump hits everybody.”
Paul Friel tells a more detailed version of his family’s story in this video.
3. David Fahrenthold’s investigation of the Trump Foundation and Trump’s (lack of) charitable contributions
This isn’t just one article, but a body of work that has been unfolding in The Washington Post over months.
Throughout his career, Donald Trump has recognized the brand-building power of charity. One stereotypic image of rich people — particularly those who were born rich, as Trump was — is that they only care about themselves; they suck money out of society and give nothing back. But a wealthy heir or businessman can banish that image by announcing that he’s going to give big contributions to help veterans, or a children’s hospital, or some other worthy cause. Rather than a parasite, he looks like a saint.
So if you’re rich and worry about your image, generosity can be a good investment in public relations. But there’s one way to make it an even better investment: What if you could get all the publicity associated with big gifts, but not actually have to pony up any of your own money, or any money at all?
That seems to be what Trump has consistently done over the years: make well-publicized announcements of gifts that never actually materialize, or are paid for by someone else. In that sense, his gifts to charity are like his business dealings with contractors (described in the previous article); after he gets what he wants from the deal, the rest is negotiable.
In the course of the current campaign, Trump or his surrogates have talked about tens of millions of dollars or even more than $100 million that Trump has given away. Ordinarily when a campaign makes claims like that, they’re happy to provide the details, because it’s one more chance to focus a reporter’s attention on a story that makes their candidate look good. But when Fahrenthold pressed the Trump campaign for details about the $6 million Trump had supposedly raised for veterans groups (instead of attending a Republican debate where Megyn Kelly could have questioned him again), they were oddly unhelpful.
The real start of it was the fundraiser that Trump had for veterans in Iowa in late January. He said he’d raised $6 million — and then he toured around Iowa and New Hampshire handing out big novelty checks to local vets groups. But then Trump stopped. And he hadn’t given away anywhere near $6 million. That started us looking. We found that Trump seemed to have stockpiled a lot of the vets money in this oddball Trump Foundation, which had no staff and very little money. In fact, for a long time, it seemed the Trump Foundation had actually *made* money on the vets fundraiser, because it had given out far less than it had taken in from other donors (who expected it to quickly pass on their donations to vets groups).
The vets saga ended strangely: Trump’s people said he’d given the $1 million [which he personally pledged] secretly. We checked. That was false. Trump hadn’t given the $1M away at all. Then, he finally did, in the middle of the night. Then Trump held an angry press conference where he denounced the media for, in effect, forcing him to explain what he’d done with the money other people had entrusted to him, the money in the Trump Foundation. That made us more interested.
For any other candidate, you could just check Schedule A of his or her tax return. But Trump won’t release his tax returns either. If Trump wouldn’t provide any details, though, maybe the charities would. So Fahrenthold started contacting charities that Trump had some connection to, then branching out from there. He found very little. Only in the last few months — after Fahrenthold started checking up on him — has Trump started giving money to charity again.
And then there’s the Trump Foundation. Since 2008, Trump has put virtually none of his own money into his foundation. (Over the previous 20 years, he donated a total of $5.4 million, not “tens of millions”.) Instead, he has collected contributions from other people and corporations, and has spent a lot of it on himself or his business interests. He used hundreds of thousands from the foundation to make charitable contributions that settled court cases against himself or his companies. (That’s illegal.) He used $30K to buy two portraits of himself in charity auctions. (Trump’s people won’t say where the paintings are, but one or maybe both are hanging in Trump businesses. If so, if the portraits weren’t themselves used for some charitable purpose, that also is illegal.)
Fahrenhold exposed another likely illegality this week:
Donald Trump’s charitable foundation — which has been sustained for years by donors outside the Trump family — has never obtained the certification that New York requires before charities can solicit money from the public, according to the state attorney general’s office.
… The most important consequence of not registering under the more rigorous “7A” level was that the Trump Foundation was not required by the state to submit to an annual audit by outside accountants. In such an audit, charity-law experts said, the accountants might have checked the Trump Foundation’s books — comparing its records with its outgoing checks, and asking whether the foundation had engaged in any transactions that benefited Trump or his businesses.
In recent years, The Post has reported, Trump’s foundation does appear to have violated tax laws in several instances.
More disturbing yet is the appearance that he has used money from the Trump Foundation to squash fraud investigations into Trump University. He has paid a $2,500 fine for the Foundation making a $25,000 contribution to a PAC supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who coincidentally decided not to investigate Trump U. This would fit a larger pattern. Trump gave $35K of his own money to Texas AG (now Governor) Greg Abbott, who also didn’t investigate Trump U. And the Trump Foundation contributed $100K to another foundation that is suing New York AG Eric Schneiderman, who is suing Trump U for fraud.
In short, for the last 8 years or so, up until the last few months, Trump not only wasn’t giving to charity, he was using other people’s charitable contributions to benefit himself. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway justified this by claiming — falsely — that the Foundations money “is his money”. The whole point of giving money to a foundation, or any charity, is that it’s not your money any more. And when the Foundation is under your control but is funded primarily by other people, then it’s really not your money.
4. Trump’s Politifact File
Fact-checking sites have some leeway about which statements they check, so small differences in the aggregate statistics don’t necessarily mean anything. But Donald Trump’s file is unique: 35% of his checked statements are rated False, and another 18% get the even lower Pants On Fire rating, which is reserved for statements that “make a ridiculous claim“. By a wide margin, no other major political figure so regularly says things that are provably not true. (So much for the claim that he “tells it like it is”.)
But the numbers don’t really capture it. It’s worthwhile to dig into some of his more ridiculous statements, like
- “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever.“
- Ted Cruz “never denied” his father was photographed with Lee Harvey Oswald.
- “For the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America.“
and so on.
In 1998, it briefly looked like the U.S. embargo against Cuba might come down. If it did, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts wanted to be ready to move in fast. So it sent somebody to Havana to investigate the business possibilities. That in itself violated the embargo.
6. The Washington Post’s “Trump: A True Story“
This is Fahrenthold again, this time teaming with Robert O’Harrow Jr. The question in this article is Trump’s honesty, and the unique opportunity to compare what he said while under oath in 2007 to what he had previously claimed when not under oath.
In Trump Nation: the art of being the Donald author Timothy O’Brien estimated Trump’s net worth at less than $250 million, rather than the $5 billion he then claimed, and made several other statements Trump was offended by. So he sued. Big mistake.
By filing suit, Trump hadn’t just opened himself up to questioning — he had opened a door into the opaque and secretive company he ran. … The reporter’s attorneys turned the tables and brought Trump in for a deposition. For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on the same theme: Trump’s honesty.
The upshot is that Trump isn’t very honest, and tells a different story under oath than he does otherwise. Thirty times, they forced an admission that what he had said previously was not true. When not under threat of perjury, Trump exaggerated his success, quoted numbers he knew to be wrong, blamed other people for his mistakes, and “made authoritative-sounding statements without any proof behind them.” Under oath, he had to back off.
The article makes me wish Trump were speaking under oath now. BTW, Trump’s suit against O’Brien was dismissed, and the author he hoped to ruin had his legal fees picked up by his publisher.
7. The Daily Beast’s: “DOJ: Trump’s Early Businesses Blocked Blacks“
In 1973, Donald Trump was still learning the real estate business from his father Fred. They were both sued by the Department of Justice for violations of the Fair Housing Act.
According to the DOJ, a former super at Trump’s Highlander complex claimed that he would also attach a coded piece of paper to let the “central office” know that an applicant was black. He added that a number of supers in Queens used a “phony lease” to enable them to refuse apartments to people of color. The super’s assistant backed up his story about the code and said she was told, “Trump Management tries not to rent to black persons.”
… In its lawsuit, the DOJ listed more than half a dozen cases in which a black person would try to rent an apartment at a Trump-owned building and would be denied; but when a white person—often a “tester” from New York’s Urban League—would inquire about vacancies, they would allegedly get offered an apartment in the same building.
The Trumps settled with DOJ in 1975, but by 1978 DOJ had them back in court for non-compliance with the consent decree. Reporter Gideon Resnick concludes: “the ugly details of this early clash with the Department of Justice shed light on alleged systemic discrimination at the heart of the Trump real estate empire.”
8. The New York Times’ “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private“
Trump’s public interactions with women have gotten a lot of attention, from decades ago to this week’s continuation of his feud with a former Miss Universe. But The Times Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey tried to find out what it was like for a woman to deal with Trump one-on-one, in private. So they interviewed dozens of women who had known him over the years.
The picture they paint is complex and fascinating. His father Fred comes off as a classic sexist, and Donald revolted against him by promoting women to prominent roles in his businesses. But Donald also carried forward other parts of the sexist paradigm:
He simultaneously nurtured women’s careers and mocked their physical appearance. “You like your candy,” he told an overweight female executive who oversaw the construction of his headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. He could be lewd one moment and gentlemanly the next. … [I]n many cases there was an unmistakable dynamic at play: Mr. Trump had the power, and the women did not. He had celebrity. He had wealth. He had connections. Even after he had behaved crudely toward them, some of the women sought his assistance with their careers or remained by his side.
Kurt Eichenwald describes the impossibility of disentangling the Trump Organization from its “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals”.
If Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company, during or even after his presidency, almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.
In the earlier Eichenwald article, he explained how Trump’s business strategy changed in 2007, when he began his TV career and decided to profit from fame and branding rather than building.
Rather than constructing Trump’s own hotels, office towers and other buildings, much of his business involved striking deals with overseas developers who pay his company for the right to slap his name on their buildings.
The problem is that these local partners are often deeply (and sometimes corruptly) involved with local politicians and political parties, or have financial interests in the local defense industries. (Eichenwald cites examples from Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and other countries.) Even if there is no corrupt intent on Trump’s part, his political decisions will affect his financial interests.
If he plays tough with India, will the government assume it has to clear the way for projects in that “aggressive pipeline” [of Trump Organization projects in that country] and kill the investigations involving Trump’s Pune partners? And if Trump takes a hard line with Pakistan, will it be for America’s strategic interests or to appease Indian government officials who might jeopardize his profits from Trump Towers Pune?
A conflict over a Trump property in Dubai led to a Twitter-feud between Trump a Saudi prince, whom he called “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal”. If he were president, it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t become problem between the two countries.
Sovereign wealth funds, which invest the money accumulated by oil-rich governments, sometimes make financial deals with the Trump Organization. In Azerbaijan, the Trump Organization partners with a company controlled by the son of the transportation minister, who might have laundered money for the Iranians.
Trump has said he will deal with these problems by turning the business over to his children while he is in office. This might work if the business were something simple and small, like a restaurant or a hardware store. But how can he avoid knowing whether a Trump Tower gets built in some foreign capital? Or not hear when a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch threatens to cancel a loan?