The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston (2016) (read in 2017)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Johnston writes a book that outlines several of Trump’s failed real-estate–development plans. But he, at the same time, documents how people were trying to sue Trump because they invested in him because of his good name only to find out that Trump is only tangentially involved with their real-estate investment. Are these people just stupid to think that Trump would be good for their property? Reading this book, there would be no other conclusion, since you don’t hear about a single successful thing that Trump has done. He seems to somehow own property all over the world, but none of it belongs to him and he’s only ever ripped off, failed or otherwise disappointed every investor who’s ever associated with him.

However, people still think his name is worth investing in, Companies pay him millions to use his name on their projects, even if he’s not involved. There must be a reason for this, but Johnston’s book does not provide it. Either everyone is an utter and irredeemable moron or Trump must have some successes to his name. There must be some—even a majority of—investors who’ve walked away satisfied, probably even coming back for more.

Many of the investors in his get-rich-quick schemes kind of seem like people who are getting what’s coming to them. They want to get rich, so they sink all of their money into a single opportunity with Trump. The man must have something going for him, or these people wouldn’t do that. Trump inflates his own story and ego all the time, nearly constantly turning the conversation to himself (as Johnston documents). He is a germophobe with poor social skills (as Johnston also documents). And yet, people invest their entire fortune with him.

Johnston is clearly only telling part of the story. He’s telling the part of the story where we shouldn’t vote for this man as President, where we shouldn’t do deals with him, shouldn’t invest money with him or go anywhere near him, where we shouldn’t ever pay attention to him again. Agreed. I’d been doing that already, before I read this biography.

However, the story Johnston tells is of sealed court decisions, suspicious and quite facially reprehensible behavior, but never a conviction. Trump’s had his casino license for decades but Johnston seems to attribute it to luck. Trump’s run multiple casinos for decades (even having the most successful casino in Atlantic City, according to Johnston) but he doesn’t know anything about the business and everyone makes fun of how stupid he is.

Trump is a bad businessman and a more terrible person, but everyone seems to be on Trump’s side, helping him out. Why? The story Johnston tells is of a person who is horrible, stupid and financially inept, who hangs out with obvious criminals, but who succeeds despite all of that. He can’t seem to fail enough to stop being a billionaire.

It’s hard to feel sorry for some of his “investors”. Whenever a story ends with someone having signed without reading because of time pressure…I kind of get distracted. I know that old people get entrapped in stuff like this.

In those cases, the charge is always of some information that Trump and his associates or partners failed to disclose properly. I’m almost sure it was disclosed somewhere—it was just that people didn’t read it in their eagerness to cash in. Otherwise, why would the court not nail Trump to the wall if it was so open-and-shut?

But why no prosecution? Is it because Trump—the bumbling, asocial fool—is so slick? Or because America’s system is so morally bankrupt? In a place like America, don’t sign anything without reading it. It’s your own fault if you’re trying to get rich quick.

The fact that these cases ended in a settlement with no criminal charges or sentence suggests to me that there’s more to the story again. It’s possible that such malfeasance is nearly impossible to prove in America, or that Trump really knows everyone and buys off judges and DAs—but that’s a much bigger charge. Instead, we’re expected to believe that he just gets away with it because “reasons”. No charges or sentence—but we know he did it.

Trump gets away with everything short of murder, associating with terrible people and having a very suspicious business. But he’s still going. He’s still in business. He’s now President of the USA. The story Johnston tells goes nowhere in explaining how this could be. He just deepens the mystery.

Trump says many things that are not true. Are they lies we should care about? Or did he change his mind? Or does he just not care what the answer is to a question he feels he shouldn’t have to answer from someone who he feels doesn’t have the right to ask it? Trump is an egomaniac, of course. He’s a liar, of course. But, as a private citizen, he has no obligation to answer a journalist’s question truthfully, especially when it concerns his near-future whereabouts or his personal affairs.

It is here that, again, I feel Johnston is really reaching for straws, trying to paint every nugget of data he has on Trump as not only negative (and that it most certainly is and probably fairly) but damning. I think it unfortunately weakens his case because he’s taken the shotgun approach, with topics of wildly varying import. The ones that sound important peter out into no prosecution (and hence possibly speculation) and the ones that don’t sound important then just seem petty and cheap.

He expects us to conclude that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, despite decades of smoke without ever having proof of fire. His evidence is persuasive, but I’m not a judge or a lawyer. I’m not in charge of prosecuting Trump: dozens of judges have had that pleasure. None of them have put him away. He’s still going.

A true believer would round up each allegation to a conviction, but thats not how our system works.

Johnston seems to vaguely imply some sort of angel on Trump’s shoulder, but it’s more of a condemnation of the American system as a whole that Johnston isn’t willing to come right out and make. The system is corrupt from top to bottom and a creature like Trump is perfectly suited to swim in those fetid waters. Johnston seems to be desperately trying to show how obvious it is that Trump shouldn’t be a winner in a sane society. He makes a good case. The fact that Trump is winning more than ever suggest a whole other book that needs to be written—this one about America.

Citations

“Trump, who presents himself as a modern Midas even when much of what he touches turns to dross, has studied the conventions of journalists and displays more genius at exploiting them to his advantage than anyone else I have ever known.”
Page 95-97
“He was accepted into a Catholic school in New York City, Fordham College, but in his junior year transferred to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Penn has a famous and highly regarded graduate business school that Trump often invokes. He did not in fact study there. He was enrolled as an undergraduate and received a bachelor of science in economics.”
Page 304-307
“The bank loaned Trump $2 million more than the purchase price, a total of $10 million, on his personal guarantee. Trump put up only $2,800 cash. He boasted that he got Mar-a-Lago for a song, a bargain that showed his extraordinary negotiating skills.”
Page 1073-1075
“Five years after Trump acquired Mar-a-Lago with the unrecorded mortgage, casino regulatory hearings revealed that he had personally guaranteed more than a fourth of his more than $3 billion of debt. Many banks complained that they were unaware other banks had loaned money to Trump on his personal guarantee with no public record of the obligation.”
Page 1080-1082
“More than one thousand lawyers working for Trump and his creditors had hammered out a “fragile” deal to keep him going, hoping to minimize losses on the loans they had extended without checking his finances carefully. The lawyers had already billed almost $11 million for their services. Part of the deal was”
Page 1155-1157
“The DGE prepared its own 111-page report. It noted that Trump owed (not owned, but owed) $3.2 billion. Of that, he had personally guaranteed $833.5 million. Absent an agreement by all creditors, Trump would face an uncontrolled, domino-effect chain of bankruptcies. If just one creditor moved against one Trump property, the others would follow, creating chaos. More than one thousand lawyers working for Trump and his creditors had hammered out a “fragile” deal to keep him going, hoping to minimize losses on the loans they had extended without checking his finances carefully. The lawyers had already billed almost $11 million for their services. Part of the deal was putting Trump on an allowance. He would have to get by on $450,000 per month, down from his May 1990 spending of $583,000 (the equivalent of more than one million 2016 dollars). The allowance was so astonishingly large that The New York Times quoted one billionaire as saying, “I would have no idea how to spend $450,000 a month. It’s just phenomenal.””
Page 1152-1160
“The tax bill is not wiped out, however. Under the rules set by Congress, the tax is deferred into the future. The $23 million is therefore the economic equivalent of a loan from Uncle Sam at zero interest. Someday, that loan must be paid off. Typically, real estate partnerships last two decades, so let’s assume that Trump invests those loan proceeds for twenty years and earns an annual net return of 10 percent (a return that Trump would consider modest and below his skill level as an investor). When time came to repay his loan, Trump would write the Treasury a check for the almost $23 million and keep his investment gains: $130 million. In this way, Congress further enriches people like Trump, people who have the capital to go into real estate and qualify for tax exemptions under rules that exclude nearly all of their fellow Americans.”
Page 1398-1404
“Also in 1990, Trump and Khashoggi were again linked through a prank designed to find out who was the cheapest rich person in New York. The satirical magazine Spy created a phony business and sent $1.11 refund checks to fifty-eight rich New Yorkers. Those who cashed the checks then got another refund check from the fake firm for half as much money. The prank ended when only two self-proclaimed billionaire penny pinchers were left. Donald Trump and Adnan Khashoggi had the dubious distinction of endorsing and depositing into their bank accounts fake refund checks for thirteen cents each.”
Page 1463-1467
“Trump pointed out that he was campaigning against a rigged system. The Phoenix meeting was “evidence of a rigged system,” he said. He made no comment about his own investigation in Florida or his substantial campaign donation to Bondi.”
Page 1566-1568

Trump failed to open a dialogue about his own hypocrisy. Color me shocked. I’m not sure what kind of person would do such a thing. Johnston insinuates that this is a special failing on Trump’s part, but that’s not obvious.

“Trump campaign that the IRS had revoked the nonprofit status of Veterans for a Strong America due to their failure to file required disclosure reports. A charity disclosure organization, Guidestar, reported that it had no record of any board of directors. Every indication pointed to Veterans for a Strong America being a one-man enterprise run by a South Dakota lawyer named Joel Arends, whose operation was under investigation for suspected election improprieties in Arizona and Texas. Reporters later learned the organization had thirty dollars in the bank and debts ten times that size.”
Page 1688-1692
“Instead, the paper got a call from “John Baron, a vice president of the Trump Organization.” Baron described himself as Donald Trump’s spokesperson. He said that taking the sculptures down would have cost $32,000, delayed the construction of Trump Tower by three weeks, and run the risk of killing people if the stones crashed to the ground. As for the missing grillwork, Baron said, “We don’t know what happened.” But there was no John Baron. The caller was Donald Trump. For years, Trump telephoned journalists using the name John Baron (or Barron).”
Page 1698-1703
“The reasons Trump was not forthright and candid are, ultimately, known only to Trump. But the Howard Stern Show was not his last opportunity to come clean about his use of fake identities to create the impression that the world’s most desirable women were banging on his bedroom door. The next time he was presented with a chance to set the record straight, Trump chose to tell a whopper on national television. This time, it served a very specific purpose: to advance his pursuit of the Oval Office.”
Page 1829-1833

I just don’t get the tone. He’s presenting gossip and expecting us to be shocked. It’s penny-ante stuff. Celebrity bullshit. Is it beneath the office? I think Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton have proved to us already that this is not the case.

“Trump often threatens to sue journalists, ensuring caution from publishers and broadcasters who want to avoid a costly lawsuit—even one Trump cannot win. This tends to discourage investigation beyond the official talking points.”
Page 1837-1839

That also goes a long way toward explaining the dryness, the toothlessness, of a lot of this book.

“In his second core strategy, Trump distorts information, contradicts himself, and blocks inquiries into his conduct by journalists, law enforcement, business regulators, and other people’s lawyers. Again, the record shows decades of Trump’s skill in pursuing this strategy successfully.”
Page 1843-1845
“That last option would seem unavailable to Trump, since he declared in October that he enjoys “the world’s greatest memory.””
Page 1875-1876

Johnston leans really heavily on this statement (as well as the one about “being the best at the Bible”). But Johnston’s entire book shows what a bloviating bag of hot air Trump is, a man whose statements often don’t even last a day before he contradicts them. What is the point—the power—of using logic to trap him? He clearly doesn’t care. Nor does he seem to have to since most Americans don’t seem to care either.

“Trump does not want reporters telling people, especially voters, about anything in his past that does not add a sheen to his marketing image. On the campaign trail, Trump dismisses questions about his past as beneath the dignity of journalists, even as he raises decades-old issues about the conduct of his Democratic opponent’s husband.”
Page 1894-1896

In fairness, Trump was just making fake phone calls about imaginary girlfriends whereas Clinton was disenfranchising black people with actual legislation as president. Trump was bragging about grabbing women by the pussy while Clinton was shoving a cigar into a very young one in the oval office.

“Satter obviously had an intimate familiarity with Trump’s intentions—only the day before, Trump had said he had no plans to inspect the site.”
Page 1999-2000

Is this a lie? Or did he change his mind? Or does he just not care what the answer is to a question he feels he shouldn’t have to answer from someone who he feels doesn’t have the right to ask it? Trump is an egomaniac, of course. He’s a liar, of course. But, as a private citizen, he has no obligation to answer a journalist’s question truthfully, especially when it concerns his near-future whereabouts.

It is here that, again, I feel Johnston is really reaching for straws, trying to paint every nugget of data he has on Trump as not only negative (and that it most certainly is and probably fairly) but damning. I think it unfortunately weakens his case because he’s taken the shotgun approach, with topics of wildly varying import. The ones that sound important peter out into no prosecution (and hence possibly speculation) and the ones that don’t sound important then just seem petty and cheap.

“Nearly two hundred people bought in, putting down more than $22 million in deposits in 2006, confident that the project was about to get underway and that before long they would move into their beachfront property and enjoy the security of a smart investment in a Trump-developed resort. A June 2007 newsletter notified buyers that construction was underway. The next month, the Trump Baja News reported, “our new and excited homeowners now”
Page 2088-2091
“Much later, three people who had made exclusive priority reservations complained that they were given five minutes to buy or walk. That didn’t even give them enough time to read the terms of their purchase contract, much less consult a lawyer. They signed, writing checks totaling more than $200,000. Some buyers later said they put their life’s savings into their eagerly anticipated new homes by the sea. They came to regret being so hasty and so trusting. Nearly two hundred people bought in, putting down more than $22 million in deposits in 2006, confident that the project was about to get underway and that before long they would move into their beachfront property and enjoy the security of a smart investment in a Trump-developed resort. A June 2007 newsletter notified buyers that construction was underway. The next month, the Trump Baja News reported, “our new and excited homeowners now are part of an elite group of vacation homeowners who own property developed by one of the most respected names in real estate, Donald J. Trump.” Three months later, in October, when Wall Street crashed under the weight of toxic mortgages and other Baja real estate projects faltered, the same newsletter carried a message “From the desk of Ivanka Trump.” Ivanka assured the buyers that their investment was sound. “Though it may be true that some of Baja’s developments could slow down, these market conditions simply do not apply to Trump Ocean Resort—or any other Trump development,” she wrote. Two months later, in December 2007, the newsletter advised buyers of newly discovered geological problems afflicting the building site. A few months later, in March 2008, anxious buyers received calls or letters. Construction loans had been approved, would be funded shortly, and work would be underway. This was nine months after buyers had been told in writing that construction had already begun. Still, construction did not proceed.”
Page 2084-2099
“Trump’s lawyers made no mention of testimony from buyers that they were given just minutes to sign the purchase and other documents, leaving no time to read them or ask questions about the several pages of arcane legal details.”
Page 2139-2141

It’s hard to feel sorry for these “investors”. Whenever a story ends with someone having signed without reading because of time pressure…I kind of get distracted. I know that old people get entrapped in stuff like this. But why no prosecution? Is it because Trump—the bumbling, asocial fool—is so slick? Or because America’s system is so morally bankrupt? In a place like America, don’t sign anything without reading it. It’s your own fault if you’re trying to get rich quick.

“Hawaii state law (like California and federal securities laws) protects buyers from false and misleading sales pitches. Hawaii law requires disclosure of all material facts to buyers. Trump’s status as a mere licensor was obviously material to making an investment decision based on the supposed value the Trump name would add to the building.”
Page 2154-2156

I’m sure it was disclosed somewhere—it was just that people didn’t read it in their eagerness to cash in. The fact that this case—once again, and like many others—ended in a settlement with no criminal charges or sentence, suggests to me that there’s more to the story again. It’s possible that such malfeasance is nearly impossible to prove in America, or that Trump really knows everyone and buys of judges and DAs—but that’s a much bigger charge. Instead, we’re expected to believe that he just gets away with it because “reasons”. No charges or sentence—but we know he did it.

“What kept Trump up all night was a Japanese gambler with a serene smile, a white shirt open at the collar, and gray wool slacks with pockets as big as bank vaults. Akio Kashiwagi was one of the world’s five biggest gamblers, literally a one-in-a-billion customer, who at that late hour in May 1990 was sitting at a green-felt table at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino calmly wagering $14 million an hour. He had been there for nearly a week.”
Page 2181-2184
“Casino executives in London, Las Vegas, and Darwin, Australia, all pursued Kashiwagi, one of that rare breed of gamblers known as “whales,” because they risked $1 million or more during each casino visit. Kashiwagi—with his marathon multimillion-dollar sittings—remains, by far, the biggest whale ever beached in Atlantic City. Like the rest of the casino whales, Kashiwagi lived a financial life every bit as mysterious as the real denizens of the deep. The size and true source of his fortune were unfathomable.”
Page 2212-2216
“The state deftly avoided investigating the more extensive wrongdoings that Libutti said he knew about. If proven, those claims would surely have cost Trump his license. Trump’s conduct with Libutti, including his claim that he hardly knew the man, was just one part of a long history of flouting the supposedly strict regulations of New Jersey casinos.”
Page 2515-2518

I guess, but this whole book is full of allegations that went nowhere. If there’s smoke there’s fire, but dammit the guy is untouched over forty years. A true believer would round up each allegation to a conviction, but thats not how it works.

“As the many episodes recounted in these pages have shown, Trump is remarkably agile at doing as he chooses and getting away with it.”
Page 2518-2519
“Trump’s relationships with criminals were often profitable, sometimes gratuitous, and never properly examined by those whose duty was to investigate.”
Page 2541-2542

That’s actually the crux of the book: the failure of the state in its duty, the crookedness of America.

“Whether one adores Trump or is aghast, his public conduct should prompt us all to think about what qualities we want in our political leaders and why there is so much opportunity for someone like Trump to garner tens of millions of votes. We should ask ourselves why so many Americans are excited at the prospect of someone whose public statements show utter disregard for the checks and balances that buttress our system of self-government—a system that has made America, flaws and all, a beacon to the world for more than two centuries. (Emphasis added.)”
Page 2560-2564

That’s a good, strong statement, right up until the utter, pandering, jingoistic and fact-free idiocy at the end. America is not a fucking beacon. Get over your stupid American exceptionalism. Obama was an asshole to keep babbling about that and Johnston should reexamine his own politics if believes that enough to cram into into an otherwise strong book. I can’t help but feel Johnston threw that in for the potential Trump voter that he’s trying to convince—to show that voter that Johnston is on their side.

“A president cannot dismiss a troublemaking foreign head of state, cannot order Congress to pass laws, and cannot disobey the rulings of judges—not if we are to be a free people, living subject to the rule of law that protects our individual liberties. Yet Trump makes clear that he would do all these things. His vision is, in many ways, not that of a president but of a dictator, as many others have observed in both political parties and beyond America’s borders.”
Page 2570-2574

But you just wrote a book about how Trump is full of hot air and can’t get anything done. Now you want us to believe he’ll do what he says? Or that he’ll somehow start accomplishing what he promises to do?

“One need not be a believer to notice how at odds Trump’s many statements on religion are with the teachings of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and thus with his claim to be a Christian.”
Page 2575-2577

Utterly of no greater interest to me than any of his other lies. Perhaps Johnston cares more—or thinks Trump’s potential voters will care more when they see Trump’s deception in this specific area. It is here where Johnston seems to veer from journalistic documentation to advocacy.

“While both Trump and Sanders can rally people, neither has put forth actual policy proposals that could move America from where things are to a fairer, more just, and widely prosperous society. Nothing in their pasts suggests that they have the political skill to wring change from the system if elected to the presidency. Hillary Clinton has the skill, but despite her decades of action on behalf of the less fortunate, it is not at all clear that this is foremost on her political agenda.”
Page 2586-2589

WTF. Why broadside Bernie in the epilogue? To reluctantly push Hillary? Or try to pretend that you’re not pushing Hillary? Bernie has decades of experience and his policies haven’t moved much.

“The Founders believed that knowledge and reason must be the cornerstones of our representative democracy if we are to govern ourselves. So spend time learning and then do your duty as a citizen. Vote.”
Page 2589-2591

Also utterly untrue. The founders as a whole believed no such thing. A few espoused views to that effect, but their overall influence on the group and on the Constitution was not large enough to effect their policies.