Friday, December 2, 2016

The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston

The best part of this book comes near the end, in Trump’s Atlantic City casino.
“Akio Kashiwagi was one of the world’s five biggest gamblers, literally a one-in-a billion customer, who…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.”
Johnston prepares us for nearly two hundred pages with Donald’s history of self-promotion, alignments with shady racketeers, tax dodges, questionable accounting practices, and the real sleaze of a man who’d reached his intellectual limit selling real estate. The reader literally becomes queasy imagining the damage this man could do as leader of our country.

The story at the casino is told in minute detail, how $18.8 million in $5K chips are stacked on the table and floor beside Kashiwagi at the baccarat table as he reached the pinnacle of his win in the double-or-nothing wager he had with the house. He was still in the black by the middle of the next week, and Trump could not sleep.

It is in the middle of this story when I realize that this is one of Trump’s biggest moments…a game…for money. I can’t tell you how it turns out—the book is worth seeking out, Johnson tells the story so well—but it does have something to do with reputation and the real wealth of both men, not the heralded fake wealth bragged about. It is a fight to the death, considering mob-boss friends hold the velvet stage curtains behind which both men hide.

In the final pages Johnston's skill as an investigative journalist and writer come across clearly. He focuses the last part of the book on Trump’s little known mob connections, and criminal associates. Knowing bad folks, as Johnston points out, proves nothing. But Johnston goes on to show how Trump profited by his relationships with folks who commonly transgressed the law. Trump cared about money, and measured his worth by it. He measures other people's worth by their beauty or wealth...or power.

The ups and downs in the legal battle over Trump University alone should have given the American voting populace pause because it showed Trump’s desperation and his rhinestones-for-diamonds charlatanism. Johnston gives a good overview of the bribery, threats, lawsuits, misdirection, and outright lies involved with this case. Right after this section is one on supposed donations to charity that got all tied up in donations to and from his own foundation.

I wasn’t going to read anything about Trump right away because I was in a deep funk after the election, but a lengthy discussion with a Goodreader led me first to TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald by Timothy O’Brien, and before I finished that, to Johnston’s book. TrumpNation first came out in 2005, and was reissued in early June 2016 with a new introduction. O'Brien has a fascinating in-depth section on the Koch-Trump rivalry (Koch was mayor of NYC in the 1980's) and a hilarious description of Trump's purchase of New York's fabled Plaza Hotel.

O’Brien was an editor at the NYT before moving to become executive editor of Bloomberg View. O'Brien actually edited some of Johnston’s work when both worked at the NYT. Johnston is a specialist in tax law and reporting, earned a Pulitzer in 2001 for his reporting on taxation, and was able to see some of his suggestions adopted by Congress into tax law shortly afterward. The material in Johnston's book and O'Brien's overlaps: both are sobering assessments of the man they watch, and detailed in what they focus on specifically.

Johnston’s book came out in English and German in Aug 2016, but he'd been researching Donald Trump for almost thirty years. Johnston met Trump back in the 1980’s, when he was investigating money flows, taxes, tax avoidance, and casinos. There were so many folks involved in Trump’s success that investigations into his financial reporting went nowhere. He was both too big and too inconsequential. Trump's net worth was nothing like he claimed, but there was so much money going in and out of his accounts. It was going somewhere.

Johnston makes an excellent observation early in the book, in his bio of Fred Trump, Donald’s father.
”When Fred Trump was under intense criticism for plans to destroy a popular Coney Island attraction…where he wanted to build the first apartment project bearing the family name, Fred Trump shifted the focus of news coverage by hiring a bevy of beauties in hard hats and polka-dot bikinis to hand out bricks to locals and city dignitaries…Decades later, of course, Donald Trump would surround himself with models to attract television cameras and would have his third wife pose nearly nude aboard his Boeing 757 jet for a men’s magazine while he looked on during a photo shoot.”
Hard to believe near-nakedness distracts anyone from hanging onto their pocketbooks anymore--isn't that the oldest con of all? But so it goes. Donald continues to point to sexy beauty and away from his own indiscretions.

Johnston starts Trump’s family history with the observation that the family name was once Drumpf, changed in 1648, too early to implicate Donald, but not too early to influence his sense of himself. Johnston points out various meanings of the word trump:
”Donald no doubt enjoys the bridge player’s definition of trump: a winning play by a card that outranks all others. But other definitions include ‘a thing of small value, a trifle’ and ‘to deceive or cheat’ as well as ‘to blow or sound a trumpet.’ As a verb, trump means to ‘devise in an unscrupulous way’ and ‘to forge, fabricate or invent,’ as in ‘trumped-up’ charges.”

Johnston has just the right amount of amused skepticism and new information to hold us in thrall rather than have us toss the book across the room in a rage. He keeps us reading and thinking. It is absolutely unbelievable that Trump was victorious in November.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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