This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is David Cay Johnston, one of the most hardened veterans of covering Donald Trump. You’ll ever meet and a Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative journalism. David, welcome to the program.
Thank you for having me.
How long have you been covering Donald Trump?
Well, Donald and I met in June of 1988. So that’s more than 28 years ago. I left the Los Angeles Times that year and went to Atlantic City for the Philadelphia Inquirer because I partly because I ticked off so many people in L.A. and the paper wasn’t happy about it. And more importantly, because I believed that we were going to see a huge expansion of gambling across the country and I wanted to go documented.
You write that Donald Trump uses some of the same techniques as TV psychics to skate over the fact that he doesn’t understand certain issues. And you talk a bit about his coach called long process.
Sure. And this has been on display recently right after I met Trump. I was struck by his huckster nature. He struck me as a modern P.T. Barnum, you know, selling you a ticket to see the Fiji mermaid and other hoaxes. And so I start asking about him. And I suddenly find out from him, from his competitors and even from some people who worked for him that he didn’t know anything about the casino business. And somebody who would sit there with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, their hands, that they would have me just in stitches about things Trump didn’t know. So shortly after that, when I saw Donald, I had carefully thought up a question and I said something that was not true. This is a very commonly used technique by investigative reporters to check people. And Donald immediately embraced by fact my false fact, my faux fact, and then tried to adjust his answer to what I had said. That wasn’t true, which was one of the first things that gave me this understanding that he is part con artists. This recently happened on national television. Lester Holt, the anchor of the NBC News in the United States, asked Trump about his claim that Hillary Clinton slept through the Benghazi attack. And Holt pointed out that she was in Washington, D.C. and it was in the middle of the afternoon. And you if you see the videotape that’s on YouTube, Trump then tries to incorporate this into his answer. He then tries to bluff his way out of it and suggests that he never said she was actually asleep, which he clearly did more than once. And so in that sense, Donald was like the psychics. And they listen for something you said or something you you don’t think is significant. And they try to steer you somewhere with their questions. And that’s what con artists do, the same thing. And Donald is masterful at this kind of thing. He’s not used to having people like me or Lester Holt. And I hope there will be many others who catch him at it.
Don famously said that he was the first. He was gonna be the first guy to run for president and make a profit. What were the circumstances of when he first said it? And how is he made good on that? In the meantime.
Right. Well, at Donelson, talking about running for president since 1985, and he actually ran in 2000 on a fringe party ticket called the Reform Party, it’s now a tiny group of Texans who are out on the fringe. And Donald arranged to do, he says, ten lectures for Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, and he coordinated his campaign appearances with those speaking engagements so that he could charge the campaign for the use of his private plane. At that point, he had a Boeing 727 and he boasted, I’m going to be the first president in history, make profit off of this. Now, this year, under the federal rules, which are designed to prevent corruption, we don’t want somebody who’s wealthy saying, oh, use my jet for your campaign, I’ll charge you a dollar.
That would be a way of bribing someone like some third party donor, just giving out goodies to the candidate.
You don’t want that. We have anti-corruption laws that say that you have to pay the charter rates for a comparable aircraft. What we didn’t anticipate Will wrote those laws. Somebody would own their own jets. And as a result, those rates include a profit, which means that so long as everything in Donald’s campaign is covered by donations, as it will be by the election time, he will actually make a profit off of this because he will pay himself charter rates for the use of those airplanes and his helicopters get on top of that. He also was relieving himself of the ongoing expense of those. Well, they’re leased to the campaign. So for Donald, it’s been very nice seal and about a quarter of the money that he spent through the end of June was payments to prop aircraft, group Trump restaurants, trump buildings to rent space and other things that he owned.
He said that Trump is tremendously skilled at focusing the attention of journalists where he wants it to go almost like a magician. What are some of the ways that he does that?
Well, Donald does a very fast talking. He’ll change the Hill. He’ll say something. And within seconds, say the exact opposite. And he uses techniques like not never say this. I would never say this, but. And then he says it. And he does not stand there and allow journalists to question him in a way that would tie down things that he said. If he hits a tough question, he comes up with a smart answer and then moves on to the next person. And he’s banned the course. News organizations like The Washington Post and The Daily Beast, which I write a weekly column for, that have asked him tough questions because he’s not interested in dealing with those tough questions. Donald is a master at manipulating the conventions of journalism. And in my book, The Making of Donald Trump, I explain in pretty good detail how he does this.
You talk about the way he talks about Fred Trump, his father, getting arrested in Queens at a Klan rally.
Well, the first thing that Donald told The New York Times that he should not write about his father’s arrest. First of all, he said it never happened. Well, there was only one Fred Trump in the public record back then. And the address in the police records that a bunch of different newspapers cited was the address of Fred Trump, his father. Then Donald said, well, you know, there were no charges. So because were no charges, you shouldn’t write about this. Well, he hasn’t apply that standard to Hillary Clinton. The FBI concluded with her e-mails that, well, she was sloppy. She broke no law and had no intent of doing anything wrong. And so by his own standards, Donald should drop that. And this is another part of Donald’s technique. If there wasn’t a criminal charge in anything, he will always say, well, it’s not proper to talk about it.
But it is almost self-defeating when he says, you know, it never happened. Oh, and it did happen.
But my father being arrested, that is. But there were no charges. I mean, doesn’t isn’t that just the most self-defeating politician doubletalk a person could produce from his mouth? Well, doesn’t it bite him?
Well, it’s one of the basic techniques. PR is to muddy the waters. You want to create uncertainty. And so if something is crystal clear, you want to try very hard to have people saying, well, I don’t know, maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I mean, we don’t really know. And that’s what he’s trying to do there is to take things that are absolutely clear and transparent and have a sharp edge and turn them into muddy water that, you know, you just don’t want to get into that.
Trump has a long history of sort of seedy associations with people who are sometimes on the edge of the line, sometimes on the far wrong side. Can you talk about some of those and how they’ve contributed to his business success over the years?
Sure. Donald’s first, let’s go back to Donald’s father, Fred Trump. Fred Trump had a business partner and went by the name Willie Thomas fellow. And according to the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, Willie Thomas solo was a front for the Gambino and Genovese crime families, the two biggest, most powerful Mafia families in New York. And he was a source of capital for Fred Trump. And he also made sure the unions stayed in line, at least for Trump family businesses. Donald, early on in his career, became associated with the notorious Roy Cohn, the lawyer for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Hunt witch hunt days. And Roy Cohn was also the lawyer for the heads of the two biggest mafia families in New York, the Genovese A. and the Gambino families. When Donald built Trump Tower, the concrete he got came from. That’s in a concrete which was owned secretly by the heads of the Gambino and Genovese crime families when he built Trump Park. He paid eight million dollars. The concrete, a very much inflated price. And that was actually one of the stated charges in the racketeering case that resulted in the head of the Gambino family going to prison where he died, Fat Tony Salerno. And the only reason that Paul crossed a lot of it was the head of the Genovese. He didn’t go to prison. He’d been assassinated by John Gotti, guys.
So Donald has also associated that bank with con artists and swindlers. He actually went to bat and shot mercy for a major cocaine trafficker, a guy who personally, according to his indictment, carried the drugs. You know, most big drug traffickers don’t touch the drugs. Right. But this guy next level service. Yeah, this guy carried the drugs to people’s cars. He in one case shipped fifteen hundred pounds of marijuana. There were numerous shipments of cocaine. And Donald wrote a letter pleading for mercy for this guy who he said was a stand up fellow and a good citizen and a diligent person.
Is this Joseph? We saw Bam just off.
This is Joey Weichselbaum and Joseph Weichselbaum maintained Donald’s personal helicopter, the Ivanna, and supplied the helicopters for Donald Trump’s two casinos in Atlantic City. In addition, when he was in prison, he got a very light sentence, in fact. Let me step back just one step. The very odd thing happened here, Joey, like salaams drug trafficking went from near Miami to Cincinnati. He was indicted in Cincinnati. His lawyer asked that the case be moved either to Miami, where there were witnesses and other people fought in New York City, where Joey lived instead, for reasons that no one has ever been able to explain, it went to New Jersey. And it came before a federal judge named Maryanne Trump Barry. That’s Donald’s older sister. Now, three weeks after she got the case, she recused herself, that she removed herself from the case. But stop and think about that for a minute. In telling the chief judge, oh, your honor, I can’t handle this case. This drug trafficker owns the helicopter. My husband flies in regularly to go down to Atlantic City because he’s a lawyer for my brother Donald. He runs the helicopter that I fly in as a federal judge all the time with my brother Donald, or just because he gives us the use of the helicopter. Every other judge is now on notice that this could turn into a terribly embarrassing situation for the federal judiciary. So the little fish in this case, the people who just carried the drugs, may get up to 20 years in prison. What did this guy get? He got three years. He was out in 18 months. And he told his probation officer that he could meet the requirements of a stable residence and a job because he was moving into Trump Tower and he was going to work for Donald Trump.
Now, there was a really tragic helicopter accident where Donald Trump was running his casino empire in Atlantic City, where he lost a bunch of his top casino management talent. Was that also on Joey’s watch in terms of the helicopter maintenance?
I don’t know if that helicopter that they were in was maintained by the Whetsel bomb or not. It was a terrible accident that’s been well investigated. But here’s what’s interesting about this crash. The top three guys Donald had who were competent executives, certainly the very top guy was this portly Mormon elder named Steve. Donald, first of all, falsely claimed I almost won on the helicopter, was going to go with him. He was never going to go with them on that helicopter that’s been well established. Secondly. He then started saying the reason the performance of his casinos, Atlantic City wasn’t so good is these guys, when they good, who throws their dead executives under the bus like that, particularly when it’s not true? Well, a guy like Donald Trump who always goes around saying he had no one thing to him is loyalty. But in fact, the Donald, the record shows loyalty to him matters entirely. Loyalty by him. Do you.
In fact, the casinos were doing badly because Donald Trump didn’t understand the basics of the casino industry and was overruling his competent managers, right?
Yes. And he would replace various competent managers with people who I knew, who were drunks, who were not well regarded, were not well followed by by other people. And, you know, there’s external proof of this. And that is Donald had the very best location on the center of the boardwalk for his first casino, Trump Plaza. I mean, it’s the you arrive in Atlantic City. That’s what you see immediately coming off the highway right in front of you. And you have parking right across the street. So a great location. Well, that was one of the first casinos to close when Atlantic City lost its monopoly on gambling on the East Coast. Other casinos in town, the one run by Harrah’s, that’s the old Holiday Inn Motel Corporation. They’re doing just fine and they’re making lots of profits. And business theory cell tells you that the weakest operators will fail first. Well, Donald, it was a poorly run company. They had bad business strategy. There’s a lot in my book, The Making of Donald Trump toward the end of it about showing how he used the wrong business strategy because he didn’t know what he was doing. He once paid one of the smartest mathematicians in the history of the world, a guy named Just Marcom, who as a teenager helped invent radar and went on to found land. That is the original think tank out in Santa Monica for the Air Force, the Rand Corporation. He paid him when he’s an old man. Five thousand dollars to watch a card game because he was afraid he was being cheated. And I was there. I watched this thing happen. It went on for a full week.
Donald stayed up here while you were there when Kastigar were the warrior was doing a special while he was there.
When Akio Kashiwagi, who Al Blasco, a Trump consultant, called The Warrior, I watched them play. Watching Bokhara is like watching paint dry or grass grow. It’s incredibly boring. But Donald was up all night and every 30 minutes he demanded a phone call wanting to know if he was the head or behind. Casinos only offer games where the house wins. If you stay at the table long enough, the only way people ever make money the casino is if they’re ahead, they walk away. And this guy had a deal. He had to stay there until he doubled his money or he went broke. And the point at which Donald I wrote about in my book Temples of Chance 24 years ago, the point at which I wrote about it with Donald, the odds that this guy can come back and walk away with twice as much money as he had on the table were eighty seven to one. Donald doesn’t know Matt. And so he was in a panic that he was going to lose money.
And by the way, he did lose money because he mishandled the whole thing. And they explained that in the book, The Making of Donald Trump. So what did he do?
Well, he basically they made a bad deal with the guy to begin with. Secondly, I was the one who figured out from looking at the table there was a half a million dollars of chips that were missing and every cent, not another not. And then now Glassco, after he went home that night, woke up on the set, realized I was right, and found out that they’d cashed in a half million dollars of chips they bought on credit. He basically convert into cash what was supposed to be chips on credit and then they being house.
Are they being the well know, they being Kashiwagi and his entourage and then the beast. And then Kashiwagi left owing the casino about five billion dollars from that play on his marker. And it was never paid because somebody unconnected to Trump, somebody assassinated him. He was ritually hacked up with a samurai sword, probably by his friends in the Yakuza, which is the Japanese equivalent of the mafia in America.
So somebody who is even meaner than he had, maybe someone even meaner than Donald Trump.
Yeah, Donald. I never would connect Donald with that kind of a crime. That’s not what Donald does. And this guy was a very murky past, was clearly he was in real estate, but clearly was a front for people in the accuser. And if you cross these people, you know, they have a very simple way of dealing with you. They just end your life.
You strike me as a reasonable person. If you’re enjoying this interview, be sure to check out my talk on bullshit. Harry Frankfort, Donald Trump and Indifference to truth at Reasonable Talk that TV. Reasonable Talk is a production of the Center for Inquiry, bringing you captivating talks on science, philosophy, skepticism, free thought and other smart topics. This summer, we’re starting a new season of reasonable talk with my very own presentation exploring how Trump’s success reflects our post factual politics and what we can do to resist disinformation. Philosopher Harry Frankfort argues in his classic paper on bullshit that the hallmark of bullshit is indifference to truth. A liar knows the truth and takes pains to conceal it convincingly. A bullshitter casually mixes fact than fiction because for him the truth is beside the point. Trump is the epitome of a Frank Verdian bullshitter, and then his rhetoric is crafted purely to impress his audience in the moment. Starting today, there will be new episodes of reasonable talk every week and if you haven’t already checked it out. Season one is also available. Go to reasonable talk dot TV.
How about the empty box scam, that’s another one of my favorites from your book.
Well, if when Donald had a license to run a casino, he is required by law to comply with the law and it is his duty to prove that he is an honest person in all matters.
So Donald, it turns out, bought two purchases. Maybe others, but two that we know of at the Bulgari jewelry store across the street from Trump Tower. He had one box with a supposedly 50000 dollar piece of jewelry sent out of state and another was 15000 Belgard. Gary was running a sales tax scam. It’s gone on for years in New York. In fact, just recently, the attorney general of New York indicted a bunch of people at another jewelry store. If you don’t live in New York, you don’t have to pay New York sales tax. You’re obligated to pay used tax in your own state, but nobody enforces that law. And so people had empty boxes sent to out-of-state residences in this case. One of the boxes Donald sent with a fifty thousand dollar jewelry was sent to Roy Cohn’s house in Connecticut. Now, Bulgari was so cheap that even if the jewelry weighed, say, a pound, they would only put enough stamps on it to cover the weight of the empty box. That’s one of the ways they get caught. And they also coded the purchases. So when Donald found out there was an investigation going on about this. He picked up the phone and immediately went to the prosecutors and offered to help them rat out other people. And as a result, he was not prosecuted. Mayor Ed Koch, who Trump denounced all the time, said when the case was resolved by prosecuting the manager of the store and one of the bull galleries lives in Italy, that that was an outrage, that the customers were the real criminals and they should get at least 15 days in jail. If that had happened to Donald, he would’ve lost his single license. But clearly, Donald engaged in breaking the law and the New Jersey authorities, if they wanted to, they could have used this to get rid of him as a casino owner because it’s clearly an act of dishonesty. But as with everything else that came up about Donald, the Division of Gaming Enforcement, which is part of the New Jersey attorney general who is appointed by the governor and New Jersey has the strongest governor, America never asked the question that would cause them to have to go after Donald’s license. They were brilliant at this and various things came up over years and they would put him under oath. They would ask a carefully framed question designed to make sure he could just deny it. And then they would say, there’s nothing there.
And they gave him a sweetheart deal on auditing him when he first got the license to begin with. Right. He didn’t have to go through the same scrutiny then.
That’s exactly right. This all began when Trump wanted to build this casino. He bought land under a very Squali deal. But the series of deals that make no real economic sense. And he then told the attorney general that in John Degnan, who was going to run for governor, that Degnan would have to come to him. He wasn’t going to go to the government office. And Degnan, of course, you said now you want to have casino license.
You come to me. The Degnan, being a politician as well as a law enforcement guy, went to the office of Trump’s lawyer in North Jersey. And Trump then said, I’m not going to go through with this. There’s 18 months. You know, I mean, I’m not gonna spend money and start construction, everything else. You got to promise to do this in 90 days. And Degnan said we can’t do it in 90 days. And he said, well, six months. And Bigman said, I’m not going to promise you you’ll get a license. But if you fully cooperate, we will complete our investigation within six months. Well, he did it in five months. They missed four different cases in which Donald had been the focus of a grand federal grand juries looking into criminal activity. Then none of those cases led to any charges against Donald or anybody else. But under the rules in New Jersey, you had to disclose if you were merely investigated and Donald didn’t do it until the last minute and then only when he realized they’d found out about it. And once he was licensed, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, which is under the control of the governor, only made sure that it defended its own reputation and its own judgment in approving him for a license and recommending to the Casino Control Commission that they license him because if they had done anything else, it would have shown that they had failed to do their job, which they did. They failed to do their job.
It seems like both personally and his business with and in. And politically, nothing sticks to Donald Trump. But he can be caught lying and in court, all kinds of things. And it doesn’t seem to hurt him at the polls. Why do you think that he just keeps walking away from everything?
This is this is one of things, Don Donald Vomit Donald is masterful about. You know, people used to call Ronald Reagan Teflon Ron. And I actually own the cartoon from the L.A. Times, cartoonist of Reagan, the Teflon suit, everything washes out, Beirut bombings, et cetera. The Donald is way beyond Ronald Reagan and that kind of league. It’s because he’s masterful at deflecting law enforcement investigations. Secondly, behind the scenes, he does things as with the Bulgari box where he knows things and he feeds things to law enforcement and does other things to curry favor with them. Thirdly, when he knows there’s a lawsuit that’s going to really hurt him, he settles that. He says, I’ve never several absolutely untrue. He settles all the time and he’s settled in some cases for pretty big money when the lawsuit was going to expose something that threatens other operations. And this is an incredible skill. I’m 29 and I’ve been doing investigative reporting for almost a half century, and I am in awe of this man’s ability to deflect law enforcement investigations, journalistic investigations and litigation. And except for me and Wayne Barrett, basically nobody in journalism has really seriously and over time dug into Donald. And of course, anybody that’s about us, we’re losers. You can’t trust anything they write.
You say in the book that you’re completely unafraid of being sued by Donald Trump. How do you manage that? Just psychologically?
Well, you do what’s right. I mean, the the comparison, I guess I would make when I was a teenager, I my original career goal was I was gonna be an LAPD homicide detective. You know, if there’s trouble, you run towards it. I’ve literally run into a burning building. I once personally hunted down an especially vicious killer, black on white. I’m white and confronted the killer. And as a result, got an innocent man freed from a life sentence of prison for a crime he did not commit. You know, you do the work you’re supposed to do. And if Donald sees me, he sues me. He is a public figure. And under the law, he should not be able to succeed unless he can show that I knowingly, deliberately, maliciously wrote false things. That is a mistake. That is not grounds to sue me because he’s a public figure. And how could how can you live your life and go run in fear of people? And I. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.
I mean, when I was writing about people, foreign spies in the United States, police officers who were killing people, mob mob people who were killing people. And I have little children at home. I have eight children. They’re all grown now. My phone number was in the phone book and my home address was in the phone book. Nothing ever happened. The people I would worry about are the crazies. But in the case of a lawsuit, you know what Donald says, meeting Susan is a terrible thing in terms of the aggravation. But I’m not going to not do my job because somebody threatens to sue you. That that would. That’s crazy.
So you’re just it boils down to things when you’re absolutely confident that you would win. And two, you just can’t live your life in fear and continue to fight, even if I lose.
I mean, let’s assume that everything I’ve managed to build up in my life and I know I have to go to work. And I was 10 years old to help my family and 13 full time. And I’m a prosperous guy. Even if I lost it all, my integrity comes first. I say in the end of the book, a lot of people have compared various things about Donald and I, and there’s some comparisons there. And I recognize I’m one of them is that neither of us has a boss. Every newsroom I worked in The L.A. Times, The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, I did what I wanted to do. Nobody told me what to do and I was good enough at it. I never even had only once in my life did I ever apply for a job. Everybody came to me. Even The New York Times came to me. To this day, I still the people I write for. They all came to me. And so I never worried about about having work. But I did what I wanted to do. And Donald was the same way. There’s nobody who’s who’s his boss. But the way Gary, what we’re different is money and honor. In any case, where there’s money and honored issue, Donald will choose money. I will always choose honor because honor, once lost, may never be regained. You can always make more money.
That’s incredibly inspiring. I think that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Well, thank you for having me. And I really hope that people, and especially people of faith, read the making of Donald Trump because basically it’s all the things he does not want you to know about him. And those are the things that really matter.
Sadly, there probably aren’t a lot of people of faith in our audience, but we hope there are some out there. So you guys especially say no.
But they know people have faith and they should know that Trump and his views of the world rejects totally the things that he’s got ministers praising him for because they haven’t checked him out.
Thank you so much. Take care.