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David Cay Johnston: 21 Questions for Trump on Kickbacks, Busting Unions, the Mob & Corporate Welfare

StoryAugust 19, 2015
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To talk more about Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, we are joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who has covered Trump off and on for 27 years. He recently wrote an article for The National Memo titled “21 Questions for Donald Trump.” David Cay Johnston is an 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.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To talk more about Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who has covered Trump off and on for 27 years. He recently wrote an article for National Memo titled “21 Questions for Donald Trump.”

AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston is an 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.

David, welcome back to Democracy Now! You have been covering Donald Trump for more than 30 years. Can you talk about who Donald Trump is?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Donald Trump is not at all who people think he is, and I’m very surprised that conservatives are embracing him. For example, Donald’s most famous building, the Trump Tower, instead of building it as a steel girder building, he chose to build it out of concrete, a 58-story—he says 68 stories—a 58-story concrete building built by a company called A&S [S&A Concrete] construction. And who owned [S&A] construction? “Fat Tony” Salerno, the head of the Genovese crime family in New York, and Paul Gambino—I’m sorry, Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino family. Trump used the same company for other projects that he built, even though they were more costly than using steel girder construction.

When he tore down the Bonwit Teller building to make way for the Trump Tower, he had about a dozen union house wreckers on the site and about 150 Polish workers, all of them illegally in the country, who he paid $4 to $5 an hour and who did not have hard hats. And Trump claimed in a lawsuit that he had no idea that these workers were there in any way other than an appropriate way. And a federal judge mocked him, pointing out that they were easy to spot because they were the ones who had no hard hats.

Donald’s personal helicopter pilot, Joseph Weichselbaum, was a convicted major cocaine and marijuana trafficker whose criminal case landed before, of all people, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald Trump’s sister. Now, Judge Barry recused herself, but she also, in the process, made every other judge in the federal system aware of the sensitivity of this particular case.

And in addition, Donald Trump has been found in the past repeatedly to have not paid people he owed money to. It is a standard business practice of his. He has let people think that he fixed Wollman Rink in Central Park for free. He was paid $10 million, but some of his contractors were never paid, because he told them this was a public service project. And he’s been sued innumerable times for racial discrimination of his businesses. He’s been found to have engaged in racial discrimination. He’s not at all who he appears to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and, David Cay Johnston, you also note that he’s not even a billionaire, as he so often claims, that in some years he hasn’t—

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, he wasn’t one in—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In some years, he hasn’t even paid taxes.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: He wasn’t one in 1990. Yeah, in 1990, when I revealed that—he claimed he was worth $3 billion back then, and I got a hold of his banker’s net worth statement that showed he was worth negative-$295 million, and as—I was at _The Philadelphia Inquirer then. We ran across the top of the front page, “You are Probably Worth More Than Donald Trump.” I think the record now is pretty clear. He’s probably worth a billion or somewhat more than a billion, but nowhere near $10 billion.

But important to that is that Donald, in all likelihood, despite claiming a $400 million annual income, probably doesn’t pay any income taxes, because there’s a special provision in federal tax law that if you’re a real estate developer or operator, and your losses, your paper losses for the depreciating value of your buildings, which are really going up in value, exceed your other income, you can live tax-free. And I have three years of Donald’s tax returns from the late ’70s, early ’80s that show large negative income and no federal income tax.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve challenged him to release his taxes?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Oh, yeah. I think the likelihood that Donald will release his tax returns, even if he’s the Republican nominee, is extraordinarily small. I mean, look how hard Mitt Romney, who benefited from another provision of the tax code that would have allowed him to live tax-free or virtually tax-free as the sole owner of Bain Capital management, fought to only release two years of his tax data, even though his father set the standard at 16 years.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just talking, David Cay Johnston, about his wanting to change the Constitution to end birthright citizenship. Your thoughts?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, the racist right in this country has proposed repeal of the 14th Amendment for a long time. You haven’t heard about it in the mainstream news, because it seems a crazy, fringe idea. I noticed Lindsey Graham—you ran a tape of him saying, “We have evidence of people coming here to have their babies.” I’ve asked several politicians over the last few years, you know, “What evidence? You know, point me to people.” Well, you don’t get anything from these folks. But let’s assume that it’s true, somewhat true. Why would we amend the Constitution and take away a right, a right we fought a war over, in which over 600,000 people, about 38,000 of them black Americans, fought, to take away this constitutional right that has been now unquestioned in the law for more than a century and a half?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And among the questions you raise, there’s also about Trump’s operations in Atlantic City, with his casinos there and his questionable relationships with possibly other mob figures in Atlantic City. Could you talk about that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Sure. Well, Donald never had a dollar invested in Atlantic City. And by his own account in The Art of the Deal, he brags about deceiving his partners, the directors of the old Holiday Inn motel company, who owned Harrah’s casinos. And he boasts about tricking them and deceiving them. He needed to buy a particular piece of land. And Donald always says he’s such a great negotiator. So who did he send to negotiate with the representative of Nicky Scarfo, the head of the Atlantic City crime family? Well, he sent his lawyer, Harvey Freeman. He didn’t go himself. And I think that’s consistent with Donald having so assiduously avoided the draft. Donald is not a guy to put himself in any position that he thinks might represent any kind of physical danger to him whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston, you also talk about how he discusses his experience as a manager allowing him to run the federal government far better than President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Can you talk about that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Oh, yes. Well, you know, Fortune magazine does these analyses of who’s a good employer. Wegmans supermarkets, where I am here in Rochester, New York, is often cited as a really good employer, and with good reason. So they looked at 496 major companies, and Trump’s casino company was at the bottom or almost at the bottom in terms of management competence, how it treated its workers, its return to its investors—every metric they had, near the bottom. Donald is not a manager. He is a dealmaker.

And the principal elements of Trump deals are these: You borrow a lot of money. You then arrange later to pay back less than you owed, whether you do it through private transactions, by threatening to go to bankruptcy court, or actual bankruptcy, in the case of his casino company. You don’t pay people who work for you or vendors what’s promised.

And what I don’t understand, Amy, is not one major news organization has even tried to check these things out. I got one phone call from The Washington Post about this piece, “21 Questions for Donald Trump.” Nothing has appeared. And that’s because, in this country, politics reporters cover the horse race, and they do not vet the candidates the way they should. And Trump, if vetted properly, would quickly disappear from the polls.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And does that go to explain why he continues to rise in the polls among Republican voters despite this incredible record of all these years?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, I think—see, I don’t think people know about his actual record. He is appealing to the worst instincts in us. He is appealing to racial instincts. And, you know, let’s recognize that, well, in polite society, you can’t say, “I don’t want to sit next to a black person or a brown person or an Asian person on the airplane or in a restaurant or at work.” You can’t say that. And so, there’s an undercurrent of people who hate that. They want to live in a white society. They want to imagine this is a Christian country, even though the Constitution expressly in Article VI makes clear it’s not a religious country in any way. And Donald has provided a way for those people who harbor these bad thoughts, I would argue, they harbor these inhumane thoughts, to channel them through him.

And they are so enamored of this, they ignore the fact that he is proposing to create a massive police state, to round up people, to have a—we were required to have adjudicatory hearings, although Donald likes to think he would be dictator—and spend enormous amounts of money on removing people from the country, including children born here who are citizens, and erecting a wall, which will do absolutely nothing to stop people coming here in an effort to find a better life. So, people who harbor these awful feelings and suffer from the social disease of white skin privilege just aren’t really thinking through what Donald is proposing, which is a massive new government program that’s totally contrary to the Republican promise of less government.

AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston, we want to thank you for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, previously with The New York Times, now writing for Al Jazeera America as well as a contributing writer at Newsweek. We’ll link to your column on your “21 Questions for Donald Trump” at

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