The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016), a book review by Carlos B. Gil
The author of this book is a widely recognized investigative crime reporter; I see him interviewed on television from time to time. In 2001, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism for his work on tax dodges and loopholes. Because of the way he works, critics and admirers tagged him the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States.” I therefore consider his book as credit worthy. He wrote the book as a warning, as I explain below.
I took the time to read The Making of Donald Trump in an effort to comprehend our current president, hoping, in a way, that I might find something redeeming, but I did not. Johnston’s sleuthing and investigating failed to turn up any evidence contradicting the image that Donald Trump has carved out for himself in his first twelve months in office. His tweeting, and his speeches, if they may be called that, serve to confirm Johnston’s findings. Johnston helped me by tracing and explaining some of Trump’s ways of saying and doing things but the point is, that Trump hasn’t changed an iota since Johnston began investigating him.
Because the subject of this book is the President of the United States, I began taking extensive notes, something I do not do for other book reviews that I publish online. I append these notes below for your going-over, if you so wish. They provide more details.
Trump’s apparent “obsession with money,” is something he learned from his ancestors, according to Johnston. His father, Fred, appears to have taught him the tricks of the trade, including his worldview: money means everything, and looks are second in importance. There is no mention of Donald Trump’s mother, by the way.
Despite his silver spoon upbringing, the ways of the Bowry (one of New York’s rough and tumble wards) seem to have gotten stamped on Donald Trump. His closest friends turned out as shady characters, in some cases outright gangsters.
The best example is Roy Cohn, one of America’s most malicious figures, who served as Senator McCarthy’s right hand man, back in the 1950s. McCarthy took it upon himself to find Communists in the U.S. even when then there were not any, and ruined the lives of many people in the process. He quickly became a hated figure and ultimately resigned in disgrace, but Cohn, his lawyer, who looked like a gangster himself, egged him on with wicked malevolence. Cohn taught young Trump to smear anyone who was not friendly: confuse and disarm your critics by attacking them ten times as hard with foul words and false lawsuits. Indeed, we’ve seen this pattern many times, already. The two were close friends.
Johnston’s reasons for writing this book echo my own for reviewing his book and sharing it here. He wrote that he gathered “nearly half a century” of documents to bring them to the attention of American citizens. They “are most important for voters to ponder,” he explained, because they reveal much about “that person’s character. He adds that Donald Trump’s “obsession with money and the trappings of wealth…and his many comments about women, not as equals but objects,” tell us much about him. Moreover, “His vision is, in many ways, not that of a president but of a dictator.” (my emphasis)
Johnston’s deeply felt conclusion about our president is easy to see since Trump entered the White House. His one-sided immigration bans, insulting judges, even his own Attorney General, dismissing the importance of the FBI, and his constant flattering of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s dictator, come to mind immediately, alongside his out-and-out accusations of Hilary Clinton.
The crowning illustration of this tendency, for me, made the news recently when Trump shook hands with the President of the Phillipines, Rodrigo Duterte, who vowed to get rid of drug traffickers. Thousands of Filipinos have died at his command because he accused them of dealing drugs. They didn’t have to be arrested, they didn’t need a courtroom. Duterte’s accusatory finger was all that was needed. Duterte has blood on his hands and is proud of it. He boasted of killing people himself, even when he was a teen ager, “A human. I stabbed him because he starred at me.”
Trump was quoted as saying, “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem…Many countries have the problem. We have the problem, but what a great job you are doing…” He may have also kept in mind that his business organization was in the process of building a Trump Tower in Manila.
I do not believe any American president, up to now, would have shaken hands with Duterte or even be seen with him on the same platform, not even the two Bushes, conservative as they may have been. Their moral standards would not have allowed them.
The editors of the New York Times wrote that Trump fawns and smiles, offering “effusive rhetoric” in the company of strongmen like Putin and Duterte. “Perhaps he sees in them a reflection of the person he would like to be.” Amen, to that.
Notes for a review by Carlos B. Gil of The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016).
–Johnston has been an investigative crime reporter since the 1980s. In 2001 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism for exposing tax dodges and loopholes, he earned the nickname, the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States.” ( x). [words in quotations are taken directly from Johnston’s book and the page numbers are placed in parantheses]
–Trump followed the footsteps of his father (Fred) from whom he learned the ways of a landlord: own fancy apartment buildings for well-heeled whites and avoid Blacks and Puerto Ricans. Woody Guthrie rented an apartment in Beach Haven and when he discovered this pattern, he called it “bitch haven” and so he wrote a song about it:
Beach Haven ain’t my home! / No, I just can’t pay this rent! / My money is down the drain, / And my soul is badly bent! / Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower / Where no Black folks come to roam / Old Beach Haven ain’t my home! (35).
–In gathering information, Johnston had lunch with Trump in 1990 (104)
—Chapter 5 “Making Friends” is about Roy Cohn, who was “nearly a second father,” according to Trump himself (33). In the 1950s Cohn became infamous as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer and adviser; McCarthy was the disgraced legislator who hounded Americans as Communists.
–When the Department of Justice accused Donald Trump and his father for refusing to rent to people of color, Donald Trump sought Cohn’s advice and the two became close friends. Johnston informs us that Cohn served as a lawyer for “two of America’s most powerful Mafia figures” at the time. (39) Cohn taught Donald Trump a lesson that he took to heart: when someone threatens you, you attack that person harder: file a huge lawsuit and wear him or her out in the process (37).
–In a 1973 law suit filed against Donald Trump for racial discrimination in renting his apartments, Trump “folded and settled;” it was “a complete loss for Trump” (38), but he spoke about it as if he had won. He broadcast his own positive angle on the matter, a lesson learned from his father: spin the news in your favor; people won’t know the difference. “Offer a simple and quotable narrative” and then just move forward (38). Trump employed this strategy as a politician.
–When Donald Trump began the construction of the Trump Tower on the Atlantic City boardwalk, he was required to submit to an 18-month personal investigation by state authorities to make sure he was not connected with any gangsters. Trump used his connections, financial and political, to dodge it. As a result, his application to build the Tower was approved in a record 5 months’ time and his shady relationship with Mafioso union leaders was overlooked. He used union labor run by Mafia gangs to build his Trump Tower in record time. See “Trump’s Most Important Deals.” Chapter 6.
—Chapter 7, “A Great Lawsuit.” In 1983 DONALD TRUMP invested into the New Jersey Generals, a football club associated with the USFL (US Football League), which was trying to compete with the NFL; he became part owner of the USFL this way. He thereupon devised a lawsuit against the NFL for monopoly practices arguing that the NFL had violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. He wanted to force the NFL to admit his team and the USFL and thereby share in the NFL’s money making capacity. Aided by his Mafia lawyer, Roy Cohn, he sued the NFL and the court agreed that the NFL had violated the Act; he won on the monopoly part of the lawsuit, but was awarded only one dollar for damages! An appeals court ruled that the NFL had indeed violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by maintaining “monopoly power in the market consisting of major league professional football in the US.” (55)
However, the one dollar damages award meant that the USFL and Donald Trump couldn’t break into the NFL because they had not done the slowly built legwork that the NFL accomplished over many years. Johnston views Trump’s actions as “seeking quick and easy riches from the lawsuit.” (55) Trump appealed to the Supreme Court and it declined to hear the case but required the NFL to send a check to the USFL for 76 cents as interest on the dollar (55). Trump’s strategy to get rich quick via the NFL failed. Years later, however, he issued his own fake news by calling it “a great lawsuit.” As he would do often, he blamed someone else for the loss, his USFL TV associate, calling him a “loser” in disgust. (57) The author emphasizes that DONALD TRUMP employed “a ruinous legal strategy” that “flouted conventional rules of conduct.” (58)
Chapter 8, “Showing Mercy,” has to do with Joe Weischelbaum, a drug trafficker and racketeer friend of President Trump whom he helped and nurtured whenever he got in trouble, even let him live in the Trump Tower after serving time in prison for drug trafficking and tax evasion. Weischelbaum offered Trump helicopter services, confirming the President’s friendliness with shady characters. Johnston suggests that Trump was receiving as yet unnamed services, in addition to piloting the helicopter, but he doesn’t clarify this allegation.
Chapter 9, “Polish Brigade,” looks at Trump’s willingness to cheat and lie in order to get his way, and make money at the same time. In order to build his Trump Tower, on 5th Avenue, New York City, Donald Trump had to tear down the BonWit Teller Department Store. He did so by hiring hundreds of Polish undocumented workers to do the job, all non-union, with no safety standards of any kind, all using sledge hammers! No hard hats, no goggles, no power tools, no face masks, no nothing! In addition, he promised to pay them $4 an hour, and then reneged so that some of the workers went to the extent of threatening the life of the superintendent. Trump had asked Roy Cohn to help him get workers and the Mafia lawyer made it possible by hiring nonunion workers in a pro-union state thanks to his contacts with Mafia-ridden union officials. One worker, Harry Diduck, sued Trump for cheating on the workers and the judge agreed, finding Trump guilty of violating his fiduciary duty to the workers and to the union. Donald Trump settled secretly.
Chapter 10, “Feelings and Net Worth,” reveals Donald Trump’s consistent hiding his net worth in a court room, and out of it. The author writes that Trump lies about it under oath and insists on deliberate ambiguity. In a 2005 lawsuit, he charged an author for undervaluing his net worth. The author’s lawyer asked him under oath what his net worth was and Trump answered, “it varies,” according to how he feels, Johnston added. The judge dismissed the case. (79) The author further remarked that Trump’s ego is imperative. He presents his net worth in high values to bankers, investors, and the public, but low for tax authorities, contractors, or vendors. (95)
Another example regarding net worth involves Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach FL. It was originally owned by the heiress of Post Cereal who gave it to the US government for use as a presidential winter home, but the government put it on the market. Donald Trump boasted that he bought it for “cash” in 1985, but this was a lie. He borrowed from Chase Manhattan based on a non-recorded mortgage, guaranteed by his signature, agreeing to pay the loan back on time.
Chapter 11, “Government Rescues Trump,” examines Donald Trump’s mismanagement of his Atlantic City casinos, the Trump Castle and the Trump Plaza, between 1986 and 1990. He drained the cash out of them to the tune of $375 million. (87) As a result, in 1990, he could not pay his bills. Consequently, his creditors took over the casinos to try to make sense of the financial mess and discovered that Trump had borrowed from 70 banks at once, owing them all money and with no way to pay them. The bottom line of this story is that the New Jersey Gaming Commission overseeing the economic functioning of Atlantic City decided Trump was too big to fail and ultimately agreed to rescue him at a great loss to the State of New Jersey. In the spring of 2016, during his campaign, he admitted that he borrowed “knowing you can pay back with discounts. And, I’ve done very well with debt. Now, [I know that] I was swashbuckling, and it did well for me…” (93)
Chapter 12, “Golf and Taxes” describes Donald Trump’s managing property taxes to his advantage by finding a way to devaluate his property. His Trump National Golf Club Westchester, 30 miles from the New York Trump Tower, is an example. He bought a failed golf course there in the 1990s, fixed it up by adding a clubhouse, and so on. Members paid $300,000 initiation fees (including Bill Clinton). Boasting that the value of the course now rose to $50 million he declared the tax value as $1.4 million. When news reports publicized this unusual devaluation, Trump upped the declared value to $9 million. A local legislator complained bitterly that the local county was subsidizing a billionaire “so he can enjoy even more profits at that property.”
When a big storm hit the area and water run off flooded the municipal swimming pool near the golf club, obligating the city to spend money to clean it up, Trump refused to cooperate. It was the city’s fault, he insisted. The suit was unresolved when Trump began his presidential campaign. Johnston added that other golf courses owned by Donald Trump reveal similar chicanery on his part.
Chapter 13, “Income Taxes,” lets the author explain why Donald Trump can boast he can pay little or no incomes taxes: Congress allows real estate professionals to take “unlimited tax deductions against their other income.” Therefore, in 1992 and 1993, Donald Trump “had no income tax obligations” because “he had losses so large that he could apply them to future tax seasons.” (108)
Chapter 14, “Empty Boxes” is about Donald Trump buying expense jewelry worth $15,000 and mailing it out of state to save on the sales tax. When New York auditors discovered this, he avoided prosecution by cooperating and settling with them to avoid back taxes.
Chapter 15, “Better than Harvard” takes a look at Trump University in New York, an outright fraud. In 2005, Donald Trump announced to people interested in signing up that, “We’re going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific—terrific people, terrific brains, successful! We’re going to have the best of the best.” (118) We’re going to teach you better than business schools can teach you.” (118) These were all lies.
When the State of California sued Donald Trump for civil fraud about it, in 2012, the California Attorney General, Rachel Jensen, asked him to identify any one person in the faculty. He could not. He couldn’t remember even one. They were not real professors. They were real estate agents posing as faculty, “one managed a fast food joint.” (118)
The State of Texas investigated his Trump University seminars and discovered they were subterfuges for selling “Gold Elite” packages for $35,000.
The bottom line is that “the desperate and the gullible” paid Trump about $40 million dollars for what turned out to be the outcome of high-pressure salesmanship.
Chapter 16, “Trump Charities.” Johnston writes, “These day Donald Trump calls himself “an ardent philanthropist” but there is almost no public record that he has made much in the way of charitable gifts, and certainly not gifts in line with his claimed wealth of more than $10 billion. (132)
Chapter 17, “Imaginary Friends.” In this chapter, Johnston shows that in the 1980s Donald Trump made it a practice to impersonate a public relations officer for himself, often using the name John Baron, and feed reporters information that made him look like he was closing a lucrative business deal, or how “this or that woman was in awe of him.” (135) Libby Handro’s unflattering film, Trump: What’s the Deal, illustrates this allegation and it remains on YouTube even though Trump threatened Handro with a lawsuit if she went public with it. (138)
In Chapter 18, “Imaginary Loves,” the author writes that Trump also used this mode of deception to boast about his male prowess. Johnston describes how “beautiful” women often looked for him or called him.
Chapter 19, “Myth Maintenance” reviews two core strategies that Trump has employed to manage his public image, one he has “spent decades creating, polishing, and selling.”
- A) “He exploits a common weakness in news reporting” which is an avoidance by reporters to analyze and insert themselves, so they try to stick to the facts. Trump’s objective is to strike fear in his critics by threatening to sue, even when he knows he is going to lose. This was the case with Tim O’Brien and his 2005 book, Trump Nation (78-79). O’Brien reported that Donald Trump was inflating his self-worth. Johnston quotes Trump as saying, “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” The court dismissed Trump’s lawsuit but O’Brien’s publisher had to pay legal fees. (147)
(B) The second strategy is that he “distorts information, contradicts himself, and blocks inquiries into his conduct by journalists, law enforcement, business regulators and other people’s lawyers.” (140) Trump’s track record in public office amply demonstrates this.
David Cay Johnston identifies Trump’s friends as shady people. One is Joseph Cinque, a drug mobster, also known as Joe No Socks, who claimed attending Trump’s New Year’s parties. Another of his friends is Felix H. Satter, a “convicted stock swindler.” (162).
Why JOHNSTON wrote this book: He writes that he collected “nearly half a century” of documents regarding Trump’s conduct. He believes these documents “are most important for voters to ponder” about. Then he added if you examine someone’s conduct “you gain a better understanding of that person’s character. Donald Trump’s “obsession with money and the trappings of wealth…and his many comments about women not as equals but objects” tell us much about him (206). “His vision is, in many ways, not that of a president but of a dictator.” (209)