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“The Making of Donald Trump”: David Cay Johnston on Trump’s Ties to the Mob & Drug Traffickers

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We continue this holiday special with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who’s been reporting on Donald Trump for decades. Johnston first covered Trump in the 1980s while he was working as bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Atlantic City. David Cay Johnston later covered Trump at The New York Times. Johnston’s new biography of Donald Trump has just been published; it’s called “The Making of Donald Trump.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger singing “Which Side Are You On?” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue this holiday special with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who’s been reporting on Donald Trump for decades. Johnston first covered Trump in the 1980s while he was working as bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Atlantic City. David Cay Johnston later covered Trump at The New York Times. Johnston’s new biography of Donald Trump has just been published; it’s called The Making of Donald Trump.

Juan González and I interviewed David Cay Johnston last month. We began by asking him, what’s the main theme he’s taken away from his years of studying Donald Trump and his operations?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Donald doesn’t know anything. And if you listen carefully to what he says, it becomes apparent. He was asked by a Hugh Hewitt during one of the debates, the right-wing radio talk show host, about the nuclear triad. That’s the capacity of the U.S. to deliver a nuclear bomb from a submarine missile, a land-based missile or an airplane. His answer indicated he had no idea. Well, it turned out Hugh Hewitt had asked the same question months earlier on his radio show, and Trump didn’t learn in between. Trump talks as if the president’s a dictator. When he ran casinos, he didn’t know the games, he didn’t know the odds, he didn’t know how to handle customers. All he knew how to do was take money out of the organization, which weakened it, and that’s why his casinos were among the first to fold.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the clip that you reference also in The Making of Donald Trump. During the Republican debate last December, he was questioned, as you said, by Hugh Hewitt, who then asked Senator Marco Rubio for his response.

DONALD TRUMP: First of all, I think we need somebody absolutely that we can trust, who’s totally responsible, who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important. And one of the things that I’m, frankly, most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was totally against going into Iraq, because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly, and it was very important. But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame.

HUGH HEWITT: The three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority? Because I want to go to Senator Rubio after that and ask him—

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think—I think, to me, nuclear is just—the power, the devastation is very important to me.

HUGH HEWITT: Senator Rubio, do you have a response?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: I do. Well, first, let’s explain to people at home who the triad—what the triad is. Maybe a lot of people haven’t heard that terminology before. The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs, ability to attack. And it’s important. All three of them are critical.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Senator Rubio and, before him, Donald Trump. And, of course, then there recently Joe Scarborough, the talk show host who’s a former Republican conservative congressmember, saying he heard from an international diplomat who was advising Donald Trump—Trump said to the person three times, “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?”

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, this is indicative of Donald doesn’t know anything. I mean, if Marco Rubio, who is pretty much an empty suit, has to school you on something this basic, that should have screamed to people back in December, “This man has no qualifications!” He doesn’t qualify to be in Congress, much less be president of the United States. On the other hand, in his own mind, of course, Donald is the greatest living person. And, Amy, if you don’t appreciate that, Donald has a word for you: “Loser!”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: David, I wanted to ask you about this issue which we discussed previously with Wayne Barrett, as well, on the issue of Donald Trump’s relationship to the mob and his connections over the years to mobsters. And you’ve also looked into that, as well.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes, and it’s not just the traditional Mafia families in New York. First of all, Donald Trump’s father had a business partner who was a mob guy. I’m sure Wayne talked about that. But Donald has done business with people with the Russian mob. He’s done business with con artists. The guy who supplied his helicopters and managed his personal helicopter, called the Ivana, from his first wife back then, was a major cocaine trafficker, who actually handled the drugs. And after he went to prison, Donald wrote a letter pleading for mercy for him, so he got 18 months as the head of the ring. The little fish who delivered the drugs, they got 20 years. Donald continued to do business with him after he was indicted. Donald has done business all his life with mobsters and criminals, because it’s a way to make money.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Joseph Weichselbaum?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes, that’s the guy. Joseph Weichselbaum is this mob associate. He once—he used to do Cigarette boat racing in Miami, and he once was—came in third, right behind Charles Keating, the infamous financier who ripped off people for a billion dollars. And Weichselbaum provided helicopters to the Trump Organization, even though there were better-capitalized, better-run companies. Donald rented an apartment to Weichselbaum and his brother under very unusual circumstances.

When Weichselbaum was indicted, it was for a drug operation that went from Miami to Ohio. When he agreed to plead guilty, the case was mysteriously moved to New Jersey. And who did it come before? Federal Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald’s older sister. No one knows how this happened. Now, she removed herself from the case, but imagine, Amy, that you, or one of the listeners, you’re the chief judge, and the judge comes to you and says, “Oh, I can’t handle this case, because I fly in this drug trafficker’s helicopters. My husband flies in them every week. My children have flown in this drug trafficker’s helicopters.” You know, it helps explain how this guy got a light sentence.

And the question we have to ask is: Why did Donald Trump need to write that letter, which could have cost him his casino license? Because he needed this guy to be his friend and not his enemy. What was going on that Donald Trump needed a drug trafficker to be his friend and not his enemy? And that’s a question no one in the news media has been asking.

AMY GOODMAN: You got a call from Donald Trump over this?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: I got a call related to this, yes. I wrote a piece for Politico magazine back in April about all of Donald Trump’s connections. And Donald finally called me. He’s had my home number for years. He’s called me at home in the past. 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.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, you go into a story, not about his father, who’s been well known and covered previously by other publications, but about his grandfather. Talk about Donald Trump’s grandfather.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick, when he turned 16 in 1885, was subject to mandatory military service in Germany, so he fled the country and came to America. And then he followed Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go West, young man.” And he went into the whorehouse business. And he ran bordellos in Seattle, in Everett, Washington, and in the Yukon Territory, until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed up. He then took his fortune, went back to Germany, married a young woman his mother didn’t approve of, came back to America. His wife didn’t like it. They went back to Germany. He figured, with all his money, he could buy his way in. And they said, “You’re a draft dodger. Get out,” and sent him back to America.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about his father, Fred Trump.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Fred Trump, whose father died when he was 12 or 13 years old, was a very industrious guy. When he was 15 years old, he started a business—technically owned by his mother, because he couldn’t sign contracts—building garages in the outer boroughs of New York for these newfangled thing called automobiles. When the market collapsed because of the Great Depression, he invented one of the first grocery stores. People used to have clerks give them their canned goods and stuff. He opened one where you did your own, and then sold it for a profit.

He built housing during World War II for shipyard workers and is said to be the first person in line to get federal money to build worker housing. He was a profiteer. Dwight D. Eisenhower personally went into a rage over what he had done, how he’d ripped stuff off, and he had a creative explanation when he was called before the U.S. Senate to justify what he did. He said, “I didn’t profiteer. I didn’t take the money. It’s in the bank account.” Strange way to think about things. And, of course, they discriminated against everybody who wasn’t white, and were proven to have done this in the ’50s and in the ’70s. And Woody Guthrie, the folk singer, “This Land is Your Land,” he wrote a song, which is in the book thanks to the generosity of the Guthrie family, about one of the all-white outer suburb projects owned by Fred Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: That he had an apartment in.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes, that’s right, that he lived in.

AMY GOODMAN: You tell a story about Fred Trump’s son, his older son, Donald Trump’s brother, and what happened to his family, and particularly his grandchild—


AMY GOODMAN: —after the father, Fred Trump, died, and what Donald Trump did to him.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: So, keep in mind he sought mercy for a drug trafficker. So, Freddy Trump Jr. died of alcoholism early. And when Old Man Trump died, he had a new grandson—a great-grandson, who was born a few days later—very sickly child, nearly died several times, huge medical bills. Everyone in the Trump family gets medical insurance from the Trump Organization. Donald is a big believer in healthcare. It’s one of the positive things you can say about him. And the line of Freddy Trump Jr., when they realized they’d been effectively cut out of the will, filed a lawsuit. “Hey, you know, you guys are dividing the money up four ways instead of five.” Donald immediately cut off the healthcare for this sickly child.

AMY GOODMAN: This is his grandnephew.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: His grandnephew. And he’s asked about this. And he says, “Well, I don’t like people who sue my father.” And he was told, “Well, don’t you think this will look cold-hearted? You’re putting the life of this child in jeopardy.” “Well, what else am I to do?” And that’s an essential element to understanding Donald Trump. You don’t exist, Amy, I don’t exist, as a person. That’s why he talks about women the way he does, in these degrading terms. Donald doesn’t see other people as people. He sees them as things to be used. And put the life of a child in jeopardy for more money? Donald thinks nothing is wrong with that. That’s—of course you would do that, if you’re Donald. If you wouldn’t do it, what’s wrong with you? That would be Donald’s attitude.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of Donald Trump’s tax forms, that’s—this has continually come up over this campaign.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “Why haven’t you released your tax returns?” You’ve looked into this whole issue of why he’s so reluctant to show what his real returns are.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right, and tax has been my big area of specialty. I’m actually writing a whole new federal tax code for the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In your spare time.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yeah. Donald Trump, we know, paid no federal income taxes in 1978, 1979—he and I had lunch and talked about it once—in 1984 and in the '90s. The 1984 tax return is very revealing. There are special laws in America for full-time real estate people that allow them to live tax-free if they own a lot of property. So, if Donald gave us his tax returns, I could tell you what his property is really worth as opposed to what he tells people it's worth. That’s one reason he’s not going to give it out. I don’t think he’s anywhere near as wealthy as he claims. Not even close.

But in 1984, he was audited by the state of New York and the City of New York, which both have income taxes. He filed a tax form, not the whole return, that showed zero income for this category of income and over $600,000 of deductions. Surprise, surprise, the auditors said, “Please justify these deductions.” He couldn’t do it. But he ordered his law guy—his tax guy to make an appeal. And under oath, his longtime tax guy is shown the return that was filed, and he goes, “Um, that’s my signature, but I didn’t prepare that document.” That’s very good evidence of tax fraud.

And Donald has engaged in other tax frauds we know about. He was involved in what’s called the empty box scandal here in New York. That’s where you claim to not live in the city—in the state, and you have an empty box mailed to you out of state to avoid sales tax. In that case, when Donald found out there was an investigation, he did what he often does to not be investigated: He ran to law enforcement and ratted out other people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in the ’84 case—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —if there was evidence of fraud, what happened with that case?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: We only know what happened in the city and the state case, all right? The state imposed penalties on him, civil penalties, not criminal. That’s how almost all tax matters are settled. The city, because no one could find the original—all they had was the photocopy—with the signature on it, the judge didn’t impose the penalties, because of the uncertainty about it. But he made it very clear that he thought this is a very fishy case. What the IRS did, I don’t know. In all likelihood, Donald, who says he’s audited all the time, arranges to settle these cases, but, through threats of litigation, when they do the legal algebra, they say, “All right, we’ll take pennies on the dollar. Get out of here,” because they don’t have the staff to pursue it.

AMY GOODMAN: You write a lot about the DGE.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, which oversees the Atlantic City casinos.


AMY GOODMAN: What can we learn from their dealings with Donald Trump?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, this shows how masterful Donald Trump is at manipulating law enforcement. He told the attorney general of New Jersey, when he wanted a casino license, “I’m not going to go through the 18 months that all these other people have gone through,” and demanded he be investigated in just 90 days. Everybody else, year and a half. The attorney general agreed to six months if Donald cooperated.

Then Donald hid things, including four grand jury investigations that Wayne Barrett found. Four of them. In New Jersey, a woman applying for a blackjack dealer license—that’s a very low-level license—was found morally unfit and denied a license because, as a teenager, she gave friends of hers discounts at the cash register. That’s the legal standard. Donald withheld these grand jury investigations. He withheld associations with mobsters and criminals. And yet he got licensed anyway. Well, once he was licensed, the bureaucracy at the Division of Gaming Enforcement made sure that Donald was never asked a question that would put his license in jeopardy, because that would force them to admit that they hadn’t done their job.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, given this history of lying, of fraud, of all of these other skirtings of the law, have you been surprised at all about this—the enormous support that Trump has gotten among—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the Republican faithful?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Juan, I’ll tell you why I’m not surprised. As you two know, I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life being on the forefront in the mainstream press of documenting inequality. When nobody else was writing about it, I was showing how government policies are taking from the many and giving to the few. So, the people in this country living in economic terror, the bottom 50 percent, I’ve been their advocate. But they’re not the people who read my books. What they know is: “I’m working harder, I’m making less. If I lose my job, I don’t know how I’ll pay my rent or keep a roof over my kids’ heads.” And Donald comes along, like all demagogues do: “I have a solution. It’s the Mexicans. It’s the Muslims. It’s the Chinese.” And people gravitate to him—not the only ones, but that’s a big part of his support.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about how many of his restaurants, his golf courses have Five and Six Diamond Awards.


AMY GOODMAN: What are these?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, you go to—at least 19 Trump properties have these big plaques: Six Diamond Award, Five Diamond Awards. They’re awards Donald gave to himself. Donald and his family were the majority of the board of something called the Academy of American Hospitality Sciences, or something like that, which is the invention of a mob guy, a convicted art thief named “Joey No Socks,” who lives on Central Park South. And Donald has gone to ceremonies to receive these awards and these big plaques, and his signature is on them. This is a man who gives awards to himself. How juvenile.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by, as we wrap up this interview, in writing The Making of Donald Trump? You have covered him for many years.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: I did not appreciate, until I worked on the book, that while Donald holds himself out as a devout Christian—”No one reads the Bible more than me”—while he has all these pastors embracing him as a good Christian man, Donald aggressively, thoroughly and at great length, in many forums, denounces Christianity. His personal motto is “always get revenge,” whereas the message of Jesus Christ was “turn the other cheek.” And these ministers, some of whom I’ve written to and haven’t—they haven’t responded at all—continue to embrace him. And I find it very troubling. Donald has beguiled them with flattery. If they continue, now that my book is out, if they know about it, to do this, they are then deceiving their flocks, and that’s evil. But Donald himself doesn’t care about these things. He will tell you any lie. He can’t quote a single line from the Bible. Not one. And yet he says, “No one reads the Bible more than Donald Trump.” If you ask him, “Well, what do you like in the Bible?” “Oh, there’s so many. There’s so many. I just—there are so many, I can’t choose.”

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, author of the new book, The Making of Donald Trump.

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