Who Was the Worst CEO?: David Cay Johnston Dissects Trump and Fiorina’s Business Records

September 17, 2015


David Cay Johnston

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter previously with The New York Times. He’s currently a columnist for Al Jazeera America as well as a contributing writer at Newsweek. His latest book is Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality. He has been covering Donald Trump for various publications for decades.

John Nichols

political writer for The Nation and the author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. His piece for is headlined "Unlike Trump, Rand Paul Actually Made Some Sensible Points During the Debate."

While some candidates touted their past political experience, real estate developer Donald Trump and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina faced off over their business experience. Each accused the other of poorly managing their companies, with Trump accusing Fiorina of being one of the worst CEOs, while Fiorina took aim at Trump for his companies’ records of filing for bankruptcy. To dissect the two candidates’ business records, we turn to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who has been covering Donald Trump for decades.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to play the clip that you just mentioned, John Nichols, when Donald Trump attacked Carly Fiorina’s business record. She, in turn, accused him of going bankrupt four times.

DONALD TRUMP: The head of the Yale business school, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, wrote a paper recently—one of the worst tenures for a CEO that he has ever seen, ranked one of the top 20 in the history of business. The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster. They still haven’t recovered. In fact, today, on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, they fired another 25 or 30,000 people, saying we still haven’t recovered from the catastrophe. When Carly says the revenues went up, that’s because she bought Compaq. It was a terrible deal, and it really led to the destruction of the company. Now, one other company before that was Lucent. Carly was at Lucent before that, and Lucent turned out to be a catastrophe also. So I only say this: She can’t run any of my companies. That I can tell you.

JAKE TAPPER: Ms. Fiorina, I want to give you a chance to respond.

CARLY FIORINA: You know, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a well-known Clintonite and, honestly, had it out for me from the moment that I arrived at Hewlett-Packard. But honestly, Mr. Trump, I find it quite rich that you would talk about this. You know, there are a lot of us Americans who believe that we are going to have trouble someday paying back the interest on our debt, because politicians have run up mountains of debt using other people’s money. That is in fact precisely the way you ran your casinos. You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy, not once—

DONALD TRUMP: I never filed for bankruptcy.

CARLY FIORINA: —not twice, four times. A record four times. Why should we trust you to manage the finances—

DONALD TRUMP: I’ll tell you why. It’s very simple.

CARLY FIORINA: —of this nation any differently than you managed the finances—

DONALD TRUMP: I’ll tell you. I was running—

CARLY FIORINA: —of your casinos?

DONALD TRUMP: Carly, Carly, Carly—


DONALD TRUMP: I’ve made over $10 billion. I had a casino company. Caesars just filed for bankruptcy. Chris will tell you—it’s not Chris’s fault either—but almost everybody in Atlantic City is either in trouble or filed for—maybe I’ll blame Chris.


DONALD TRUMP: But Atlantic City is a disaster—

CARLY FIORINA: Mr. Trump also—

DONALD TRUMP: Wait a minute, Carly. Wait. I let you speak. Atlantic City is a disaster, and I did great in Atlantic City. I knew when to get out. My timing was great. And I got a lot of credit for it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Donald Trump speaking last night in an exchange with Carly Fiorina. David Cay Johnston, could you respond to what Trump had to say about his bankruptcy claims—I mean, that is, denying them?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Oh, sure, sure. Well, Donald personally has never filed bankruptcy. He didn’t have to do it in 1990 because the state of New Jersey Casino Control Commission took his side in negotiations with his bankers and said to his bankers, whom he couldn’t pay—Donald at the time claimed to be worth $3 billion, but he couldn’t make interest payments to his bankers—and the Casino Control Commission said, in effect, "Foreclose, if you would like, on Mr. Trump, and you will have lovely hotels by the seashore, but no casino licenses." So, of course, the bankers all immediately took haircuts, and Trump did not have to pay back much of the money that he borrowed.

Trump’s companies were never well-run companies. Fortune magazine listed him at or almost at the bottom by every category it measured 500 large companies by. Donald promoted people whom I knew, and often promoted the most amazingly incompetent people, because they were people who were, "Yes, sir, absolutely, sir, that’s the way we’ll do it, sir," while competent executives were pushed aside. Donald is simply not a good manager.

I think Carly—he’s correct, though, that Carly Fiorina’s record is very troubling, both at Lucent and at Compaq—I mean, at Hewlett-Packard. If she wants to run on the basis of her business record, that’s not a good record for her to run on. But, yes, Donald has never personally filed bankruptcy, but have you ever heard Donald separate himself from his successful enterprises and talk about as if they’re separate entities?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, during the Republican debate, moderator Jake Tapper also asked Jeb Bush to respond to Donald Trump’s claim that Bush is beholden to special interest groups because he’s taken campaign contributions from wealthy backers.

JEB BUSH: people are supporting me because I have a proven record of conservative leadership, where I cut taxes $19 billion over eight years. We shrunk the state government workforce. We created a climate that led the nation in job growth seven out of eight years. We were one of two states to go to AAA bond rating. People know that we need principle-centered leadership, a disrupter to go to Washington, D.C.

The one guy that had some special interests that I know of, that tried to get me to change my views on something, that was generous and gave me money, was Donald Trump. He wanted casino gambling in Florida.

DONALD TRUMP: I didn’t want—

JEB BUSH: Yes, you did.

DONALD TRUMP: Totally false.

JEB BUSH: You wanted it, and you didn’t get it—

DONALD TRUMP: I would have gotten it.

JEB BUSH: —because I was opposed to casino gambling before, during and after.

DONALD TRUMP: I promise, I would have gotten it.

JEB BUSH: And that’s not—I’m not going to be bought by anyone.

DONALD TRUMP: I promise, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.

JEB BUSH: No way, man.

DONALD TRUMP: Believe me.


DONALD TRUMP: I know my people.

JEB BUSH: Not even possible.

DONALD TRUMP: I know my people.

JAKE TAPPER: Is there anything else you want to say about this?

DONALD TRUMP: No. I just will tell you that, you know, Jeb made the statement. I’m not only referring to him. A lot of money was raised by a lot of different people that are standing up here. And the donors, the special interests, the lobbyists have very strong power over these people.

I’m spending all of my money. I’m not spending—I’m not getting any—I turned down—I turned down so much, I could have—right now, from special interests and donors, I could have double and triple what he’s gotten. I’ve turned it down. I’ve turned down last week $5 million from somebody.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. David Cay Johnston, what’s the fact here?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Donald absolutely, without question, tried to get casino gambling in Florida. He hired lobbyists. There are plenty of news clips; you can go back and read about it. And his denial is typical of a very important feature about Donald. Donald is one of these people who, whatever he says at the moment, that’s the truth—to him. It isn’t the objective truth, it’s not the empirical reality, but to Donald it’s the truth. And what he said is just completely false.

On the other side of this, Jeb Bush, you know, should not get away with saying, "I cut taxes $19 billion," without a piece of context. State debt under his watch rose by more than—I think it’s $22 billion. And he was the beneficiary, of course, of the housing bubble, that Alan Greenspan claims he couldn’t see, but I wrote about, was very obvious long before the bubble popped, and so did a few other people. So, neither of the two gentlemen here has clean hands.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another heated exchange between Trump and Bush from Wednesday night, this time regarding Trump’s suggestion that Bush’s views on immigration were influenced by his Mexican-born wife.

JEB BUSH: To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have to tell you, I hear phenomenal things. I hear your wife is a lovely woman.

JEB BUSH: She is. She’s fantastic.

DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know her. And this is a total mischaracterization of what I said.

JEB BUSH: She is absolutely the love of my life, and she’s right here.

DONALD TRUMP: Good, good.

JEB BUSH: And why don’t you apologize for her right now?

DONALD TRUMP: No, I won’t do that, because I said nothing wrong. But I do hear she’s a lovely woman.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Nichols, could you respond to that exchange between Trump and Bush, and Trump’s refusal to apologize, in fact?

JOHN NICHOLS: Right, see, this is a huge part of what Donald Trump does. The way that he has played American media—and you saw a real example of it just in that quick moment in the debate—the way that he has played American media is to say absolutely outrageous things, and then, instead of apologizing, to stand by it, to say, "Yeah, I didn’t say anything wrong," and then to go on and often say something more outrageous, which draws the attention to him on the next day.

And I thought that there was a point where the moderators should have stepped in. And they should have said, "Look, you claim you didn’t say anything wrong. Jeb Bush is clearly pointing out some of the things you said here. Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s not let you get away with that statement." David just pointed out, you know, in a previous exchange, where they didn’t follow up, they didn’t press. And one of the key roles of a moderator in a debate is to clarify, to get this stuff straight. That did not happen at point after point after point.

And on this issue, in particular, where you’re talking about immigration, you know, it’s an interesting exchange there. You’re saying that Jeb Bush was influenced by his personal experience. Well, I hope he was influenced some by his personal experience. I certainly am, a lot, by people I meet and things that happen in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: And Donald Trump—

JOHN NICHOLS: And I wish that Bush, rather than making it personal, would have pushed back.

AMY GOODMAN: And Donald Trump dug in and talked more and more about spending the money to deport over 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

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