With 11 days to go before Election Day, the FBI's announcement Friday that the bureau is reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State may be 2016’s October surprise, inflaming an already scorched race.
But nobody should confuse Clinton’s unfortunate use of a private email system in which a handful of classified messages seeped into the tens of thousands sent and received with Donald Trump’s lifetime of borderline criminality, as evidenced by being sued more than 4,500 times for his business practices, his extensive bilking of small businesses, his deliberate tax evasions, and his on-camera boasts of sexual assaults.
Friday’s disclosure by FBI director James Comey, a Republican appointed by President Obama three years ago, will raise more questions than can be answered before Election Day. Others will parse the politics, noting the unnerving development serves the Trump-Republican National Committee strategy of suppressing voter turnout. A Bloomberg profile this week, quoting top Trump staffers, described this as the campaign’s only path to victory because Trump is stuck in the low 40s in polls.
What’s lost in the media frenzy over the FBI investigation is that Clinton’s mishandling of several dozen emails simply cannot be compared to Trump’s outrageous history of bending or breaking the law, and getting away with it.
“Trump launched his campaign with fraud, as the Trump Tower crowd that interrupted him 43 times with applause on June 16, 2015, consisted of actors paid fifty bucks apiece,” David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who has covered Trump since the 1980s and is the author of The Making of Donald Trump, wrote earlier this week. “For his whole life, Trump has cheated workers, shortchanges small business owners and ripped off investors, as courts have determined in some of the 4,500 Trump lawsuits.”
Here are 10 examples of Trump’s borderline or admitted criminality, all taken from The Making of Donald Trump, a book with 44 pages of source notes, and subsequent articles and interviews with Johnston.
1. Boasts of sexually assaulting women. As almost everyone in America knows, Trump was caught boasting on videotape about imposing himself sexually on women, including the felony of grabbing their genitals. While he tried to dismiss his remarks as mere locker room bragging, a dozen women came forward to accuse him of improper behavior or sexual assault. Trump predictably accused all of them of lying and working for Clinton, and threatened to sue them all after the election. However, what Trump bragged about, and what the women said he did, is against the law.
2. Used illegal immigrants and mob to build Trump Tower. Trump’s borderline relationship with the law goes back decades. Before his signature building in New York City, Trump Tower, could be built, he had to demolish a department store. Trump used 200 undocumented Polish migrants who did not follow construction safety codes and were paid “off the books,” a federal court later held. He then built an all-concrete building, which cut some costs associated with a steel-based tower, using “ready-mix from a company called S&A Concrete. Mafia chieftains Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno and Paul Castellano secretly owned the firm,” Johnston wrote.
3. Caught Illegally not paying sales taxes. Some of Trump’s other brushes with the law are just dumb, unless he’s not as rich as he says he is or just likes to flirt with borderline behavior. In the mid-'80s, New York State’s attorney general listed Trump among 200 other wealthy people who bought pricey gems at a Manhattan jeweler and had the store put an out-of-state address on the receipt to avoid paying sales tax. Ed Koch, the mayor of New York at the time, said Trump should have spent 15 days in jail. Had Trump been convicted of tax fraud, Johnston wrote, he likely would have lost his New Jersey casino licenses.
4. More evidence of federal income tax fraud. In what can only be described as a bizarre series of events, Trump’s lawyer and accountant Jack Mitnick testified under oath that while he signed Trump’s 1984 federal tax return, neither he nor his firm had prepared it. “That same return showed $0 business consulting income and more than $600,000 of expenses for which no receipts were produced, also strong evidence of fraud,” Johnston wrote. During the presidential campaign, Trump has refused to release his taxes, saying he is being audited by the IRS, “but [he] will not even release the form letter proving an audit.”
5. Claiming $916 million in tax losses, but not paying bills. When the New York Times broke the story that Trump claimed $916 million in real estate losses in 1995, most of the focus was on how it allowed him to avoid federal taxes for years on income adding up to that figure. But there is another dimension to that move, which Johnston described in a Daily Beast piece: Those losses enabled Trump to tell bankruptcy courts he didn’t have the money to fully pay an army of contractors and small businesses. “Trump claimed to be worth billions in the 1990s, just as he now does, yet he could not pay his bills,” Johnston wrote. “He stiffed hundreds of small-business suppliers, including those for the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, which will go out of business [in mid-October].”
6. Trump University was another massive con job. To start, Trump broke the laws of several states that only allowed an authorized institution to be called a university. Then Trump lied when he said he would personally pick the faculty, but when deposed under oath after being sued, admitted he had no idea who the faculty were. Johnston wrote, “His ‘faculty’ stood over students helping them take on all the credit card debt banks would give them to pay tuition and other fees to Trump U., leaving them with no capacity to invest in real estate.”
7. Paying off prosecutors via political donations to avoid charges. When former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott investigated Trump University, he found its teaching “worthless” and encouraging “illegal” actions, Johnston wrote. “The Texas attorney general’s lawyers concluded that if sued by the state, Trump would have no legal defenses to civil fraud charges.” Abbott did not sue, but later got a $35,000 campaign contribution from Trump. Much the same storyline unfolded in Florida, where Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to take action after receiving many complaints and Trump’s foundation illegally donated $25,000 to her re-election campaign. Tax-exempt charities aren’t allowed to contribute to political campaigns.
8. Using his foundation for other illegal expenses. Johnston writes, “At least nine times, Trump made illegal use of Trump Foundation money including paying personal debts, legal obligations and buying two paintings of himself; he also illegally solicited money (he recently stopped) and did not provide audited financial statements as required by state law.”
9. A lifetime of hiding behind secret settlements when sued. Trump has been sued 4,500 times and has a history of dragging out cases until the other side quits, or reaching a settlement in which those suing are sworn to secrecy before getting paid. As Johnston told AlterNet after his book came out, “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.”
10. Doing business with other known criminals. Over his career, Trump has done business with people with serious criminal records. Some were involved in deals, like “a violent convicted felon and swindler, named Felix Sater, who was helping Trump make two major development deals in Denver” a decade ago, Johnston wrote. “Trump wildly overpaid two mob hitmen known as ‘The Young Executioners’ for a tiny plot of New Jersey land,” he said in another example.
Then there's convicted drug smuggler Joseph Weichselbaum, whose helicopter service flew gamblers to Trump’s New Jersey casino, a business relationship that put his casino license at risk. When Weichselbaum, who also lived at Trump Towers, faced additional charges, Trump wrote to the judge seeking leniency. After New Jersey regulators discovered the letter, which Trump initially denied writing, they investigated but did not “raise deeper issues about Trump’s fitness to hold a license,” Johnston wrote. More recently, he has also worked with “a convicted art thief…as well as the son of a Russian mob boss, a man with a violent history—and there’s a video to prove it.”
The Latest Clinton Media Frenzy
Nobody needs to be reminded that the same national press that helped create Trump the candidate—because he was willing to feed them a new inflammatory remark every day—is now in a frenzy over the latest development in the Clinton email saga.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton should have never used a private email server while Secretary of State, especially if she knew she’d be running for president again. But that blind spot, and the few confidential emails that slipped through the tens of thousands of other messages, doesn’t bend or break the law on comparable grounds to Trump’s lifelong record of flouting rules and breaking laws, and in many cases, bragging about it.
“So much of this book is about Trump's many complex and little-known relationships with criminals—a vast assortment of con artists, swindlers, mobsters and mob associates, a major drug trafficker he went to bat for, and other unsavory characters,” Johnston wrote in his book’s epilogue. "As these pages make clear, Trump’s relationships with criminals were often profitable, sometimes gratuitous, and never properly examined by those whose duty was to investigate."
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).