For a media that loves infotainment, the horse race and spectacle—and has trouble tackling real policy issues and digging deep—Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving: all spectacle, all the time.
Now he’s out there on his ugly birther trip, riding it to the top of the polls amidst a GOP presidential field in disarray. And other than a few notable exceptions, the media is largely playing the role of cheering spectator for Trump’s latest self-aggrandizing parade—none more so than Fox, which has treated his birtherism-based candidacy as a cause célèbre. Media Matters notes thirteen Trump appearances on the network since March 20.
But the more significant issue raised by the media coverage is this: if Trump is going to portray himself as a presidential contender, and the media is going to give him mega-time to do that, then let’s take a hard look at his record and his views—particularly on “fiscal responsibility,” which Congressman Paul Ryan and the GOP say is the issue of our time.
“I haven’t seen anybody do anything for a long time that’s really tough coverage on Donald,” says David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter formerly with the New York Times, who has written extensively about Trump’s net worth as well as his business dealings in the gambling industry in his book Temples of Chance. “He’s done exceptionally well at getting the media to treat him on the grounds that he wants—which is he doesn’t mind if you poke fun at him as long as you’re writing about him and making him sound important.”
In a recent column, Johnston points out that in examining four years of tax returns he discovered that Trump paid no taxes in two of them.
“He pays little to no income tax because he does these real estate deals that allow him to take—as a professional real estate developer—unlimited paper losses like depreciation against income he gets from NBC for his show,” says Johnston.
He’s also had more business bankruptcies than wives, and Johnston says Trump’s bravado about his wealth and business acumen contradicts his real record. According to Johnston, Trump typically does two kinds of deals: he borrows more than 100 percent of the purchase price for real estate and takes a fee off the top; or he’s paid a fee to put his name on a building.
Johnston suggests that Trump’s fortune relied on government favors and stiffing his creditors.
“Ordinary casino workers who got into debt had their licenses yanked or in one case their wages garnished, but Donald was not held to that standard,” says Johnston.
As Johnston describes in Temples of Chance, in 1990 one of Trump’s advisers told the New Jersey Casino Control Commission that Trump was one day away from uncontrolled bankruptcy. The commission then approved a privately negotiated deal that relieved Trump of millions in debts. Why did the bankers go along?
“Government rescued Trump by taking his side against the banks,” Johnston says, “telling them that if they foreclosed they would own three seaside hotels that lacked casino licenses.”
Trump’s celebrated wealth is also likely not what Trump would have the public believe. In 1990 Johnston obtained Trump’s personal net worth statement that his bankers had prepared for him. At the time, Trump was claiming it was as high as $1.4 billion. Yet the statement revealed a negative net worth of $600 million—he owed $600 million more than the value of his assets. Johnston wrote a column with the lede, “You are probably worth more than Donald Trump.”
“Donald is one of many people in public life who whatever they say at the moment is their version of the truth, and empirical reality may not support what they say,” says Johnston. “He never produced any documented evidence indicating a net worth anywhere in the range of a billion dollars or more, he only claimed it. It doesn’t take that much of an income to appear to be fabulously wealthy. I don’t think he can sue anybody for making that observation.”
Indeed, Trump has proven litigious with those who dare question his version of the truth. He filed a $5 billion defamation lawsuit against Timothy O’Brien for estimating his net worth at between $150 million and $250 million. It was dismissed, but NBC investigative reporter Michael Isikoff reports that Trump recently showed up at a Jersey City courtroom where he was “slipping notes” to his attorneys who are appealing the ruling. And former Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter recalls appearing in a documentary and saying that Trump was a “media hound” and that his claim of being “the greatest real estate developer in the world not only isn’t true—he’s not even the greatest real estate developer in New York.” Alter says he then promptly received a letter from a Trump attorney threatening him with a lawsuit.
Contrast Johnston’s hardnosed reporting with New York Times columnist David Brooks’s fawning over Trump in a recent op-ed, “Why Trump Soars”: “Donald Trump is the living, walking personification of the Gospel of Success…. He labors under the belief—unacceptable in polite society—that two is better than one and that four is better than two…. In private jets, lavish is better than dull. In skyscrapers, brass is better than brick, and gold is better than brass.”
In fact, Johnston even has a word to say about that jet: “See how much a 727 three-engine jet that hasn’t been made in over 25 years goes for,” says Johnston. “If he were really rich he’d have upgraded to a G-5 or a Boeing business jet.”
Like so many corporate oligarchs, Trump has done well with the help of his armada of lawyers and accountants to avoid taxes and intimidate those who contradict him. He’s a single entity that has a lot in common with the Big Banks—reckless, highly leveraged, and a look at the books reveals he’s not what he appears: Emperor Don has no clothes.