Non-Fiction: Trump Under Scrutiny

Journalist David Cay Johnston

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement by Carl Cederström and André Spicer.)

David Cay Johnston, a very sharp and multitalented journalist, has been writing about Donald Trump for more than two decades. His 2016 book, The Making of Donald Trump, is — along with other profiles of the man by Wayne Barrett and Mark Singer — key to understanding the ugly early career of the 45th president of the United States. Johnston’s latest offering, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (Simon & Schuster), continues on the path forged by his earlier entry in the depressing field of Trump Studies.

Trump himself wrote this about Johnston: “I know the reporter is a weird dude who’s been following me for 25 years, so obviously he hasn’t done so well. He’s been following me in a negative fashion for 25 years, always a hit. And I’m president, so he obviously hasn’t done a very good job.” I beg to differ, though it is of course sadly true that The Donald, as Spy magazine used to call him, is now ensconced in the Oval Office, at least when he isn’t thrilling big spenders and conducting his version of diplomacy at his Mar-a-Lago resort in southern Florida.

It’s Even Worse Than You Think does a very good job of laying bare some of the most egregious machinations of Trump’s awful, irresponsible administration. In Johnston’s estimation, the cronies and hacks who last year began taking over the federal branch are laboring like “political termites” to eat away the regulatory and governing structures within Washington, D.C. Johnston writes: “[Trump] brought into the White House a host of people with fringe ideas, some of them Islamophobes, some white nationalists, some xenophobes, and many of them sharing Trump’s ignorance of science … [M]any of them had no qualifications whatsoever for the posts he appointed them to; he just called them ‘terrific.’”

Trump’s venal appointees are apparently committed to the destruction of the U.S. government and to increasing their own wealth. From privatization queen Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, a defender of millionaires profiting from student loan debt, to industry shill and foe of environmental regulation Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this is a seriously bad lineup of malefactors. Johnston does an excellent job of relating how singularly ill-suited they are for public service.

But the principal focus of this book is on the much-scandalized Trump himself. Successfully deflecting critical coverage from investigative journalists by branding any and all such reporting “fake news,” Trump has worked hand-in-glove with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News to convince desperate, disaffected voters that he is the champion of the forgotten (white) masses. America’s wannabe despot has also been ably assisted by the racist and misogynist Breitbart website in spreading the message of paranoid ultra-nationalism.

Johnston is a very detail-oriented writer, who does a thorough job of uncovering information by poring through government reports and other primary sources. He is so good at crunching numbers that he has consulted with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on progressive reforms to the U.S. tax code. Among his many books is Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else (2003).

One of the more scathing sections of It’s Even Worse Than You Think looks at Trump’s approach to taxes. Although Trump has declared, with characteristically deranged arrogance and chutzpah, “I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world,” Johnston concludes that “Nothing he has said publicly demonstrates any substantial knowledge of taxes.” In 2016, Johnston uncovered earlier IRS decisions against Trump which disallowed deductions The Donald had made and ordered him to pay back-taxes, along with penalties and interest. After extensive analysis of the creative bookkeeping and studied obfuscation that characterize Trump’s personal tax reports, Johnston concludes: “While the integrity of Trump’s tax returns is unknown, other public documents show that he has cheated on his income taxes and that he has officially acknowledged sales-tax fraud.” Further, “ Trump and some of his enterprises have been the subject of multiple criminal investigations into financial transactions, some with American and Russian crime figures.”

Trump’s approaches to financing his much-ballyhooed wall along the U.S./Mexico border are equally suspect. Johnston’s book shows that no matter how misleading Trump is about paying for such a barrier, the money to erect it will simply not be available in the federal budget. Mexican government officials have also made clear that their country is not going to cough up money for such a boondoggle.

In claiming to be concerned about alleged tidal waves of brown- and black-skinned immigrants out to steal American jobs, Trump not only panders to racist hatred but also contradicts his own record as an employer. (The degree to which Trump is happy to encourage the hateful aspirations of homegrown racists was laid bare last year when he gave a hearty thumbs-up to white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia.) Johnston shows that at Mar-a-Lago, Trump has chosen to import foreign workers who labor for cheaper wages, and are subject to much tougher restrictions, than U.S. citizens. Elsewhere in the book, Johnston cites Kent Smetters, a business professor at the Wharton School (Trump’s Pennsylvania alma mater), who demonstrated through a budget-model computer program that immigrants to the United States tend to work hard, are less likely than others to leave their jobs or go on unemployment assistance, and — as younger members of the workforce — help pay for Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. Thus Smetters concludes that, far from being drains on the country, immigrants have an overall positive effect on the nation’s economy.

Although some previous presidents have resisted environmental regulations, none has been as hostile to hard science as the current Oval Office occupant. Denouncing global warming as a “hoax” promulgated by the Chinese government, Trump has installed an administration that promotes corporate profits over the public good. While he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt — now the EPA administrator — sued that same agency 14 times and described himself online as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Criminal investigations of polluters have, to say the least, not been a priority of the current administration. Johnston notes that “By summer 2017, EPA was down to only 147 criminal investigators, far below the 200 positions Congress required in the 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act. Buyouts were being offered to experienced agents, whose practical knowledge of the law, policy, and standards of proof required to win convictions generally makes them the most effective in developing cases for prosecutors.” E-mail notes sent between Pruitt and representatives of the fossil fuel industry — which were released after years of pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Media and Democracy — show that the current EPA head worked slavishly to serve the needs of oil industry executives while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Johnston effectively spells out how Trump Corp.’s assaults on science have not been confined to the EPA. Trump political appointees have targeted scientists at the Department of the Interior, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a scientific agency within the Commerce Department). As per usual with the Trumpers, these know-nothing attacks on reality and regulations have been largely driven by corporate greed.

Johnston sums up the 71-year-old Trump by writing:

[He] lacks the emotional stability, critical-thinking skills, and judgment to be Commander in Chief. Emotionally, he remains the thirteen-year-old-troublemaker his father sent off to a military academy, where by his own account brutality was common. Being stuck in the awkward year between childhood and maturity for nearly six decades is a terrible fate, one that has twisted Trump’s personality and explains much of his narcissism, immature attitudes about women, disregard for others, and his imagined intellectual gifts shown by his frequent declaration that “I’m like a smart person.”

That Trump is a con man for the ages is the clear conclusion made in Trump U: The Inside Story of Trump University (OR Books). This insider’s exposé was written by Stephen Gilpin, a former employee of the now-defunct, unaccredited Trump University, who is described on the book’s back cover as “a self-taught expert at leveraging properties.” Before he hired on with the Trump Organization’s 2005-2010 foray into pedagogical profiteering, Gilpin had run a mortgage business and had made good money flipping real estate. He writes in Trump U that he thought it was possible to do good things for communities while buying and selling properties.

Trump operatives early on approached Gilpin, asking that he be an on-call real-estate consultant for their for-profit education company, which would consist of online courses, CD-ROMS, and other tools to teach students how to make money from do-it-yourself wheeling and dealing. Gilpin accepted the offer despite what he calls “the creepy vibe,” because he was “still at an impressionable stage in my life.”

At the press launch for Trump University, The Donald insisted, “If I had a choice of making a lot of money or imparting knowledge, I think I’d be as happy to impart knowledge as to make money.” But over time the program’s legitimate teachers — those with actual business experience — fell away and were replaced by fast-talking pitch men solely focused on roping students into ever more expensive seminars. Gilpin came to realize how profoundly false Trump’s earlier claim had been. The key goal was not “imparting knowledge,” but instead getting as many “marks” as possible signed up for the mostly content-free top-tier seminars, at $34,995 a shot. The school promised the moon, Gilpin remarks, but delivered almost nothing—and sometimes even advised students to engage in illegal practices.

Eventually, the increasingly disillusioned Gilpin realized that his work fielding complaints on Trump U’s “hot line” was little more than a damage-control operation to pacify bilked participants and to limit lawsuits and refunds.

Trump’s academic scam was eventually the target of several class-action lawsuits, one of which charged Trump with criminal fraud and referred to “student-victims.” One of the suits, brought by the New York State Attorney General’s office, accused Trump University of engaging in illegal business practices. The suit charged that “by ignoring the requirement that ‘private career schools’ be licensed by NYSED [the New York State Education Department], Trump University also evaded an array of regulations and review by NYSED.”

On March 31, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel approved a $25 million settlement against Trump University. “The amount offered in settlement provides significant and immediate recovery,” Curiel wrote in his decision.

Unfortunately, recovery from Trump’s reported corruption and his deliberate erosion of public trust in U.S. governmental institutions will be more elusive. The struggle against his destructive regime is by no means certain, and is going to require all of the intellectual ammunition that can be mustered. The two hard-hitting books examined above are important contributions to that effort. ◊

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