David Cay Johnston has been one of the nation’s premier investigative reporters for decades, specializing in the ways government works for the wealthy at the expense of everyday Americans. He first met and covered Donald Trump in the 1980s. In his latest book, The Making of Donald Trump, he profiles the many ways the Republican presidential nominee has gotten wealthy by bilking others, colluding with criminals, evading prosecution, and romancing the press. I spoke with Johnston recently about his new book.
Steven Rosenfeld: What are you trying to show readers about Donald Trump that they might not know?
David Cay Johnston: As you know, I’ve been trying to show people how government is creating inequality though all of these rules and laws that nobody knows about. The political donor class—a phrase that I coined by the way—are doing what economists call rent seeking. So I understand people who are terrified—they should be—and who think the government has worked against them. What’s nutty is this belief that Donald Trump is their friend.
This is a man who started his [presidential] campaign by saying wages are too high. This is a man who, when he does construction projects, deals with mob-controlled unions. That’s why Trump Towers [in Manhattan] are concrete, because the steelworkers are an honest union. This is a man who cheats workers out of their pay. Four dollars an hour he paid, and he cheated them out of some of their pay. That’s what a judge found. This is a man who tells vendors, Do this work. They do it and then he says, I am not going to pay you.
I don’t know if you saw the piece the other day where the manager, or whoever was responsible as his witness, at the Doral [Miami], over this guy who didn’t get paid the last $34,000 for his paint—he was a Benjamin Moore paint dealer—testified Mr. Trump felt he had paid enough. Nobody runs their business on that basis. You can think, and with good reason, of all sorts of bad things that corporations do. But they don’t go around saying to vendors or workers, "Uh, we paid enough. We’re not going to pay you."
He is an enemy of these people. He is an active enemy of the people who have been ruined by this economy. And they’re buying his con job.
SR: Did he get his con artist skills from his dad, the builder Fred Trump?
DCJ: Partly he got it from his dad, whose business partner was a mob front and, as I show in the book, cheated and profiteered on the housing for returning GIs [after WW2]. But Donald also learned a lot from Roy Cohn [New York City mob lawyer and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s assistant in the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts] about how to create a falsehood. Like when the government went after Trump and his dad for discriminating against blacks and Puerto Ricans, and they said, "This was an effort to put people on welfare in our buildings." No it wasn’t. The [government's] housing testers who were sent were black and Hispanic people who were economically qualified and they were turned away and then white people showed up with the exact same economics and they were shown multiple apartments.
SR: Since we are seeing some of that in other aspects of the campaign, tell me more about the lessons from Roy Cohn, like Trump's assertion that if he doesn’t win big, the election is rigged.
DCJ: Always go on the attack. Always accuse the other side of dishonesty. And be ruthless. Remember one of the reasons he loved Roy Cohn—I quote him in the book—whom he regarded as not just as a mentor but as a second father, was he said Roy would brutalize for you. That’s the lesson. Listen, for Donald’s entire life he has broken the rules or ignored the rules and it’s done well for him. So why would you behave any other way? If you were raised in the household where your parents told you be immoral, and you got away with it, well, of course you’d be immoral.
SR: Have you seen that impulse change since you started covering him in the '80s?
DCJ: Donald is 70 years old. I’m almost the same age, I’m 67. He’s not any different than when I met him, when he was in his early 40s. Donald is a guy who has no empathy for other people, who doesn’t see other people as human beings. He sees them as things to be used. That’s why when he was challenged about cutting off health care for his sickly grandnephew, over money, and he was asked, as I report in the book, "Don’t you think that will look cold-hearted?" [He replied] "What else can I do?" There is no moral core inside Donald Trump. There is no moral compass. It doesn’t exist.
SR: These stories in your book remind me of the badly behaving men in my grandfather’s generation. They were born around WW1, grew up in Brooklyn, didn’t have much to do with people outside their ethnicity and religion. They were sexist, bigots, didn’t need or want college education. They felt if they could just bluff and boss their way around and take whatever they could home, that they were big-time successes. Am I imagining something there?
DCJ: That’s a perfectly accurate way to view this… Donald is a product of his family history, of his time and place, and of his belief that he’s a really superior person, therefore all these other things don’t matter. You either worship and recognize Donald’s greatness or he has a word for you: loser! And it has worked for him. You do things that work for you.
His skill at shutting down law enforcement investigations—I cite those four grand juries, etc.—is extraordinary. He knows when to run to the cops and rat out people, or tell them information that will help them. He knows how to use the court system to cover up what he’s done by making a settlement on the condition that the record be sealed. And he’s masterful at this. It’s just astonishing how masterful he is at it. And then he’s masterful at the conventions of journalism.
All journalists who keep their jobs accurately quote what people tell them. Most journalists, even at the best papers, they don’t have a deep understanding of the things that they are reporting on. I can show you people at the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, who really know their stuff. But I can also show you a lot of them who don’t and have pretty superficial knowledge of what they’re doing. Donald avoids group A and he goes for group B.
And his hiring of this guy from Breitbart [Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News site, as his campaign’s new chief executive]. There’s a very good piece I read this morning, how Donald’s lines line up with what’s in Breitbart. Because he clearly reads it. He’s brought this guy over. And so this is Donald’s view of reality, these people who are way off on the fringe crazy.
SR: Tell us how he typically overplays his hand and then reacts and treats others.
DCJ: Donald is not a good negotiator. He’s not a good businessman. And he often overplays his hand because of hubris. What he does when that happens is that he threatens to make terrible trouble for people with litigation, to tie them all up, so what they’ll do is settle with him, because who wants to spend—as one brave guy in the demolition workers did—spend 18 years in litigation with Trump. You just want it to go away. And he knows that. And he uses it. And if you don’t have the money to pursue him for 18 years, you have to have a lawyer who’s really willing to do that, you’re going to be told by the lawyers, there’s no gain here. And he knows that.
SR: The pollster Celinda Lake told me you can’t do much to convince people who believe in Trump to change their minds, but that he can do something to turn them off. Does that sound right to you?
DCJ: I would agree with you, sort of. George Lakoff points out that the people who are drawn to the father figure are very, very loyal, unless something happens that breaks that connection, and then they become fiercely opposed. Where Donald goes too far somewhere, or his statements appear to people to be outside of their acceptable range, some of them will justify it, but some of them will begin pulling away.
On the other side of this, however, is that a lot of the people supporting him—not all of them, but a lot of them—they believe all of this stuff that’s been planted for years about Hillary. I have had grown men with college degrees or advanced degrees who I know personally, because they are in my social circle, who are successful, tell me they can’t vote for Hillary. Well, why, I ask? "Well, because of all the people she’s had killed." You mean Benghazi, I say? They go, "No. No. No. All the people that she’s had killed and murdered." You look at them and say this is crazy. But they believe that. And if you believe that Hillary Clinton is really this evil person, then now you are faced with this choice between two evils and you’d rather take the guy who says he’s your champion as you understand the world.
People don’t know that Hillary Clinton, when she graduated from Yale and could have gotten an extraordinarily well-paying job at a top law firm—she would have been in complete demand—she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund building a case for disabled children, kids in wheelchairs and things, who were denied a public education because of their disability.
SR: I hear this all the time too.
DCJ: I’ll you one thing I do tell people. Without a question, Hillary Clinton said she was under sniper fire—I think it was Bosnia. And it wasn’t true. What was true was they were warned about that. But here’s where she’s different from some other people. As soon as it was pointed out to her that that’s not right, she didn’t repeat it. She didn’t expand the story. She didn’t double down or triple down. She didn’t do what [former NBC anchor] Brian Williams did, where he enhanced the story and it got bigger and bigger. She immediately stopped.
All of us remember things that were wrong. When I was writing The Making of Donald Trump, I did half of a chapter and thought, that’s really good. And then I took a nap. I woke up and took a look and said, Okay, now I have to back and check my clips. I had it wrong. I misremembered what was there. And then I had to rewrite the chapter. Our memories are not computer records. Our memories change with time. We conflate things. We get them wrong. But the difference is Donald just makes things up. And he does it all the time.
SR: I wonder if the people reading your book or hearing about it will finally get that. He’s masterful at knowing that if you throw the first punch in the press, it will be quoted and nine times out of 10 no one will come around to question what’s behind it.
DCJ: That’s right. But to people who are in economic terror—that’s about half the population—Donald Trump poses as a savior. "I will save you." "Only I can save you." And to people who have been abandoned by both parties, they’ve been actively worked against by both parties, that’s a powerful message.
And basically it’s the same people who Bernie had, except they don’t have all the baggage with racism and hatred. I hear some of these young Bernie folks being interviewed on TV, and I am sure it’s a relatively small number of them and it’s misleading, but to see them on TV, saying, "I’m going to vote for Trump." It’s like, how politically ignorant are you?
And I don’t believe the polls are reliable here at all. The polls have been all over the place this year. We have cell phones that have changed the nature of things, and I think lots of people do not want to sit next to a black person on an airplane, or in a restaurant, or work with them, but know if they say that it’s very bad for their work life. I think there are lot of people who will vote for Donald who will never tell a pollster that.
SR: He's still dominating the news every day.
DCJ: Let me tell you one more thing that I think your audience would cotton to. Last week I did 19 hours on TV and radio one day, and then 12 hours, and 12, and 11. It’s all I’ve been doing since the book came out. It’s TV and radio to the point where it’s all a big blur. I have been on national television in Australia, multiple channels; Japan, Canada, multiple channels; England, multiple channels; France, multiple channels; Germany, national news programs.
None of the three U.S. networks have had a word bout my book. And they have not had me on the Sunday morning talk shows.
I had a producer for a cable show, who I know and bitched about some of this with, and who said to me, "David, they would never have you on a Sunday morning talk show for the most obvious reason. You should know that." I said, "What’s the obvious reason?" She said, "Well, you would talk actual facts and substance. Watch these shows, they’re all superficial nonsense." That’s my word—superficial nonsense. It would show up to audiences—the paucity of this. PBS had me on. Everything I said that dealt with Donald and crooks and mobsters, they cut out.
When the election is over, I am going to write some big pieces. One of them is about the press.