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“It’s Even Worse Than You Think”: David Cay Johnston on Trump’s First Year in Office

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Uninformed. That was the word White House Chief of Staff John Kelly used to describe his boss, President Trump, on Thursday. According to The Washington Post, Kelly told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that some of Trump’s hardline immigration policies—including his call to build a wall along the entire southern border— were “uninformed.” Kelly said, “Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed.” Well, today we spend the hour looking at Trump’s first year in office with David Cay Johnston, a journalist who has been covering Donald Trump since 1988. He is out this week with a new book titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour, David Cay Johnston, on this eve of the inauguration of President Trump a year ago. We thought we’d look back at this last year with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose book is out this week, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: David, we spoke earlier about the threat, the possibility that Trump would actually use tactical nuclear weapons. Now, this comes as, as you point out in the book, the largest number of administrative positions and ambassadorial posts, possibly for any U.S. president, have been left empty by the Trump administration. So, first of all, could you talk about the positions that have not been filled, and the fact that the ones that have been filled, you call “political termites,” and what the consequences are of the U.S. not having an ambassador in so many countries?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Donald Trump was not prepared to win the election. And so, he didn’t have people in place. And it was understandable, in the beginning, that he didn’t fill a lot of positions, but he also fired every U.S. attorney—presumably to get rid of Preet Bharara in New York, where Donald lived before being elected. He fired every U.S. ambassador and didn’t have people in place—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how common is that?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do incoming presidents fire all U.S. ambassadors?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: No. The normal practice is you leave the ambassador—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Career diplomats.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: —whether it’s a career diplomat or sometimes even a political, until you get a new person. And they didn’t do that. And they’re not filling these jobs. So, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Egypt—just in four countries—do not have a U.S. ambassador at this point. When you don’t have an ambassador, it means that when big trade and economic deals are being discussed in the early stages and people are looking for where they’re going to put money, we don’t have anybody with ears at the table. In many countries, it’s important to know when the dictator’s son shows up or doesn’t show up at a meeting, or someone sits at a different place than they usually do at events. Subtle things like that can signal to you what’s going on. We used to call it Kremlinology in the Cold War era. We don’t have somebody there to do these things.

Now, Rex Tillerson, who was the CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that’s in a terrible business but is, actually, as a management matter, a very well-run company—he ran a company that had its own military and its own diplomatic corps, as Steve Coll’s book about ExxonMobil points out. And I’m sure that he felt often the State Department interfered. He’s been in the middle of “Let’s get rid of these people.” American taxpayers have invested a huge amount of money in developing expertise. And only about 3 percent of people who apply to the Foreign Service get jobs. It’s a really—you’ve got to be really smart, educated and thoughtful to get in there. So, why would we destroy this jewel of influence that we have all over the world of soft power?

So, overall, this is part of the effort to destroy our government. And I realize we have a global audience, but, to Americans, this is our government. It’s not the government, it’s our government. Donald Trump is our employee. He is our agent. He is not a power unto himself. And he took an oath to faithfully execute the laws. He’s not doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, your point on Rex Tillerson is extremely important, often referred to as one of the adults in the room when it comes to North Korea.


AMY GOODMAN: He’s the one that President Trump attacked, when he said we want a back channel directly to North Korea. But you’re saying that he—that as CEO of ExxonMobil, he didn’t want these ambassadors getting in his way.


AMY GOODMAN: And now he is depopulating the State Department. But it’s also supposed to be the place that is the toolbox of diplomacy, as opposed to the Pentagon.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, and diplomacy is a—and diplomacy is a lot cheaper than war. Let’s keep in mind that, you know, most top military officers are very good diplomats. They don’t want to have war. It’s one of the reasons Trump is losing support among the military officer corps. They’re willing to go to war when they need to. They’re not going to go to war for his ego.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s one less ambassador. That’s John Feeley, the ambassador to Panama, who quit after Trump’s “s—hole” and “go back to their huts” comments, the racist comment. He said, “I can no longer faithfully serve him.”

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right. Well, look who Trump appointed to the Netherlands: Hoekstra from western Michigan.

AMY GOODMAN: The former congressman.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Former congressman, who said, you know, “There are no-go zones in the Netherlands. They’re burning politicians.” He gets there, and he denies he said it. And the Dutch journalists have been much tougher than the American journalists, put his feet to the fire about this. Why would you even appoint someone like that? So, the people they have appointed, in some cases, are not at all good choices.

That goes to the other issue that you sort of hinted at earlier. They aren’t appointing the best people to these positions. The head of housing of urban development, Ben Carson, believes that the Pyramids at Giza are granaries, not tombs for pharaohs. We’re appointing someone that idiotic to a position like that? Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, who does she bring in to deal with the student loan problems? The people from the companies that exploited the students. This is not even the fox in the henhouse. This is the Trump administration having the foxes design the henhouse.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that issue of student loans. I mean, you’re an expert in tax law. You’ve certainly comprehensively covered the tax law that was just passed and all things economic and financial. What about student loans? Who is profiting now, and who is losing out?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, companies, including one that Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, invested in, are profiting from this. And the real question we should be asking is: Why do we have student loans? When you and I were college-age, in many states, education was free. It was seen as an investment by the taxpayers in the future wealth of the country. We’ve turned it instead into this lending business. And most of the loans and most of the soured loans are students who went to these private, commercial schools that provide not a good education. A number of them have closed. And instead of saying to these students, “Boy, you know, we’re with you. We realize you got a bad deal,” Betsy DeVos’s Education Department has taken the side of the bankers against the brains. That’s what this administration is. Eric Trump said a couple of days ago that “My dad is all about green. All he cares about is money.” And that’s what this administration is doing: “We care about the bankers.” Donald Trump ran for office on the platform I laid out in my trilogy on American economics, of how the elites were taking care of themselves, promising to reverse that. He was going to drain the swamp. Instead, he’s turned Washington, D.C., into a paradise for Goldman Sachs clients.

And the tax law that we just passed, the worst tax bill we’ve ever had in America, as much as 82 percent of the benefits are going to go to wealthy Americans. Ordinary people are going to get a little few crumbs this year. Many of them are going to discover next year, because of changes in law, they’re going to pay much higher state taxes and be worse off. And, of course, they’re already saying, “Well, we’re going to have to cut programs now, you know.” What did Orrin Hatch, one of the original sponsors of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, say? “Well, there’s no money.” So we have money for billionaires to get tax cuts, but we’re going to have children die because there’s no money. That is immoral, absolutely immoral. And that Orrin Hatch, who holds himself out as a religious man, would say this is appalling beyond belief. And the Trump administration is perfectly comfortable with this.

AMY GOODMAN: If President Trump just lasted for one term or less than that—and we’ll talk about that in a minute—what has he personally gained by this tax bill being passed, if he accomplished just that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, he’s essentially cut his own tax rate from about 40 percent to 21 percent through the more than 500 little businesses that he owns. In the estate tax, he would have it eliminated, in a date in the future. And if he lives until then, if he had $10 billion, as he claimed, he’d save around $4 billion. By the way, after he took office, he filed his net worth statement. It shows $1.4 billion. If you take all the $50 million-and-up items and double them, you get to less than $2 billion. In other words, Donald Trump doesn’t have and never had $10 billion, and there is not one shred of evidence that he even has $1 billion. It’s a con. He’s a grifter. He claims it, doesn’t produce any evidence. I’m the guy who, back in 1990, broke the story that he wasn’t a billionaire. He called me a liar for four months, until he had to produce records, showing he had a negative net worth. And you know what? Back then, you were worth more than Donald Trump, Amy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, David, in addition to the way that Trump is benefiting or could benefit from the tax bill, you speak at length in the book about the other financial improprieties that have characterized this first year in office. So could you talk about that, the other ways in which Trump businesses, for instance—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —have been benefiting in this last year?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: You know, right after Donald Trump took the oath of office, there was a motorcade to the White House. And unlike Barack Obama’s, where there were people on both sides of the street cheering, it was a pretty sparse audience and a lot of protesters. And the motorcade stopped. The car they call “The Beast” stops. And what none of the TV networks reported was where it stopped. It stopped right in front of the new Trump Washington hotel. The family got out, took a turn on the sidewalk. Now, to most people, even if they had said that, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But if you want to curry favor with the Trump administration, there was the signal. “You book your events at our hotel,” which the Kuwaiti government immediately did. “You come to our restaurant.” And that hotel, which was projected by the Trumps to lose money in its first year, has turned into a money-making machine. It is packed with people seeking to curry favor.

Now, when the framers of our Constitution set up this country, one of the things they were very worried about was integrity in the White House and integrity in office. They knew that there were kings in Europe who had been paid off by other kings to work against their countries. So, the word “emoluments” appears three times. The Domestic Emoluments Clause says the president cannot receive any compensation other than his salary and perks from the United States or any of them, meaning the state governments and cities. Well, every time Trump goes to his properties, which is every third day, taxpayers are spending money to rent golf carts at full retail, to buy hotel rooms, to eat meals. We are spending a lot of money at his properties.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: For Trump and all of his Secret Service and all of the—

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Service and local police. When the president travels, it’s an enormous operation. And—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you said he has spent almost one in every three days.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: One in three days, yeah. One in three days. Remember, during the campaign, he said, “I’ll never leave the White House. There’s so much to do. I mean, why would you leave the White House? I’m not going to play golf for four years.”

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, attacking Obama.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, yeah, saying Obama, yeah, yeah.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yeah, attacking Obama. He has played far more golf than Obama. Somebody, I read, said he’s playing more golf than Tiger Woods. And by the way, you know, his properties in Ireland and Scotland, his golf courses, he has to report their revenues and profits. They’re big money losers, yet he claims they’re worth a fortune, which is one of the many reasons to believe it’s all a con, he doesn’t have the money he says he has. He needs the taxpayers to prop up his business. And as president, he can get foreign governments and lobbyists to prop up his business. This is absolutely improper. And Congress’s failure to deal with the Emoluments Clause is indicative of how deeply troubled American democracy is.

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