David Cay Johnston Interview: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Investigative Reporter Details Trump-Russia Nexus
Image attributed to David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and bestselling author of The Making of Donald Trump. He has lectured on economics, journalism and tax policy on every continent except Antarctica and is a former president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Johnston teaches at Syracuse University College of Law. He has been a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, the BBC, ABC World News Tonight, Democracy Now and NPR’s Morning Edition, among other shows.
No journalist knows Donald Trump better than David Cay Johnston, who has been following him since 1988. In his latest book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America, Johnston takes the readers inside the administration to show how the federal agencies that touch the lives of all Americans are being undermined and just how it is making America worse again.
"There was a full-blown gambling operation running in Trump Tower on the floor below Donald Trump, run by Russian gangsters. Trump claims he had no knowledge. Like they don’t keep records who goes in and out of that building? Of course, they do."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): David, we’ve started the year with a government shutdown. Is that because Donald Trump has been running the government just like he ran his businesses?
David Cay Johnston: Absolutely. Donald Trump did not run his businesses the way most people do, which is to create wealth. He ran them the way a criminal gang boss does, extracting cash as fast as he could, which is why there are still profitable casinos in Atlantic City, but his went broke early. In running the government, Donald has a second deficit. He literally doesn’t know anything. When he’s asked questions under oath, his answers are gibberish, so as the grifter-in-chief and con artist-in-chief, he has no idea what he’s doing.
You even saw Mitch McConnell go to the floor of the Senate and say, “We don’t know what to do about funding the government because we don’t know what the president wants.” Remember, Donald told us, “I’m the great negotiator. I’m going to unify everybody. I’m going to make Washington work. We’re going to win so much, you’re going to say, ‘Mr. President, please, we can’t stand so much winning!’” It was just part of the con.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump says, “If there is no wall, there is no DACA.”
David Cay Johnston: He’s the one who created the issue with the people who were brought here as children and raised as Americans, some of whom are now in their 40s, who would be covered by DACA. He is the one who created the crisis by cancelling the Executive Order of President Obama and setting the six-month deadline, and then doing nothing to solve the problem. He’s the one who flip flops on these issues.
One of the things about dealing with Donald is you think you have an agreement with him, and then he turns right around and says the opposite. We saw this when Chuck Schumer went to the White House, and he agreed to the funding that’s asked to currently build the wall with Mexico that Trump claimed Mexicans would pay for. After he left, and the president rethought it, because he’s always subject to what the last person he spoke to said, he then decided it wasn’t at all what Schumer promised. They’re lying to the American people because the staff there knows that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, and they have to somehow manage this.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe the most important line in your book may be: “The Trump presidency is about Trump. Period. Full Stop.” You are saying that Donald Trump loves compliments and adoration. What about negative attention?
David Cay Johnston: He just wants to be the center of attention. Donald is an empty vessel. He has this desperate need for public adoration. In his own mind, Donald is the superior human being. He has said this himself. In his own mind, of course, he should be president. How could anybody question that he should be president? No one is more qualified to be president. After all, he has declared himself the world’s leading expert on at least 20 subjects and says that he’s so smart, he could learn everything one needs to know about nuclear missile strategy in 90 minutes.
On one of those issues that Trump claims to be such a big expert on, I’m a world-recognized expert on, and that’s taxes. Donald says that he knows nothing of accounting. Well, if you don’t know accounting, you can’t be an expert on taxes. It’s just fraud. It’s just a con he has run successfully, making him, in my view, Melissa, the greatest con artist in the history of the world. He conned 62 million Americans into putting him into the presidency through the electoral college.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of new information will readers glean from the book, and just how is it worse than we think?
David Cay Johnston: Well, that’s the whole purpose of this book. Journalists tend to cover controversies and to cover the White House and the top officials in Congress. We don’t tend to cover government, and in this country, when the fastest disappearing white collar job in America has been journalist, coverage of the government itself has fallen severely. There are government agencies now with budgets in the tens of billions of dollars that do not have a single mainstream reporter assigned to cover them.
My book is about what Trump is doing to our government. He has assigned what I call “political terminates” (or his team has) to the various agencies. Instead of going through the normal appointment process, which in many cases includes confirmation by the Senate, they have appointed temporary people, which the law allows, but only for 130 days. When that time is up, you’re supposed to leave. Well, these people have stayed, and Congress, which is under the control of the Republicans, has done nothing about it.
To deal with the student loan crisis in America, they brought in executives from the companies that were ripping off students and mistreating them. At the Environmental Protection Agency, they have silenced all sorts of scientists and managers, pressured people to leave, and they’ve forced the staff to write reports articulating in exhaustive detail every potential weakness in cases they might bring against polluters, and presumably that information has been turned over now to the polluters, and by the way, there are polluters who have been put into important positions at the EPA.
Throughout the government, we have seen that Trump is doing what he promised. One thing I’ll give Trump credit for is that his team is indeed doing what he said, and as Steve Bannon put it, “We’re going to destroy the administrative state.” By that, he means the capacity of the United States government to do the work it’s supposed to do, so that we can have a strong economy, so that we can protect our individual liberties. Without the federal government, you couldn’t safely open a can of tuna and know you’re not going to die. You wouldn’t be assured that the drugs you’re assigned by your physician haven’t been properly screened and tested. You wouldn’t have an FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies that are looking out for you. You wouldn’t have trade officials who are negotiating deals for our country.
Trump, of course, claims we’ve made all these terrible deals, but instead of seeking new ones after cancelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and ignoring the new Euro Japanese agreement, he’s done nothing. Nothing. So who has that benefitted? Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the RCEP, but that’s China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. China has gotten 15 pacific rim countries plus India in a new trade pact, and basically Chinese diplomats are saying to these counties, “Look at what’s happening to America. It’s falling apart. Look at who’s the president. If you want a prosperous future, tilt away from Washington, and pivot toward us.” Australia is by far our most loyal ally, but the Australian government is pivoting away from Washington towards Beijing. Over time, that will cost American jobs, American wealth, and it’s going to help China expand both its economic, political and its military power in the pacific to our detriment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will it be Robert Mueller “following the money” that will be the downfall of this administration?
David Cay Johnston: Money is at the very core of this. First of all, Donald Trump has had two income tax fraud trials that he lost. These were civil trials. He’s confessed to sales tax cheating, and the mayor of New York, Ed Koch, said that he should’ve served 15 days in jail. He has been found in judicial proceedings to have engaged in a conspiracy to cheat illegal immigrant workers out of their pay, $4.00 an hour, back in the early 80s. He refuses routinely to pay small businesses who provide him with goods and services, then says, “Sue me,” when he knows the cost of suing would exceed the amount of the goods and services.
This is a man who spent his whole life as a crook. He has done deals with Russians back to 1983 that make no economic sense. For example, he bought an incredibly gaudy mansion in Florida about two miles from Mar-a-Lago for $40 million. In 2008, when Donald, in court documents, said that the real estate market was dead, he tried to get a $40 million loan cancelled on the grounds it was an “act of God” that had killed the market. He sold that property for $100 million.
The cover story was that the Russian oligarch who bought it, Dmitry Rybolovlev, was hiding money from his wife. Just think about that for a moment. If you were hiding money from your spouse, why would you pay more than twice the value for a piece of property? That’s just throwing your money away. On other other hand, if you’re Vladimir Putin who has been investing in people he believes will undermine democracy, for example, the Russians financed the French presidential campaign of the far rightist Marine Le Pen, then what happened there makes perfect sense. Trump was in financial trouble, and Vladimir Putin directed one of the oligarchs (basically an international criminal gang) to put money into Trump’s pockets to rescue him.
There was a full-blown gambling operation running in Trump Tower on the floor below Donald Trump, run by Russian gangsters. Trump claims he had no knowledge. Like they don’t keep records who goes in and out of that building? Of course, they do. So the work being done by Robert Mueller is going to produce clear and persuasive evidence of improper financial relationships with Russians and with people who are Russian speaking from other countries, and Donald Trump’s 30 years of close connections with these Russian criminals who are only allowed to operate because Putin and other corrupt regimes allow them to do so, is going to be a serious problem.
Every financial transaction in the world is traceable with one exception. There is a system used in the Middle East called Hawala. You go to a guy with the earnings you have in Alabama, and you want to send money to your sister in Kabul. You give this person the money, they give you an identifying number, and you send that identifying number to your relative, they give it to the Hawala guy there, he deducts his commission and hands them the money. There’s no record of those transactions. But everyone that goes through the banking system can be traced, and Mueller has brought in experts in exactly that as well as counterintelligence.
Remember, Mueller is the second longest serving FBI director. He served under two presidents, one from each party. He was a valorous officer in Vietnam, he’s highly competent and knows exactly what he’s doing. And, yeah, he’s going to get proof that Donald Trump has committed numerous crimes, and I believe, very serious proof that Donald Trump is not loyal to the United States of America and has violated his oath of office.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): More and more, Trump’s mental stability is being questioned. What happened to that letter from those 35 psychiatrists that said he couldn’t tolerate anyone else’s views, he couldn’t empathize and would distort reality?
David Cay Johnston: The letter got some publicity, but none of those people diagnosed Trump. I mention it in my book because it was in the news. But I point out, and this came originally from a woman who was a former head of the American Psychological Association, that the US Army has a field manual for selecting officers for promotion, and there are six standards in this manual that include empathy, taking responsibility, seeking and assessing options, one of the critical things for an officer to do. By all six standards, Donald Trump failed.
Remember how often Trump says, “We have no choice.” Well, no military officer would ever take that position. You always have choices, and if Donald Trump, who’s a draft dodger, would ever had become an officer, he never would’ve been promoted above junior lieutenant based on those standards in the Army Field Manual. I think that’s a better measure than to what degree his narcissism, which should be evident to everybody, affects his presidency.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): David, why have you been investigating and covering Donald Trump for the last 30 years?
David Cay Johnston: I’ve been doing investigative reporting now for more than 50 years since I was a teenager. In fact, when I was a teenager, I was a front page staff writer at one of the bigger newspapers in America, the San Jose Mercury News. I met Donald Trump in 1988 after I had left the Los Angeles Times, because I believed the casino business would spread all across America as the result of a US Supreme Court decision. I went to Atlantic City and met Donald right off, and my initial reaction was that he was a P.T. Barnum. P.T. Barnum sold hoaxes, and everybody except the smallest children knew that. He didn’t hurt anybody, but nonetheless, he was selling you stuff that was nonsense, and I realized Donald was doing that.
He was the most important figure in Atlantic City, and I knew that going in, so I started asking about him. Well, the very first people I talked to were the owners of a competing casino, and then executives of others who said that Trump doesn’t know anything about the casino business. I’m like, “Come on. He runs two casinos. What do you mean he doesn’t know anything?” I talked to government regulators who had a polite phrase, “Donald is not an operator. He doesn’t operate the casinos. He hires people to operate them.”
I talked to Trump’s own guys, and as soon as they trusted me, which was very quickly, they started filling me in on how he didn’t know what he was doing, that he often interfered in the business, made terrible decisions, fired competent people and kept drunks and “yes” men. So I went to interview Donald at length for the first of many times, and I deliberately placed in my interview four false statements. This is a standard technique used by investigators whether they’re reporters or detectives. You say something false to see what happens. Donald immediately incorporated the first falsehood I brought up, which had to do with the game of Craps, into his answer. We saw Trump do this in his interview with Lester Holt where he assumed the truth of one of Holt’s questions. It happened to be true, and then Trump fed it back to him.
He’s a classic con artist. You tell people what you think they want to hear. Trump did this for all four questions. Soon after this, Trump began to realize that I was not one of those reporters that he was used to dealing with who didn’t care about the facts and would put whatever he said in the papers. So when Donald claimed that Madonna, Kim Basinger and the first lady of France Carla Bruni were his lovers, and it got national news, I would check the facts. Madonna and Kim had met him, and Carla publicly denounced him as a lunatic with whom she had no relationship. Twenty years later on Howard Stearn’s radio show where Trump appeared all the time, Stearns offered the opportunity to Trump for him to walk that back. Did he do it and acknowledge they were all imaginary lovers? Nope. He doubled down. This is indicative of Trump. To him, if he says it, that makes it true. If you don’t accept that it’s true, something is wrong with you. Of course, Donald was very careful in dealing with me after that because he knew I would check out what he said to determine what the facts were, and only rarely were they connected to reality.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump attempted to get Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, banned, but he hasn’t yet attacked you for writing It’s Even Worse Than You Think.
David Cay Johnston: No. The last time Donald attacked me publicly was when I got his 2005 tax return in the mail, which was stamped “client copy,” which I suspect came from Donald or came at his direction because Donald has a long history of leaking about himself. When the sleazy, low-grade porn photos of his wife on “girl-on-girl” poses came out, and the New York Post published them in the summer of 2016, you would’ve thought that was something that might’ve upset Trump. Nope. The campaign said they didn’t have any problem with that at all, which tells you that Donald was somehow complicit in putting out the cheap porn photography.
When Donald attacked me, he first of all said that nobody had ever heard of me. I didn’t get into this to be famous, but I have not been able to walk through an airport in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or Germany for five or six years without being recognized by someone, and at the very time this happened, I was walking through Kennedy Airport where there were people who wanted me to shake hands and take pictures with their children. There was a janitor that came over and threw her arms around me to give me a hug. I was stopped repeatedly on the way to my gate. Donald then went on CNN with Tucker Carlson and said, “More than $250 million, and you take away $100 million of depreciation deductions and add $150 million.” That’s not what his own tax returns showed. It showed $153 million of income, $103 million from an illegal tax shelter that he bought, but Congress let him and some other people keep (or they shut it down for everybody else), and his taxable income was less than $50 million. Trump doesn’t even know his own tax return even though he claims to be one of the world’s great experts on the subject of which I am a world-recognized expert.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have plans for another book?
David Cay Johnston: Yes, the book I had set aside when Donald announced in 2015, one of his many announcements he was running for president, but I told everybody he was serious at that time. I’m hoping it will be out in 13 months, and it’s called The Prosperity Tax: An Entirely New Federal Tax System for the 21st Century Economy. I’ve been working on this off and on for about 20 years, listened to experts critiquing the problems and have finally gotten to the point where a business professor, a tax administrator, an accounting person and tax lawyer have gone over it and can’t poke holes in it anymore.
I’ve made it work, and so I’m hoping that book will be out in the late winter of next year because our tax system is interfering with the growth of our economy, and it doesn’t have to. We can have a tax system that actually encourages prosperity and gives us the government services we need, is vastly simpler and most importantly does not allow very wealthy people to live tax free or virtually tax free, or as I proved years ago and Congress confirmed in an 1,800 study, it will stop many people and corporations from literally turning a profit off the tax system that burdens the rest of us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I appreciate your work, David. It must be very frustrating for you have reported on Trump and warned people about him for all of these years and then watch him get elected president.
David Cay Johnston: Well, as an investigative reporter, your job is to tell people the facts. In It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America, I tell you stuff that you almost certainly don’t know in the hope that if people read and learn, it will help them decide who they want to vote for or what kind of government they want to have because after all, we choose our destiny in America.
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