No reporter has scrutinized Donald Trump longer and more closely than David Cay Johnston. Johnston met the future president in 1988 while investigating Trump’s casino operations in Atlantic City for The Philadelphia Inquirer, uncovering evidence of connections between Trump and the Mafia. Johnston’s subsequent exposés of the US tax system’s bias toward the rich and corporations, including his book, Perfectly Legal, have won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. He spoke with The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard about his new book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. —Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard: What’s been the biggest surprise of Donald Trump’s presidency so far?
David Cay Johnston: There aren’t any. What you have to understand about Donald is that he’s a con artist. He doesn’t think strategically; he thinks in the moment. So over time, he will be increasingly erratic and do more of what you’re seeing—trying to delegitimize everyone else, like the FBI, and sow confusion.
He faces one problem he’s totally unequipped for. A con artist takes advantage of his mark—during his business career, Donald stiffed his workers and his bankers—and moves on. He gets away with it because he doesn’t have to deal with the mark again; he just moves on to the next one. As president, he doesn’t have the freedom to move on; he has to continue dealing with foreign leaders, members of Congress, the news media, and others who can make life difficult for him. Donald doesn’t know how to build lasting relationships with people, and in politics and especially in government you need those kinds of relationships.
MH: Do you think Trump will serve out a full four-year term?
DCJ: It depends entirely on the outcome of the most important election this country will have had since the Civil War, the election this November. If Republicans retain control of Congress, there will be no impeachment proceedings. If the Democrats take control, they will immediately begin the most important thing, which is to hold public hearings examining Trump’s actions.
That’s important because, even though large numbers of people clearly don’t like Trump, they have no real idea who he is or what he is doing to our government. If people knew more of the truth about Trump and what he’s doing to our government, we’d be seeing more protests. For example, they have no idea about his years of dealings with a confessed drug trafficker. And my fellow journalists didn’t report that; I offered them all the documents and they wouldn’t print it.
[Editor’s Note: Johnston himself reported that the drug trafficker Trump befriended was Joseph Weichselbaum, a thrice-convicted felon who helped helicopter high-rollers to Trump’s Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s. When Weichselbaum was convicted of importing cocaine for sale in the United States, Trump urged a lenient sentence for him, telling a judge that Weichselbaum was “a credit to the community.”]
MH: The focus on Trump’s antics has left people unaware of some of the radical policies his administration has implemented. For example, your book details scandalous undermining of worker safety by the Labor Department and the EPA all but inviting corporations to pollute.
DCJ: By deciding not to implement a rule to reduce the chances of truck drivers and train engineers’ falling asleep on the job, Trump’s Transportation Department has put at risk the lives of those workers as well as the lives of families traveling on the nation’s highways and trains. And Trump appointed to the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch, a judge who ruled that a company has the right to fire a worker who chose not to freeze to death on the job.
At the EPA, new criminal investigations of polluters have dropped to less than a third of the Obama administration’s annual average. The EPA is offering early retirement and buyouts to shrink the ranks of its criminal-investigative staff; by the summer of 2017, EPA was down to 147 investigators, from over 200. Fewer investigators, fewer new cases mean that in the years ahead we will likely see an increase in flagrant violations of clean-air, -water, and other anti-pollution laws.
MH: Trump and the GOP seem to be counting on the tax law they passed to help them in November. Will that work?
DCJ: That tax bill was a complete fraud. More than 80 percent of its cuts will go to the top 1 percent and the majority of the cuts go to the 0.1 percent that make nearly $2 million a year or more. Second, the news media messed up their reporting about Apple paying about $38 billion in back taxes to bring back money from its offshore accounts, which sounds like a positive thing. What the news media failed to mention is that the bill gives Apple an eight-year extension on paying those taxes, which makes it basically an interest free loan. It’s an outrage to see stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal that are so wrong. The stories come out that way because reporters talk to the companies affected by the bill instead of doing the simplest thing, which is to read the bill.
MH: You revealed a portion of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns last year, but he continues to stonewall releasing his other returns. Where does that leave us?
DCJ: Where Donald will be in trouble is this: He had two trials over his 1984 income-tax returns for New York state and New York City. He lost both. His tax preparer, when asked about Trump’s tax return, did not dispute that the signature was his, but testified that “[he] did not” prepare it. Donald—or someone acting on his behalf—plainly created a new tax return by making a photocopy of an old one and putting tax preparer’s name on the photocopy. Donald is a tax cheat, and that incident tells you that he’s been cheating for years.
You can be sure that Robert Mueller [the special counsel investigating Trump] has Trump’s tax returns, because any competent prosecutor would do that. Mueller doesn’t need a court to approve; he just goes to the IRS and goes through the process of applying. Those tax returns are going to help in showing money laundering with Russian individuals, many of whom are convicted or accused criminals.
One of the best-documented examples is David Bogatin, a Russian émigré who bought five luxury condos in Trump Tower in New York in 1984. Trump attended the closing for that purchase, meeting Bogatin. Three years later, Bogatin pleaded guilty to participating in a bootlegging operation run by Russian mobsters, but then he fled the United States before he was sentenced. The government seized the condos, accusing Bogatin of buying them “to launder money, to shelter and hide assets.” And Bogatin is just one of many examples; Trump has done a lot of squirrelly deals with Russians.
MH: If money laundering with Russians was done before Trump was president, why is that important now?
DCJ: It’s important because if Trump was getting paid commercially unreasonable amounts of money for certain products or services, he is vulnerable to blackmail. And it’s not just Russians [whose dealings with Trump could cause him trouble]. Remember, Donald Trump has been swindling people all his life.
MH: What do you expect from Mueller’s investigation?
DCJ: Mueller needs to bring a case that a jury can convict on and the American public can convict on. Mueller knows how to do this; he’s an expert in white-collar crime and counterintelligence; that’s what this case brings together. The challenge is, how to distill from all of Trump’s lifelong criminal activity the actions that any reasonable person would look at and be horrified? What will resonate?
MH: How does Trump over and over again get away with behavior that would sink any other politician?
DCJ: Trump is assuming that he can bully and lie and turn the tables on his critics to save himself, like Roy Cohn taught him to do long ago. And he has wonderful enablers. When the Stormy Daniels thing broke, can you imagine if that were Barack Obama whose lawyer paid $130,000 to a porn star to keep quiet about an affair? But Franklin Graham [the son of evangelist Billy Graham], Jerry Falwell Jr. and all these faux Christian personalities come out and support Trump anyway.
MH: What should Trump’s opponents be doing between now and the elections in November and in 2020?
DCJ: Two things. Get better informed, so when you meet people who might be swayed you can use telling facts they don’t know to open their eyes. Second, get people registered to vote and get organized so that on Election Day you get people to the polls. Take Monday and Tuesday in November off from work. If your district isn’t a close race, go to a district that is. Turning out the vote can overcome gerrymandering’s rigging of elections.
Over 90 million people who were eligible to vote did not vote in 2016. If more people vote, gerrymandering can be overcome. When I say this at public events, some people complain, ‘So you’re saying it’s our fault [that Trump is president]!’ No, I’m saying it’s your responsibility. If you want the benefits of living in a democracy, you have to do the work of being a citizen.