Book Review: 'The Making of Donald Trump' by David Cay Johnston
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.
Review by Susan Grigsby
David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who specializes in tax issues (he is writing an entire new tax program in his spare time) and Donald Trump. He appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show last week as the recipient of Donald Trump’s 2005 1040 tax form, suggesting that Trump was capable of leaking or directing the leak of the document. Johnston is in a good position to know.
As a tax reporter for the New York Times, he received the 2001 Pulitzer for beat reporting "for his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms." As an investigative journalist, he has been following Donald Trump since June 1988, when, while writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnston moved to Atlantic City to research the spread of casinos across the country being run by corporations.
I sized him up as a modern P. T. Barnum selling tickets to a modern variation of the Feejee Mermaid, one of the panoply of Barnum’s famous fakes that people decided were worth a bit of their money. Trump was full of himself. I quickly learned from others in town that he knew next to nothing about the casino industry, including the rules of the games.
When I first read Johnston’s book about Trump I was skeptical of some of the stories he related, mostly because they sound so outlandish in description of a businessman who remained on this side of a jail cell. However, since Nov. 8, I have wondered why so few of his documented activities were ever reported in the national mainstream media.
When George W. Bush declared his college-age use of cocaine to be off limits to the press and refused to discuss it, we called him un-vetted. During this latest campaign cycle, which was consumed by a GOP-engendered non-scandal about some emails, the media totally ignored its responsibility to vet both candidates. They allowed Trump to maintain his false front as a successful entrepreneur. They did not report on how he threw his nephew’s gravely ill son off of the family health insurance plan, nor on his known mob connections. But David Cay Johnston did in the book The Making of Donald Trump, which was published in August 2016.
Some of the stories in this book have become familiar to those who have looked for them, and probably always were known to those who live and work in New York City. For the rest of us, the book is full of revelations about the sleazy life of this vulgar salesman, beginning with his grandfather Frederich who immigrated to the United States in order to avoid the military draft in his native Germany in 1885 (these Trump men, such military cowards one and all). Frederich moved out west to Seattle and opened a little tavern/whorehouse.
Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a successful real estate developer and fellow traveler of the Ku Klux Klan, with whom he was arrested for rioting in 1927. Although, according to his son:
It never happened. And they said there were no charges, no nothing. It’s unfair to mention it, to be honest, because there were no charges. They said there were charges against other people, but there were absolutely no charges,
That has clearly been a foundational principle for Donald Trump, if there are no charges, then the wrongdoing doesn’t count. Throughout his illustrious career, he has managed to avoid being charged with anything by buying his way out and settling lawsuits before he could be convicted. (See Trump University fraud.)
In any case, Fred Trump profiteered off of returning World War II vets who were offered favorable mortgage rates through the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). When confronted by a Senate committee over an ill-gained $4 million profit, Fred Trump claimed it was all a misunderstanding
...but his explanation employed a view of finance that does not exist in any textbook or accounting manual: Trump said the money was there, for sure, sitting in the bank account for his FHA-subsidized projects, but it was wrong to describe this as profiteering— indeed, it was not even profit, he said, because he had not taken any of that money out of the bank.
Later, Donald Trump would also use these unknown accounting procedures to explain that his net worth varied by how he “felt” when asked about it.
When Fred Trump passed away, having been pre-deceased by his eldest son Fred Jr., he did not include his son’s heirs in the division of his estate among his remaining children. His grandson brought legal action based on his grandfather’s state of mind when he revised his will to exclude Fred Trump Jr.’s heirs. When he learned that his nephew was challenging the will, Donald Trump cut off the health insurance that was provided for all Trump family members, including his nephew’s gravely ill son. Donald had no problem condemning a child if his father dared to sue someone that Donald revered, even though the child was a family member who eventually developed cerebral palsy.
His drive to get even, to get revenge, appears to be stronger than his desire to amass wealth, and he often uses the court system to achieve this end. His normal method of suppressing the media is to threaten lawsuits, according to an interview the author gave to Democracy Now!
And he said to me, "Well, you know, you’ve written a lot of things I like. But if I don’t like what you’re writing, I’m going to sue you." I said, "Well, Donald, you’re a public figure." In America, that means that he would have to prove that I deliberately, knowingly told a lie about him. And he said, "I know I’m a public figure, but I’ll sue you anyway." And it’s one of the reasons the news coverage of him has been so soft. He has threatened to sue everybody. That Politico piece that I wrote, I’ve been an investigative reporter for almost 50 years; I’ve never been lawyered like I was for that piece. And it didn’t have anything that hadn’t been published before. He has intimidated the news organizations, and they’re not willing to talk about that.
His mentor in the fine art of vengeance was none other than the chief lawyer for Joe McCarthy: Roy Cohn, an unmatched expert in that art. (In case anyone ever wondered what happened to Cohn after the Army hearings destroyed McCarthy’s career, he went to New York and had a successful career as a consigliere to mobsters and to Donald Trump.)
As a real estate developer in New York City, it was impossible to avoid contact with illegal mob activities, and many developers turned to the federal government to seek help in dealing with the mob-controlled ready-mix concrete business. But not Donald Trump. He felt free to use the services of S & A Concrete, owned by “Mafia chieftains Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno and Paul Castellano,” since their attorney was also Roy Cohn. Sure enough, when the cement workers went on strike in 1982, concrete continued to pour at his job site.
Federal prosecutors soon brought a major case against eight mobsters. The charges included inflating the price of concrete for Trump’s East 61st Street apartment building. In 1986, Salerno and seven others, including the head of the concrete workers union, were convicted in a racketeering trial that included murder, payoffs, and inflated prices for concrete. The chief trial prosecutor, Michael Chertoff, told the judge that the defendants were “directing the largest and most vicious criminal business in the history of the United States.”
Even his private meeting with Salerno, which became public, did not stop the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement from issuing him a license (in record time) for his Atlantic City casino. A process that would normally take 18 months and involved a 50-page application that requested details on not just finances, but any criminal or civil government investigations, took Trump only six months.
Somehow he managed to avoid this extreme vetting by claiming that his relative youth—he was 35 at the time—precluded him from having any serious trouble in his past. He also mentioned that if the clearance was not expedited he would be forced to give up building plans in New Jersey and instead turn to his property in New York City, which could accommodate a casino. His influence with the city government, as well as the state, made this subtle threat of gambling in New York effective. He failed to disclose any of his mob contacts or the federal investigations of those affiliates.
It is when he writes about these mob connections and the mismanagement of the Atlantic City casino that Johnston reveals a lot about Donald Trump that was probably unknown to the rest of the nation. We knew he was a blow-hard salesman who had a reality TV show, but the history of his relationship with convicted felon and cocaine dealer Joseph Weichselbaum, who provided helicopter transport for Trump’s casino guests, was not widely known across the country.
By 1984, when Trump contracted with his firm to provide transport for the high rollers who visited his casino, Weichselbaum was already a convicted felon: once for grand theft auto, and once for embezzlement. Trump’s support for this man (even after he was arrested for drug trafficking while in Trump’s service) puzzles Johnston, who questions if Weichselbaum was providing additional services for Donald Trump:
Trump himself was no drug user. He didn’t even drink or smoke. But it was open knowledge in Atlantic City that high rollers could get anything they wanted as long as it was done discreetly. For those who brought lots of cash, signed big markers, or were assigned complimentary suites, certain butlers were known to provide, for a price, whatever the customer wanted— be it illicit sex, drugs, or anything else. As a state casino lawyer told me shortly after I arrived in Atlantic City in 1988, “We regulate what goes on involving gaming, not what people do in the privacy of hotel rooms.”
Or perhaps Trump was financing some of the operations that his helicopter pilot was involved in. Illegal drug trafficking can produce huge profits and Donald Trump has always been about huge profits. Bigly. But this is only one of Trump’s many connections with criminals that Johnston includes in this biography.
The fact that David Cay Johnston is both a tax expert and a journalist allows him to expose, in a clear, easily understood writing style, the financial machinations of the Trump business empire. (Check out his new website: DCReport.) He is also able to give us a peek at the mean-spirited, malicious nature of the man himself. Perhaps this well-sourced book’s only flaw is found early on when Johnston allows his own ego to burden the introduction. But that is minimized and quickly forgotten once the reader begins Chapter 1.