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David Cay Johnston: Donald Trump “Finally Being Held to Account” After Half-Century of Criminality

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We look at Donald Trump’s ongoing legal battles with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston, who has been covering Trump since the 1980s. The next major case against Trump is his hush money trial, set to begin April 15, in which he is accused of falsifying business records to cover up payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep an extramarital affair quiet during the 2016 presidential campaign. This comes as Trump is on the hook to produce $175 million to cover a civil fraud judgment in New York, where his bond was originally set at $454 million. Other cases against Trump, including over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents after he left office, are still ongoing. “Donald Trump has committed serious criminal acts his whole life, and … he’s finally being held to account,” says Johnston.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

A New York judge has set April 15th the start date for Donald Trump’s hush money trial, the first of Trump’s four criminal trials. On that day, Trump will become the first former U.S. president to ever face a criminal trial. He’s accused of falsifying business records in violation of New York law to cover up hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Trump was in court Monday when the judge rejected requests to delay the trial. The judge directly criticized Trump’s legal team for alleging prosecutors had improperly withheld documents from them.

Meanwhile, in a separate case, a New York state appeals court has reduced Trump’s bond to $175 million, down from over $450 million, to cover a civil fraud judgment. The court also gave Trump 10 more days to pay. If Trump doesn’t post the bond, New York Attorney General Letitia James could begin seizing some of his properties.

To talk more about this and more, we are joined by David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, co-founder of DCReport, has covered Donald Trump since the ’80s. His books include The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family. His latest piece for The New Republic is “Today Is the Day That 50 Years of Grifting Finally Comes to an End.”

So, start off talking about the significance of this reduction of money he has to pay. Do you think he’s going to post it in the next 10 days? And what exactly it means, David?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, it is not unusual for courts to lower the size of a bond from the entire amount owed to some lesser amount. There have been a number of cases of this. And it’s discretionary on the part of the courts. The bond is not intended to be punitive. It is to guarantee payment. And Trump has other assets. So I think that was a reasonable decision of this court, much as it’s upset many people who are critical of Donald.

The appeal will probably not take all that long, a matter of months. And having read carefully Judge Engoron’s decision, I — and I’m not a lawyer; I’m a professor of law, but not a lawyer — and many lawyers don’t see any significant grounds for appeal. The best Trump can hope for is that the roughly $350 million base award — the bond is for half of that — might be shaved back a bit. But that’s about all Trump can hope for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, when he was asked how he would put up now the $175 million bond in his fraud case, Trump said in a news conference Monday, quote, “I don’t need to borrow money. I have a lot of money.” Your response to that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, this goes right to the heart of how there is no sense of objective truth or facts in Donald’s world. If Donald says something, that means it’s so. And if you disagree, well, you know what, Juan? Fake news. His lawyers told the court that he couldn’t possibly get a bond for $454 million, he couldn’t do more than $100 million at most. And then he turns around and says, “I have $500 million in cash.” Donald just makes this stuff up. And he’s done it his entire life. He’s done it for the 35 years that I’ve known him. He just makes it up.

Now, my guess is that he is going to borrow this money somehow. He has another bond for $83 million from a Swiss insurer, Chubb, in the E. Jean Carroll second defamation case. And in this case, he’s been meeting with, at least once, Jeffrey Yass, a guy who’s worth about $25 billion and who owns 7% of ByteDance, the parent of TikTok. As president, Donald issued an executive order banning TikTok. A court threw that out, because he doesn’t have the authority to do that. He said it was a national security threat. Now he’s saying we need TikTok. How interesting. He makes friends with the guy who has his fortune tied up in TikTok, and suddenly he’s in favor of TikTok.

AMY GOODMAN: We also have recently heard, what, that Steve Mnuchin, one of his Cabinet members, Trump’s old Cabinet members, is trying to put together a team to buy ByteDance. Is that right? So, you’ll have billionaires owning X, right? Elon Musk, right-wing.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Also owning TikTok.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Yes. What you’re seeing in America, because of a series of Supreme Court decisions, the most important of which was Citizens United, is the conversion of American democracy into a cash register business. Whoever has the most money can buy the government policies they want. And there’s a desperate need to change this.

Steve Mnuchin was Trump’s treasury secretary, became very wealthy by taking over a failed savings and loan and then enforcing the most trivial rules to force people out of their houses so he could get the value of their houses. As treasury secretary, he used government money so that he could fly in a government jet to see a celestial event. I mean, these are people who have no regard, Amy, for the public interest. They have no sense of sacrifice. They just look at government and go, “Wow! How rich can I get off of manipulating the government?”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, your take on the significance of the, most likely, first trial now, criminal trial, being on the hush money case in New York?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, Judge Juan Merchan has made it very clear that he’s fed up with and tired of the game playing by Trump’s lawyers. They literally put themselves in the position of someone who murders their parents and then pleads for mercy because they’re an orphan. They caused the — they were the ones who chose to wait ’til the last minute to seek certain documents — not from the state prosecutors, by the way, but from federal prosecutors.

The case against Donald Trump in this matter is extraordinarily strong, in large part because Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s fixer and lawyer at the time, went to prison for these exact same events. But when Trump is convicted — and I think that’s extraordinarily likely — he will appeal, because there are 34 misdemeanor charges, which are then put together under a federal charge, not a state charge, that Trump was trying to subvert the 2016 election by paying off the porn star Stormy Daniels. Trump will no doubt go to trial — go to court after the trial and say, “Well, that’s not fair. You can’t do that,” because, of course, anything where law enforcement or aggrieved parties come after Trump isn’t fair, because Donald is special. He’s above the rules. In fact, he tells his audiences he is their savior.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Donald Trump leaving the courthouse on Monday.

DONALD TRUMP: This is all about election interference. This is all Biden-run things, meaning Biden and his thugs, because I don’t know if he knows he’s alive. And it’s a shame. It’s a shame, what’s happening to our country. This is election interference.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we just have a minute to go. You’ve written three books on Donald Trump. You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for your reporting, co-founded DCReport. Where do you think this is each headed? Let’s be clear: This hush money trial that you think he will be convicted on, he cannot pardon himself if he becomes president, because this is a state court. This is a state ruling.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right. I don’t think even this Supreme Court would uphold a federal pardon. Donald Trump, when this is over, if he does not get back to the White House — and he can do that even if he loses by 10 million votes, as I expect, in the fall, because we elect through the Electoral College — Donald Trump doesn’t get back to the White House, then what lies ahead for him is financial ruin, bankruptcy and prison, a long — multiple long prison sentences from both state and federal criminal courts, because Donald Trump has committed serious criminal acts his whole life, and finally, finally, after a half-century of lying, cheating, stealing, plying 12-year-olds with liquor so they would gamble, doing extraordinary favors for one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in America, he’s finally being held to account.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Cay Johnston, why isn’t it raised that Lara Trump, who’s now helping to head the RNC, is married to Eric Trump, she benefits from money going directly to the Trumps, because he also has to pay up millions of dollars?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: You know, nine years ago, Amy, on your program, I said Donald Trump is a wannabe dictator. And when you’re a dictator, you surround yourself with the people you trust, and the people you trust most are family. So he has now installed his daughter-in-law at the Republican National Committee, which is close to broke in terms of how much money parties should have —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: — and has no money for down-ballot candidates, which is bad for the party.

AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.

That does it for our show. Happy birthday, Nermeen Shaikh!

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