Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston is not giving up on exposing how Donald Trump and his family fleeced America while he was in the White House. To that end, the bestselling author is back with a meticulously researched new book, “The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family.”
I recently spoke to Johnston about his new book for “Salon Talks” and one thing is clear: His enthusiasm to see Trump held accountable has not waned just because the Trump presidency is over. In “The Big Cheat,” he uncovers details on Trump’s scams that began with his inaugural committee and ran straight through his “Stop the Steal” fundraising grift. In between, Johnston notes a range of corruption by Trump, such as stopping in front of his Washington hotel during the inaugural parade in 2017 to send a clear message: “If you want something from the Trump administration, you will first pay tribute to Donald.” As Johnston writes, spending money at Trump’s hotel was one way to do just that.
Johnston also takes aim at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who saw their collective wealth rise by somewhere between $200 million and $600 million while working in the White House. This wasn’t by happenstance, as Johnston details: It was because Javanka cashed in on Trump’s presidency, with sweetheart deals from the Chinese government, the United Arab Emirates and more.
In our conversation, which you can watch or read below, the nearly 50-year veteran reporter also lays out safeguards that Congress should enact to prevent Trump, or another morally bankrupt president, from ever repeating this Trumpian fleecing of America again. But one of the best deterrents to future corruption, Johnston argues, would be the criminal prosecution of Donald Trump himself. “I would be eternally in favor of a long prison sentence,” he told me.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Your book has granular details about Trump, some I knew and some I had no idea about. Let’s start at the beginning: You go into great detail about the inaugural committee. Trump raised double the amount Obama did, and there are questions about where that money is. The D.C. attorney general is suing the Trump campaign right now about this very thing. Tell us more.
Well, Donald Trump raised $107 million for his inaugural, that we know of. The previous record was Obama in his first inaugural: $53 million. The inaugural for Obama had eight or nine balls. It had lots of events. They had numerous headline musical acts whose expenses had to be paid. Donald Trump had the skimpiest, cheapest possible thing you can imagine. Two balls, with almost nobody around, and yet all that extra money: $107 million. One of the key stories I tell is about Stephanie Wolkoff, who was Melania’s best friend, and who is someone who puts on events. She’s the person who puts on the biggest social event for the American elite each year, the Met gala in New York. And she was pulled aside and asked by Rick Gates, the corrupt deputy to the corrupt Paul Manafort, to take money off the books because they didn’t want to report it, meaning foreign money.
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It took her a second. She was so stunned by this. And then she said, “No, I’m not going to do anything like that.” So that’s why I say they took in $107 million, that we know of. I think they took in more money than that. And I hope we find out through the attorney general’s investigation — but also the Trump White House dirtied up Stephanie when they knew this was going to become public. They said, “Well, you got $26 million.” No, she got $480,000, which for the kind of work she did may sound to most Americans like a big fee. But that’s, in that business, a more than reasonable fee. And all the rest of the money was directed to Trump cronies. She was told, “Here’s the money. Now write checks to these people.” And that’s how the people around Trump were profiteering right at the start. That very moment, at the inauguration, they’ve got their fingers in there to grab the money.
Not only that, Trump used the inaugural parade to do a commercial for his hotel. I think people have forgotten it, but it was right in our face all the time.
None of the TV networks explained when this happened what was going on. I was astonished by that. When Obama was elected, the crowds lining the road to the White House were curb to building, packed thick as sardines. When Trump came, in many places there were more law enforcement and military guards than there were cheers. But when they got to a place about five blocks from the White House, the motorcade stopped and everybody got out, Melania in that beautiful ice blue dress that she was wearing. The family took a two-minute turn on the pavement.
What every lobbyist, every foreign agent, knew was they did it in front of the Trump Washington Hotel, the old post office. And Trump, by law, should not have had that lease. It should have been taken away from him. And I explained this, how the bureaucrats avoided this in the book and were later taken to task for it, though nothing happened to their careers.
But the message was very clear. If you want something from the Trump administration, you will first pay tribute to Donald. And his restaurant, in the first 90 days, took in money at the rate of $25 million a year. Anybody in the restaurant business knows the thought of being able to take in $25 million in a single restaurant is mind boggling. The Saudi government took out two floors at rack rates. When the head of T-Mobile’s American division wanted Trump to approve the merger with Sprint, he made a big show of repeatedly going there, sending his executives there, spending money there. There are parts of three chapters that talk about the $26 billion favor Trump did for this guy who made a big show of going there.
Right until the very end, it doesn’t end and it continues to this day. Tell people about how Stop the Steal turned into a scam to enrich Donald Trump.
Donald Trump has raised somewhere close to a half a billion dollars at this point, through his “Stop the Steal” claims that the election was stolen. Of course there’s no evidence of that and all sorts of Republicans have said there was nothing improper. We’ve had lots of audits and recounts and recounts. It’s all nonsense, but he’s raised a lot of money off it. He said, “I need the money to hire lawyers to stop the steal.” He spent $9 million on lawyers. Well, that’s a lot of money, except that he took in close to a half a billion. And Donald can spend that money on himself under our laws. So I call Donald today America’s “beggar in chief.” I don’t know if you get these, but every day I get texts and emails from Donald Trump asking for money. I love the ones from Don Jr. that start off: “I just spoke to my father. You’re the only person in America who didn’t respond to my note earlier today, and Dad asked me to call you since you’ve been such a generous supporter in the past.” It’s just a con.
And we’re supposed to believe that Donald Trump Jr. didn’t tell his dad about the meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower, with the person who announced that they were there on behalf of the Kremlin to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. It isn’t just that they were Russians, They said they were proposing a criminal scheme under American law in which — you’re a lawyer, you know what I’m about to say! The duty of any American made that offer by a foreign power, especially a hostile foreign power, is to pick up the phone, call the FBI and say, “I need to speak to someone in counterintelligence.”
The lack of accountability in all of Trump World is what is so concerning going forward. You document that Jared and Ivanka had unpaid jobs in the White House, but they made somewhere between $200 million and $600 million while in the White House. As you know, Jared was not a good businessman going into the White House. Let’s start with him: How did Jared make all this money while in the White House?
Well, before Donald Trump took office, Jared had this problem with 666 Fifth Avenue, which is right down the street from Trump Tower. He paid $1.8 billion, 99 percent of it borrowed money. And the building two years later was worth maybe only $600 million. Talk about being underwater in a disaster. So he goes to the government of Qatar. America’s most important military base in the Middle East is in Qatar. Our central command base is there. And he says, “Wouldn’t you loan me $800 million under very favorable terms?” And the Qataris said, “No, we’re not that stupid.” What happens next? Donald Trump is president. He turns against Qatar. He begins arguing in favor of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are scared to death of the Qatar government. Trump accuses the Qataris of financing terrorism. They finance two terrorist groups, they absolutely do. But the Saudis finance 60 of them, the State Department says, and with vastly more money. So this is absurd, and it’s indicative of Donald Trump’s total ignorance about these matters.
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But in Jared’s case, he got people from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to bail him out of his problem, and that’s why they went on the attack against Qatar. Later, the Kushner family — who are very much like the Trumps, they’re both white-collar organized crime families — got 18 sweetheart loans guaranteed by a federal loan agency. You or I would never have gotten such loans, interest-only for 10 years, which increased the Kushner cash flow and increased your and my risk as taxpayers.
We would never have gotten these deals, and nor would they but for Donald Trump being in the White House. And, Dean, to make a point here, these facts that I report all came out, one way or another. But something was in the Washington Post, and then the Wall Street Journal, the L.A Times, the Seattle Times. But you never saw pictures. So I took all these threads and wove them into a tapestry, a narrative, so you could understand it. In fact, the Washington Post gave me a rave review on Dec. 5, including the line pointing out that I long ago predicted Donald Trump would not leave the White House peacefully. I was told it was crazy for me to say that. I was vindicated.
I think with what we went through with Trump, that at this point if anyone says you’re being over the top, they’re denying reality. Your book is one-stop shopping for some of these scandals. Share a little more about Ivanka. It seems to me she has escaped the spotlight out in the post-Trump world, but she may have profited more than anyone beyond Donald.
Well, Ivanka, with whom Donald has an incredibly close relationship, got these trademarks in China in rapid time. If you want a trademark, a service mark, a patent from the Chinese government, you have to spend a fortune on the right Chinese lawyers who are members of the Communist Party, and then you still might not get it. When President Xi was coming to meet with Donald at Mar-a-Lago, there was just rapid-fire approval of these things, the functional equivalent of overnight. And among the patents and other intellectual property rights Ivanka got, some were for voting machines. What a strange thing to get from a country that’s a dictatorship, not a democracy! Now, she had a clothing business, and my younger daughters who are in their 30s tell me that her dresses were actually quite nice, but they weren’t selling in the department stores. So they were all taken out of the stores, they tore out the labels and put in different labels and put them back in the stores. And they all sold, because they were basically good dresses.
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But most of her business enterprises failed because she’s incompetent. There have been lots of reports, especially in Vanity Fair, that she thinks she’s going to become president of the United States. And there’s a wonderful YouTube video of her with Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank, and several women who are foreign ministers or finance ministers of foreign governments. It’s very clear, when she tries to walk into their crowd that their body language says, “You have no reason to be with us. We’re accomplished women. Go away.”
“The Big Cheat” also discusses how Trump and his family cheated not only in terms of personal profit, but cheated us out of things. One that jumped out is Steve Bannon. As you know, we didn’t get justice for Steve Bannon. Could you remind people, who may have forgotten completely that he was charged with federal crimes by the Justice Department. He earned his pardon for what he did in the post-election stuff.
One of the very first organizations to report about this charity scam was the one I run, DC Report. There was a seriously disabled veteran of the Middle East wars named Brian Kolfage who was raising money to build the wall: “Congress is not going to fund the wall, we’ll raise the money.” Never mind that it would cost tens of billions of dollars. There’s no possibility of that. His promise was, “Not one dollar will go to me or anyone else. It’ll just be to build the wall.” Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, fly out to New Mexico to a fundraiser for this, to raise more money. They show off this thing they’ve built, which is inconsequential garbage that wouldn’t stop anybody on the Rio Grande. Steve Bannon is involved and Steve Bannon steals $1 million from the charity. The government has the documentation. Kolfage bought himself a yacht and jewelry and spent $350,000 on himself.
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The Justice Department indicted these people, and Donald Trump gave Steve Bannon a pardon for his million-dollar theft from charity. Of course Donald Trump stole from charity, as I show in the book repeatedly. And the other three guys, by the way, the ones who weren’t part of Donald’s coterie, they’re going to go on trial and they’re probably going to get prison time once they’re convicted. But there’s no shame among these people. Absolutely no shame. Donald Trump, if he steals money from a baby, would say, “Well, it’s my money. What are you complaining about? It’s my money.” Donald creates his own reality. In his own mind, he shouldn’t just be president for life with total powers. He talked about that: “I have the power to do anything as president.” He believes he should run the whole world, because everybody else is an idiot.
Be glad you’re not Donald Trump, Dean, because I’ve known the man for 33 years, and he is a miserable human being. Try to find him laughing when it isn’t forced or for dramatic effect. It doesn’t happen. I’ve tried to get him to tell jokes in the past. He can’t tell a joke. He’s a miserable, sad story.
It’s a lack of humanity, when you can’t tell jokes and can’t laugh at jokes about yourself. I think it’s great that you point on the book that Steve Bannon stole from Trump supporters, who sincerely were giving money to build a wall because they believed in it. We could debate the policy there, but it doesn’t matter. They were giving money because they believed in the wall, and Steve Bannon stole it. We know from other reporting now that Bannon played a huge role from Election Day in November to the insurrection on Jan. 6. He earned that pardon, and this was a quid pro quo relationship if you ever saw one. Trump only pardoned one guy in that scam, his BFF.
Donald is even more corrupt than Steve Bannon, hard as it is to believe that. During his campaign, there were people who sent in money. Rush Limbaugh told the story of one man, Stacy Blatt. He’s dying. He’s in hospice care, his monthly income is $1,000. He sends $500 to Donald Trump, after Rush Limbaugh says Trump needs money to overturn the election. The next thing that happens is the Trump people tap his bank account again and again and again and again until they take every penny the dying man has. He meant to give one contribution, a very generous one. They did this to thousands of people, thousands of them. If you or I did that, we would be arrested. I don’t know why Donald Trump and the people around him haven’t been arrested for this. This was thievery, plain and simple.
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It’s like RICO. This is a racketeering plot. It’s remarkable. What happens if Donald Trump somehow gets back in the White House? Based on you knowing him for 30 years and writing about him, what do you think he does?
Oh, this time around he will not be holding back at all. He will put people in place and it will be the end of American democracy. He will make himself our dictator, which I’ve been warning about since 2015, when he first announced. He won’t need the support of the military to pull it off, because he’ll do it in a soft way. But he will see to it that all your rights are gone. And right now, you’re seeing the Republican Party — which is no longer the Republican Party, it’s the Trump party — passing all these laws, including, in some states, where if Republicans in control and don’t like an election because Democrats won, they can throw out the results. That’s inherently anti-American. At the same time, Donald keeps pressing about why he should be back in the White House, and making up ridiculous lies about what’s going on.
And in all this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Mueller report, even with all the shackles put on Mueller — which most people, I don’t think appreciate, where he disclosed that they were not allowed to pursue lots of things — the opening line of that report says what they found was systematic interference in the 2016 election by the Russian government. It’s the very first thing they say. And Don Jr. and Trump’s campaign manager and his son-in-law and others took part in a meeting with someone who declared they were an agent of the Kremlin trying to win the election for Donald Trump.
There’s a foreign power here that has benefited. And it’s not that Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump. That’s not his goal. He didn’t want Hillary Clinton, because she was going to make him give up Crimea if she could, the only violent takeover of property in Europe since World War II. But he wants to get rid of democracy. And he’s on the record all over the place about this. Vladimir Putin believes all countries should be run by dictators, and Donald Trump was an instrument to help Putin. And by the way, Russian state TV, which is totally controlled by the Kremlin, said that Donald Trump was Putin’s puppet. And the hosts on that show, the producers, they’re all still doing really well, which tells you that was just fine with Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump is his puppet.
Are you surprised the Justice Department has not charged Donald Trump? And if he’s ultimately not charged, what is the message that sends to Donald Trump and Trump-like Republicans going forward?
Well, I am very troubled by this, because if the law applies equally to everyone, then it shouldn’t matter that he was president. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that Merrick Garland has taken the position that, absent something he has to act on, he doesn’t want to get in the business of indicting a former president, because that road leads to a lot of problems we don’t have. But Israel indicted Benjamin Netanyahu, the French have indicted former presidents, and a number of democratic governments have put former leaders in prison.
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With Donald Trump, I think they should pursue the case that Michael Cohen went to prison for. They have a perfect case. I don’t know how a jury would do anything but convict Donald Trump. My guess is, though, that the internal argument is, “Well, it’s relatively small potatoes.” They brought the case against Michael Cohen to punish him for breaking with Donald Trump, as part of the effort to control him.
I’m confident, however, that the Manhattan district attorney — who has hired the best expert on RICO in the country — will indict Trump under the New York state RICO law. A tax charge he can get out of by saying, “I didn’t understand what was going on,” even though he claims to be the world’s greatest expert on taxes. But a state RICO charge — ordinary people can understand racketeering. They’ve got plenty of evidence of it, so why haven’t they done it yet? Well, when they got the document dump, Trump held it up for four years, and it turns out it wasn’t a million pages — it was 5 million pages. And you know, as a lawyer, they’ve got to look at every single page. So something doesn’t hit them as a surprise at trial. That’s a lot of research.
That’s a lot of Bates stamping, as we used to say.
A very little story about this. Thirty years ago, after I revealed Donald was not a billionaire, there was a particular document I knew he was going to have to put in the public record. And the morning of the day that was to happen, a bunch of guys wheel in an entire wall of banker’s boxes, the whole wall, like six high. And Donald taps me on the shoulder and says, “Lots of luck, pal.” So anyhow, I go to the men’s room at one point, when I see one of the detectives go there. We stand in the urinals and he says, “Box 14, J69.” Because everybody knows what I’m looking for.
So when the meeting ends, I go to the flack for the Casino Control Commission and said, “I want to look at the files.” He said, “Oh, it’s going to take us months to sort through.” I said, “No, no. I just want this.” I pulled out box 16 and said, “I just want to look at J69.” He looked at me and said, “Oh God, you’re going to make my life miserable today.” I said, “Sorry about that.” That’s what Donald does. He dumps all sorts of stuff to avoid you seeing the thing you wanted.
And he hopes you don’t find it. What’s your reaction to Trump’s media platform, Truth Social. It’s gotten a billion dollars from investors. Does it smell like another scam to you?
I think it is. In fact, the news just broke that the SPAC, the special purpose acquisition corporation that they’re using, is under investigation. A lot of these SPACs have turned out to be frauds. Why doesn’t Donald just do it an upfront way? In fact, why doesn’t he just fund it himself, given all the money he’s taken in? Well, he’s going to need that money to pay criminal defense lawyers when he’s indicted, and to live on. But I also don’t think it’s going to be successful.
Donald’s audience is in fact shrinking. His audience is intense, people are willing to die for him. Somebody said the other day that the difference between a religion and a cult is that in a religion your savior dies for you and in a cult you die for your savior. But it is shrinking, and over time will continue to shrink, barring some unexpected development. But the people who remain, they’re intense and some of them are dangerous, as we saw on Jan. 6. They will literally kill people in Donald’s name.
One last thing, David: After Watergate, there were a vast amount of reforms put into place by Congress, ethics reforms, campaign finance reforms. As of now, there have been some introduced, but nothing really passed. First of all, are you surprised by that? And second, what would you like to see, in broad strokes, to prevent Trump himself — or another Trump — from doing what he did in office?
Yeah, I’ve been at this so long. After Watergate I was covering the reforms and they’ve all backfired. They made our campaign finance situation vastly worse than it was when Nixon was in office. They weren’t carefully thought through in how they would be manipulated. In the end of the book, I provide solutions for a whole variety of issues. And many of them are actually quite simple. I’ll give you one example. There are people who say, “We should pass a law making people who run for president reveal their tax returns.” You can’t do that. The Constitution doesn’t allow that. What we can do is pass a law saying that once you reach some threshold — let’s say you came in first or second in two primaries — the IRS is required to release your tax return. Congress has the power to do that. That’s an easy, simple solution which we should impose, and we should release six years at least of tax returns, plus any record of audits that resulted in additional payments being due.
On campaign finance, there are all these side ways that foreign governments put money into our political system. We ban foreign corporations and foreign individuals from donating money, but Toyota USA contributes because it’s an American company. We’ve got to fix that. We have to tighten up those laws and we need absolute transparency. And we also need to take away many of the defenses. Let’s say you took in money and it turns out it came from Vladimir Putin’s lackey. OK, if you promptly go to the government, tell them you found out and give it right back or, better, give it to the government, then you should pay a fine. But if you lie, deny, hide and collaborate, you should go to prison and we should take away most of the defenses for that.
If you say, as the Trump people would say, shove off — well, I would be eternally in favor of a long prison sentence. And I generally don’t like long prison sentences, I think they’re bad policy. But these are threats to national security. This administration, as I show in the book, again and again submarined our national security for money. Nobody did that before, nobody. We didn’t have any president who’s ever done that. Remember, Jimmy Carter had to put his little two-bit peanut warehouse into a trust. He didn’t run his business. We should never again have someone in the White House who is operating a business.