Design Matters with DAVID CAY JOHNSTON

Published on 2018-02-10
David Cay Johnston, photographed at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding studio by Emily Weiland
David Cay Johnston, photographed at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding studio by Emily Weiland

In many ways, all roads in David Cay Johnston's life seem to have been carefully crafted to lead to this moment in history, in politics, in time-to President Donald Trump's America.  

With 50 years of investigative journalism under his belt, in his recent work and his new book It's Even Worse Than You Think, Johnston has found an apt subject who single-handedly embodies much of the phenomena he has spent his life documenting for readers. 

As he says in this episode, "We need to constantly be aware that those people who have positions of power and privilege-not all of them, but enough of them that it matters-try to twist the rules, try to oppress other people, try to take care of themselves at the expense of other people."

Born in San Francisco in 1948, Johnston's uncommon roots hint at the journalist he would become. His father was a World War II vet from New Orleans, had a third-grade formal education, read a book every day, and once had dinner with FDR. Racial discrimination enraged him. When the news would come on television, he'd grab Johnston and his brother, stand them in front of the set, and demand they pay attention. Upon a broadcast showing black citizens being assaulted with fire hoses, Johnston has recalled his father shutting the TV off and telling them that had Johnston and his brother been born black in the South, this would be happening to them. He mandated that they do something about it.  
Johnston's mother was, as he describes her, "a disowned heiress." Her father was sued when she was a child, and she decided to testify against him-even after he told her she'd be disowned. (Listen to this episode for the full story.) As Johnston's own father advocated for the Democrats, his mother was a Republican* who took her son to a Richard Nixon rally in 1960. In a world where journalists tend to tread partisan lines, if only subconsciously, it's perhaps this political duality in Johnston's upbringing that led to him becoming a gadfly to anyone abusing power, regardless of party or affiliation. (After all, while he made big waves last year for getting his hands on a partial return of Donald Trump's taxes, he pursued Bernie Sanders' as well.) 

But more likely, Johnston's lack of partisan reporting is simply the result of his approach to journalism at large. His career began at a local weekly paper and continued at the San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. With his lens fixed on corruption and abuses of all variety, over the years his work took a heavy focus on taxes and financials-perhaps the penultimate playground of corruption in the modern age. To steal a quote from ad legend Bill Bernbach and apply it to the world of journalism, a reporter's job in this realm is to bring the dead facts to life, and that's precisely what Johnston excels at: distilling otherwise illegible data and presenting it in a simple blend of sentences that people can understand-and moreover, realize how it is actually impacting them. 

All told, Johnston is cut from what was already rare cloth at the start of his career, and what is an even rarer breed of materials today: the true investigative journalist. As a reporter, it's all too easy to accept press releases as fact. It's easy to take quotes from elected officials and run them without question or depth or analysis, especially in today's strapped newsrooms where writers have a quota and inches to fill, and fewer resources than ever before. It's much harder to dig. To do stories that can actually speak truth to power, and have real impact on people's lives. What Johnston does is not easy (believe me, I, and many others I know, have tried). 

It is also often a thankless job. Perhaps a measure of an investigative journalist's impact is the degree to which they are hated. And Johnston is indeed hated-by those his work has brought down, by those simply under his lens, by those he has detailed extensively … such as Trump, who Johnston says has been threatening to sue him since 1989.  
Does it all bother him? As he says in this episode, "No. You do what's right. You do what you believe is right, and what in my business you can prove is true."

Despite the intense baggage of his craft, his more than five decades of work reveal an undeniable passion for the truth.
Of course, occasionally, there is recognition-he won a Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 2001, "For his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms." He was also a finalist in 2000 and 2003. 

As a result of his thoughts on the media industry today, he founded the website, a decidedly low-fi yet important nonprofit repository of investigative journalism, seeking to report "what the president and congress do, not what they say." The goal: To reveal, "in plain English, how you and your family are affected by what happens in Washington, DC." One early victory: posting the famous partial Trump tax return, which led to such interest the site crashed. 

As for Trump, Johnston has said that his first book devoted entirely to him, The Making of Donald Trump (2016), stems from his frustration at the U.S. media's failure to detail the corruption of his past during the presidential campaign. His latest book, It's Even Worse Than You Think, reveals the deeper issues of having Trump at the wheel-and how, ultimately, we're going to be the ones who pay for it. Kirkus Reviews aptly dubbed it "thoroughly depressing-but urgent, necessary reading."

This is not all fawning praise. Johnston has his detractors. He has made mistakes (and come clean). But in an era where journalism-and, indeed, facts-are perpetually under attack, Johnston is an investigative journalist we direly need.

And one added bonus: As he told The New York Times, his fascination with Donald Trump will never cease. "I'm going to follow him for the rest of his life," he said.

-Zachary Petit, Editor-in-chief, Design Matters Media


Debbie Millman:  David Cay Johnston is a muckraker. His investigative journalism has upended the careers of government officials, businessmen, and politicians. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for beat reporting that showed how corporations were twisting tax laws to their advantage. Since the 2016 presidential election, there's been more muck to rake than ever, and Johnston has been busy. Last year, he wrote "The Making of Donald Trump," which "The New York Times" called a "searing indictment." His latest book about what the Trump administration has been up to in its first year is called, "It's Even Worse Than You Think, What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America." David Cay Johnston, at a time when journalism is under attack in this country, a very warm welcome today on "Design Matters."

David Cay Johnston:  Thank you for having me, Debbie.

Debbie:  David, I understand your mother was the only child of a very wealthy businessman as well as a disowned heiress. How on earth did she get disowned?

David:  My agent wants me to write a screenplay about this. My mother testified against her father in the spring of 1941. Before Pearl Harbor, when America was still relatively innocent, he was tried for alienation of affection by his mistress's husband. If you went into a lawyer today and said, "I want to sue this woman, alienating my husband," you'd be laughed out of the law office. But back then, there was a trial. My grandfather lost. He had to pay $10,000, which was a lot of money in 1941. The star witness against him, who had the records of the hotel rooms and the trips, was my mother.

Debbie:  Oh my goodness. How did she find all that information, or get all that information?

David:  She worked for him in the business.

Debbie:  Quite a scandalous background you have there.

David:  Oh yeah. The trial was covered by newspapers from far away in some of the big cities. One of them the headline was, "Sin in the North Woods." 

Debbie:  Sounds like a romance novel. You've described your dad as "a man from New Orleans with a third grade education who read a book every day." I understand he once had dinner with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. How did that come about?

David:  My father was the president of Young Democrats of Arizona in 1932. He was on the dais with FDR.
My father left New Orleans when he was 19 years old because he couldn't stand the racism. It drove him crazy his whole life. When I was a boy, my brother and I, if he was home at dinnertime, because he was a chef and even though he was disabled, like most disabled war veterans he continued to work he would make us stand in front of the news, put his hands on our necks, and we would see Bull Connor attacking people or whatever. We would sit down and my father would go into a rage and he would say, "There but for the grace of God got you. You could have been born poor and black in the South and you will not allow this."

Debbie:  I understand that fury that he had really helped fuel your outrage against inequality, and racism as well. That's where it really began for you.

David:  Yes, but I also am someone who believes very strongly that we want to have a society that ennobles the human spirit. That, I believe, is the real purpose of our Constitution that if we govern ourselves and we do it wisely, we will see how far human beings as a society, because we're social animals, can advance. We need to constantly be aware that those people who have positions of power and privilege, not all of them, but enough of them that it matters, try to twist the rules, try to oppress other people, try to take care of themselves at the expense of other people. I've spent a lot of my career doing this. The 13 years I was at "The New York Times" as the tax reporter, I documented every chance I got, which was 4, 5, 6, 10 stories a year, how inequality was on the rise a lot of people attacked what I was writing back then    and showing how government policy was the real big driver, certainly the driver we can do something about, in the fact that the bottom 90 percent of Americans' incomes were going nowhere. In fact, in 2012, the bottom 90 percent of Americans had smaller incomes than in 1967, the year I graduated from high school.

Debbie:  How is that possible?

David:  Because government policies, and we don't tend to cover what government does so much in journalism, we cover politics, not policies have pushed down wages in a variety of ways. In 1973, about 37 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions. But about 80 percent of workers benefited from that, because many employers that didn't want unions, mostly because of the work rules, not because of the pay, were willing to pay premium wages and treat workers better to keep unions out. That's a social good. We've decimated unions. It's now about six percent of private sector workers. We created changes in our society that led to almost all mothers of small children going to work. Now, I'm certainly not arguing women should stay home. My wife's a CEO. But you shouldn't have to go to work. We ought to have a society where you can spend time with your children. We'll be better off if we do that. Some European countries require you to take a year off work each time you have a child and subsidize you on the theory that this is an investment in the future of your country. We obviously reject that idea here. Fundamentally, this issue of power is what's interested me my whole life. That's led me to study, how do these systems work? How do corporations work? It eventually led me to study the law of the ancient world, which I taught at Syracuse University's College of Law, although I'm not a lawyer and went to graduate business school for eight years. Because it was a way to understand, why is the law the way it is today? Go back and look at the root and learn the principle and theory. If you learn the principle and theory of anything, whether it's design or taxes or military strategy, you'll understand things much more deeply than if you just know the mechanics.

Debbie:  But your journalism career, David, started rather serendipitously. You won a speech contest when you were in school.

David:  I won a lot of them, probably 40 or 50 of them.

Debbie:  [laughs] You won a lot of speech contests. The local paper who was shooting your picture asked you to write a column, offered you 20 cents an inch. The paper liked it and shortly thereafter they had you covering the school board and the city council. You were making minimum wage. Can you tell us what happened when you were 18 and a reporter for the "San Jose Mercury" approached you and gave you some advice?

David:  Back then in Santa Cruz, California, there were five or six reporters every Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors. I had just finished night high school, was a father, was married. The local San Jose Mercury reporter, whom I'd known since I was 10 years old or 11 years old, was on vacation. This guy slides up next to me in the church pews where we sat as the Board of Supervisors met, those bench seats, and asked me a couple of questions. I answered him and he took me to the Catalyst that Ken Kesey wrote about to have a cup of coffee. I literally didn't have a dime in my pocket.

Debbie:  I think you also had a hole in your shoe.

David:  I had a hole in my shoe. He started asking me about things. The next day or the day after, he told me that I had a job interview at the San Jose Mercury. I said, "Excuse me, Jack. I'm 18 years old. I just finished high school. They're not going to talk to me." He said, "I don't care how old you are. You can do this." I went over to the San Jose Mercury. The man I was to see had gone to dinner early. The two editors I met with just made fun of me for an hour. They brought over a graduate student who was a copy boy and used him to "What are you doing, Jonesy?" "I'm getting a graduate degree." "Why are you doing that?" "I hope I'll be a reporter here." "OK. Jonesy, go get me a cup of coffee." He'd walk away. [laughs mockingly] "You think we're going to hire you?"

Debbie:  That sounds like torture.

David:  Well, it was an hour I endured. When I went back to Santa Cruz, Jack Frazier said, "Boy, they were really impressed with you." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah." He said, "Just go back every three weeks until they hire you."
Nine months later being so young it hadn't occurred to me that it was vacation time again and the Santa Cruz guy would go on vacation, the managing editor said to me, "Suppose I hire you. What are you going to do in 10 years?" I looked at him, pointed at him, and said, "I'm going to sit in that chair and I'm going to run this joint."

Debbie:  Nice.

David:  He hired me and I was on the front page in a matter of weeks.

Debbie:  Prior to that, your only experience in newspapers, I believe, was your seven newspaper routes as a delivery boy, four in the morning and three in the afternoon. Is that correct?

David:  No, no. I worked for two weekly newspapers, the one that you mentioned earlier and another weekly newspaper, and I split my time between them. But it was such minimal experience. When I turned up at the San Jose Mercury peninsula bureau, Robert Lindsey, who became a famous New York Times reporter, West Coast bureau chief, did "The Falcon and the Snowman" and the subsequent movie and one of the greatest reporters of all time    Bob told me just recently that when I came, they were all like, "What have they done here? This guy has no real reporting experience. He's a teenager." He said, "It took us a couple weeks and we went, 'Hey, this guy is writing sophisticated stories.'"

Debbie:  They put you on the front page.

David:  Yes. Things went very well.

Debbie:  I read that you originally pursued journalism because you didn't want to be poor.

David:  Right.

Debbie:  If the San Jose Mercury hadn't hired you, do you think you'd have ended up an LAPD cop? I believe that was your first aspiration.

David:  I would have become a khaki officer at the LAPD. My goal would have been to be a homicide detective.

Debbie:  Still have any of that aspiration in you?

David:  Well, I did. I spent three years of my life exposing the LAPD when I was at the "LA Times." I was the first reporter to do this way before anybody else.

Debbie:  Didn't they spy on you when you were on a date once?

David:  Yes. I went on a blind date with the woman I've been married to today for, let's see, 35 years, eight months, two weeks, and four days the 19th.

Debbie:  Who's counting?

David:  Not long enough. Luckily, she didn't run away either when I told her right up front I have six kids or when I told her that the LAPD had spied on us.

Debbie:  You have eight kids now I believe.

David:  That's right. The coverage of the LAPD, which they were regarded as the world's most honest, efficient, effective police department. I spent three years showing that they weren't honest. They weren't effective. Daryl Gates got world wide news coverage for claiming there was a huge crime surge in LA. I showed that it was the theft of Blaupunkt radios from German cars. If you just remove that from the data, crime was down. I proved that he assigned officers to sleep with women to get political information, that an LAPD undercover officer started the May Day 1981 riot in LA, used videotape to prove that and a lot of other stuff until the LA Times shut me down.

Debbie:  How did they do that?

David:  They just sent me to the women's section to write features.

Debbie:  Really?

David:  Yes, so I wrote what I called investigative features. One of the things I did there was I hunted down personally a very vicious killer, confronted him. This was a case of a young man who was tried four times for a particularly repugnant murder. The judge in the case, who was a very pro prosecution judge but black and this was black on white killing, threw out the conviction. It was reinstated by the Court of Appeals. When he came up for sentencing, the judge, who knew I was working on this story, said, "Mr. Cooks, this court believes you are innocent, but I am required by the Court of Appeals to sentence you. I hereby sentence you to 15 years to life in prison." I got him a fifth trial. The real killer was called as a witness. The sheriff's department in LA produced evidence that nobody had seen that clearly exonerated the kid, and he was acquitted. The real killer, of course, went scot free because five times the eye witness had gotten up on the stand and said, "That's the guy who did it."

Debbie:  There's justice for you.

David:  Well, the LA Times never got that story on the front page. They buried it in the back of the paper.

Debbie:  Why?

David:  I was on the outs for having disturbed too much trouble. Certainly before I left the paper, the editor of the paper, who was generally a very good guy and ran a great newspaper...I don't want to put this out of context. LA Times had fantastic journalism all over the world, had a huge staff, paid people well. They just didn't want to do investigations of a local establishment. Called me in his office and he said, "I don't think you appreciate that there isn't a single important person in California who hasn't sat in that chair    pointing at me    and complained about you." I said, "Well, Bill. Do they ever say I don't have my facts right?" He said, "You're not getting the message." I said, "Probably not."

Debbie:  Now, how did you know to follow these stories? How did you know, for example, that it was the radios that were increasing the crime rates and not actual violent crime?

David:  I didn't know it was the radios. What I knew was that the LAPD    this is before computers    kept all their crime reports on big ledger sheets, big green books. All I had to do was go over there, sit down, and analyze the data. That's what started my career. When I first covered the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, and the trustees didn't know I was a high school student, [laughs] they gave out a press release one day. Next year, property taxes on the average home in Santa Cruz valued at $34,211 would go up by $43.02, utterly meaningless information which appeared in the local daily the next day unless you own a house valued at exactly $34,211. I just turned the thing over and with long division did the math. It's roughly what I'm about to say. That is, I said, "Next year, property taxes will go up by $1.32 for every thousand dollars of value in your house." People noticed this. Pretty soon the NBC radio station, San Francisco's morning drive time guy is reading a story of mine on the air. Saying, "Why don't we get things like this in 'The San Francisco Chronicle?' Why is this in something called 'The County News' down in Santa Cruz?" Most journalists very accurately report the official version of events and the official criticisms of the official version of events. I very quickly realized that the story was the unofficial version of events.

Debbie:  How do you know that the unofficial story of the events are true?

David:  Because you have to check and cross check. You know the fake news stuff that Donald says. Donald has been a huge perpetrator of fake news. He spent his whole life planting stories. He planted stories and got national coverage that Madonna, the actress Kim Basinger, and Carla Bruni, later first lady of France, were his lovers. He hadn't met two of them. The third one called him a lunatic.

Debbie:  Which one?

David:  Carla Bruni called him a lunatic. He just makes stuff up, and he plants false stories all over the place. He's very familiar with fake news. What I realized early on is you just had to prove what you had. You had to have verifiable facts nobody could question. One of the lessons I learned over time is if you write a story about the cops and something they did that's heroic, you can have a whole bunch of factual errors. They don't care. You write a story about a crooked cop and you get a comma—this literally happened to me—somebody can challenge. They will try and get you fired for it. You got to have some fortitude about it. You've got to be very careful and very thorough. It includes editors not messing your stuff up. I've had some things happen in my career I'm not exactly happy about where editors changed things. They didn't understand, or they didn't know. They thought they were making the story better, but they didn't know the facts. They weren't malicious. This is not a simple and easy thing to do.

Debbie:  When asked about what advice you would give to young journalists, you stated this. "Only study enough journalism to understand the basics of how to report and how to organize your writing. Focus your education on hard ideas that will equip you with tools. Statistics, chemistry, physics, literature, or history, but focus on how to deeply understand how things work. "Study philosophy. Don't waste your time in a whole bunch of stupid journalism courses."

David:  I still believe that. I taught journalism for eight years at the University of Spoiled Children. I'm sorry. The University of Southern California.

Debbie:  [laughs] What were you teaching that would be meaningful if you're recommending that they shouldn't be taking...or unless maybe your class wasn't one of the stupid ones?

David:  I was just teaching introductory news writing and news reporting. I just came back from a world lecture tour, 57,000 air miles. That's more than twice around the planet and went to five continents. What I was telling investigative reporters and all the young ones especially in all these places is if it's important enough to write about, somebody already wrote it down. There's a record. Right now, there is a plane somewhere flying. It could be a little plane or a jetliner that will crash because of a mechanical failure that's already underway. You can't write it until after it happens. Don't pursue things that will take five years because you're giving up the opportunity to do lots of other stories that you can do more quickly. If you don't understand things deeply, there will be big stories right in front of you. The very best stories are right in front of your eyes. I urged them to all read Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter," where these Belgian detectives go in and they're searching everywhere for this letter. They're taking things off the shelves. The letter's right there in front of them on the desk. It never occurs to them it would be hidden in plain sight, but you have to know how things work. When I got a fellowship to the University of Chicago in 1973, I took a course from a famous education professor, Paul Peterson, who was visiting from Harvard. It was about decision making. He called on me in the second or third class. I got up and indicated that I'd read the work, made it clear. Then I said to him, "I don't understand this, Professor, to be honest with you. I read it. I can regurgitate it, but I really don't know what's going on here. Can you help me with the mechanics of this?" He says, "Well, Mr. Johnston, I could certainly help you with the mechanics of this, and then what would you know? You would know the mechanics of this particular transaction, which is of absolutely no significance whatsoever. Perhaps you could spend your time learning principle and theory, and then the mechanics will be obvious to you." I was 24 years old. I have five children and had been a reporter now for seven years. I suddenly thought, "Oh, my goodness. Nobody ever said that to me. Oh, of course." I spent most of the rest of my time in Chicago, because I was living alone, going to the library in the evening. Going into the shelves, just pulling things off the shelves, climbing into these big chairs they had that I called elephant chairs. Just reading until I fell asleep and the sun came up on my eyes in the morning and said, "That's what you have to do." If you're going to write about police, where do we get police? They don't exist in the [inaudible 19:40] . Where did that idea come from? If you're going to write about regulation, where did that come from? Where did these things begin? What's the underlying principle and theory? That's what I teach all around the world to young journalists.

Debbie:  You have been an investigative reporter for over 50 years. I want to talk a little bit about some of the highlights of a career that prompted "The Washington Monthly" to cite you as one of America's most important journalists before we talk about your brand new book. First, your innovative coverage of tax issues in "The New York Times" prompted tax policy changes by both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush that Congress valued at more than $250 billion. How did you...

David:  Just in the first 10 years. [laughs]

Debbie:  How did you do that?

David:  In George W. Bush's case, he would not show anybody his tax plan like Donald Trump until he took office. About five days after he took office, Senator Miller from Georgia introduced the bill. I read the bill, ran to my editor's office, and said, "Oh, my God. There's a super rich people can live tax free forever in this law because they repealed the gift tax."
He said, "What difference does that make?" I said, "If you get rid of the gift tax, you take your Bill Gates size fortune. You give it to Aunt Martha. All she has to do is live a year and a day for technical reasons, and in her will she gives it back to you. You now get the stock that was valued at a penny a share valued at whatever this price is, $50 a share. You owe no taxes if you sell it." He goes, "Wow." He said, "Well, there's a problem." I said, "What's the problem?" He says, "Well, you can't say that." I said, "What do you mean I can't say that? I can prove this." He said, "No, you got to quote somebody. They're not going to want this. You're not going to get on the front page." I knew the lawyer who probably had figured this out. Lo and behold, he had. We quoted him and ran on the front page. That day Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, was asked about this. Ari started off saying, because we knew each other from when he worked in Congress, "Well, anything David writes about taxes we're going treat with deep respect. That certainly isn't our intention. We're not aware of what the meaning of this is for sure, but we will look into it." Then very quietly three months later, they dropped that provision from the bill.

Debbie:  How did you learn as much as you know about taxes and tax law?

David:  Well, I spent a great deal of time reading books, learning these things, reading statutes, learning how to read them, spending time with top tax people. The great thing about being a journalist, if you treat it seriously, you can have a fun life in journalism, but if you treat it very seriously, you're a perpetual graduate student and the only difference is the public reads your papers.

Debbie:  You won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting for your penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the US tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms. You described how corporations were paying less in taxes even as individuals were paying more. What kind of changes did you provoke?
David:  It prevented some proposed policies from going into place first and foremost. Then secondly, it prompted the government to start seriously acting on these tax shelters. They were aware of them. There was some action being taken. I got lots of prominent tax people to say on the record, "This is corrupt. This is wrong. It's dishonest." It really pressured the federal government to crack down. It also changed the public's understanding. Fundamentally, what I wanted to do was get the public, instead of saying, "Oh, tax. I don't want to think about that. Ugh," to have just a fundamental understanding of the ancient principles that go into tax. If you just get those, then you can look at the tax debate and have a better understanding. In 2002, I wrote a story pointing out that Enron had we said 800 and some offshore subsidiaries. It turned out they had double listed some. In the end, it turned out there were a little over 700. Enron was taking profits earned in the US, siphoning them out of the US, and converting profits into interest free loans from the federal government. Think about that. Imagine the taxes taken out of your next pay check. If the government said you can keep that money and invest it, it has just loaned you your taxes at zero interest. If you could do that for every year for 30 or 40 years, invest that money, then pay the government the taxes with no adjustment for inflation or anything else, you'd be really rich. Who comes up with these kinds of ideas?

David:  Lawyers and accountants who get paid huge fees by rich people so they don't have to pay taxes. America has two tax systems separate and unequal. One is for most Americans: wage earners, people with labor income. The other is for very wealthy people. Wage earners we don't trust. You don't get your pay check until the taxes are withheld first.
If you owned your own business like Donald Trump, you tell the government what you say were your profits. Unless they audit you, and we do very few audits, the government accepts what you said. That's nutty.

Debbie:  The government doesn't trust the wage earner. They trust the business owner.

David:  Right.

Debbie:  The business owner is generally the one that's doing the fancy accounting.

David:  That's right and in many cases just flat out cheating. Donald Trump, as I reported in my last book "The Making of Donald Trump," there were two civil tax trials for him for tax fraud. In both cases, he lost. He had no evidence to support what he did. None. Furthermore, there was clear evidence of criminal tax fraud. When the tax return at issue was shown to Donald Trump's tax lawyer and accountant, who worked for him for years, the only copy anybody had was the photocopy. Apparently a photocopy was submitted to the city. It was the City of New York. Jack Mitnick testified, "That's my signature, but neither I nor my firm prepared that tax return." That's about as good of evidence of criminal tax fraud as you were ever going to get.

Debbie:  Why wasn't he punished for it?

David:  Because the vast majority of criminals never are prosecuted.

Debbie:  You first met Donald Trump in 1988 when you were the Atlantic City Bureau Chief of "The Philadelphia Enquirer," and he was trying to break into the casino business. During one of the first meetings, I read that you deliberately said something wrong about the casino game "Craps" in order to see how he might respond. Could you tell us that story?

David:  When I arrived in Atlantic City, I met Donald right off. I immediately said, "Boy, this is our PT Barnum. Come see the Fiji mermaid and the incredible two headed woman." Everybody knew back then PT Barnum was selling hoaxes. He didn't hurt anybody, but Donald is like him in selling stuff to you. Right after that, knowing he was the most important story in Atlantic City, I started preparing to learn about him. His competitors immediately said to me, "Donald doesn't know anything about the casino business." I'm like, "Come on. The man owns two casinos. That's not possible." I went to the government regulators. They had a polite phrase. "Donald is not an operator." Then I went to Donald's own guys. As soon as they realized they could trust me, it was like, "Donald doesn't know anything about this business. All he knows how to do is take money out of the business." With the connivance of a couple of his guys, I came up with these four questions. One was about Craps. In my first long sit down interview with him, I just dropped into a question these falsehoods. Donald immediately incorporated the falsehoods into his answer. That's when I realized that he was no different than the ads that you see on TV. "We're California Psychics. Is your boyfriend really loyal to you? Well, we'll tell you at California Psychics." What they really do is listen to clues from you about what you want to hear. That's what Donald did. He's masterful at this. He's really good at this stuff of getting you to suspend your skepticism and buy his sales story.

Debbie:  How?

David:  He does what all con artists do. He figures out what it is you want so that he can pick your pocket or get you to vote for him in the most recent example. The world is full of people like that. Luckily for me, because I had covered the LA Police Department for three years, I had covered Daryl Gates the police chief there, who in many ways was like Donald. He wasn't money motivated, but he was power mad. He would make things up. When I broke the story about him assigning officers to sleep with women, it's like, "What's wrong with this?" I'm the monster not him for this stuff. The same thing with Donald, so he helped prepare me for that. Donald was used to just saying things and getting them planted in the newspaper. The famous "New York Post" headline, "Best Sex Ever." Years later Marla Maples appears on "Designing Women." She's playing herself. She turns at the end of the episode, looks into the camera, and says, "I never said that"...

Debbie:  [laughs]

David:  ...which apparently Stormy Daniels in her recent interview would confirm.

Donald was not used to journalists not just buying his nonsense. The only reporter before me who had done this was Wayne Barrett to whom my new book is dedicated. Wayne Barrett was a reporter at "The Village Voice," a lefty paper, yet he had the most fantastic law enforcement sources. FBI agents, cops, parole people, who all totally trusted him because of the solidness of his work. Donald was on the warpath against the two of us and a guy at "The Wall Street Journal," whom he tricked into doing something that basically ended his career. It was inconsequential. It shouldn't have happened to him. Donald tried to trap me.

Debbie:  How?

David:  Donald kept offering me things. He'd offered Wayne Barrett a free apartment in Trump Tower if he'd go away. He was by then smart enough not to know to offer me something like that, but did I want to go on his jet, this or that? One day when I had lunch with him, my middle son, who was a teenaged boy came. Donald had to get up and leave.
While he was gone, Andrew walked up to him. There's a picture of the two of them together. It's on my Facebook page. The next day, a couple copies of the picture, one of them framed, arrives at my home by messenger. Donald's written on it "Andy, you have a great dad. Donald Trump." I immediately realized he would use this. He would go and say, "Well, I blackmailed him. "If he didn't take this picture with my son and write what I tell him to write, I would write negative stories about him." I told the editors at the Philadelphia Enquirer about this. We agreed that we would pay for the picture. We went to the casino. It was a higher price than everybody said it was worth. Not much. Everybody said $150 bucks, so we wrote 175. They wouldn't take the check. They mailed it back to us. I found a charity Donald claimed to have been connected to, and I sent a $175 contribution in his name. Inexpensive cash, [laughs] but I took away from Donald the opportunity to do that. I never allowed him to do anything more than...The only things I'll take from people are a cup of coffee, a glass of water, a cookie if it comes with the coffee, but these are just simple courtesies. 

Debbie:  He called you at your home last year to yell at you about the questions you submitted to the White House while working on an article...

David:  Not the White House. The campaign.

Debbie:  Oh, during the campaign.

David:  This was in 2016.

Debbie:  He called to yell at you?

David:  Yeah, many times. He's done that many times.

Debbie:  What does he say? He had to see...

David:  It was a standard Donald Trump telephone call, this kind, because I've had many. He's called me at home many times. It's hail fellow well met. What do you want to know when he knows what you want to know, and then he turns to menacing, and then he hangs up on you. In this case, it was, "Hey, David, we haven't talked in a while." I said, "Yeah, well." I said, "I'm glad you called me back, but please go through these questions because I want to make sure you get your full side to this. He says, "What do you want to know about...? Pick one." I picked one of them and he goes, "Listen, if you don't write it the way I like it, I'm going to sue you." He's been threatening to sue me since 1989.

Debbie:  He has yet never to do it.

David:  Never, no, and he's never going to. I wish he would. I would have the right to question him under oath. This is the challenge to Donald Trump. If Donald Trump had the guts to sit down with me in front of the television camera, we can't walk away for one hour. I promise you, at the end of that hour, every American will understand who he is. The portrait of Dorian Gray would come right onto his face. Anyway, I said, "Donald, you're a public figure. In America, that means he would have to prove that I knew what I wrote was a lie, and I did it anyway. There's no chance anybody's ever going to prove that. I said, "So, now you're a public figure." He says, "I know I'm a public figure. I'm going to sue you anyway." Click. Now, Donald had gone to the editors of the Inquirer and the New York Times to try and get me fired with no success of any kind. I know that he went to various news organizations and made through intermediaries, all sorts of threats. It's one of the reasons that during the campaign, nobody reported on the robust public record about his deep entanglement and favors for this international drug trafficker where Donald wrote a letter. None of this dispute the facts.
As a casino owner, where you could lose your casino license, would you be doing favors for a major drug trafficker and doing business with him? The obvious question to ask is, "Oh, were you doing business together?" Because if they were, everything he did makes perfect sense, but nobody reported this. When Americans voted, they had no idea who Donald Trump was. He wasn't scrub. I can tell you the names from, not of memory, but I could find for you quickly the names of Barrack Obama's childhood playmates in Indonesia from kindergarten, the boys he smoked marijuana with in Hawaii in high school, and some of the women he dated when he went to Columbia University. None of that kind of stuff was done with Donald Trump and it's because his campaign was so bizarre. What I've compared it to is, we all rub our neck. We all stop to, "What is that accident this side of the freeway?" Donald Trump is that traffic wreck with dancing girls, fireworks and a marching band, and people were like, "Wow, what's he going to do next?" Literally, when Trump went off the year, Fox and CBS said people click the dial away. They covered this because it was good for business. That doesn't explain the newspapers utterly failing to, what's called, scrub the candidate.

Debbie:  Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of Trump's "The Art of the Deal" said that Trump would be a very unhappy man if no one paid attention to him.

David:  Donald, by the way, is an unhappy man. Donald Trump is a man who...You won't see him laugh, he can't take a joke about himself. I've always felt sorry for him. He's a 71 year old man trapped in the year of puberty when he was thirteen emotionally, and there's no joy and contentment in his life. Donald is desperately in need of public adoration.
He has said, he is superior to the rest of us. His sons have said that Trumps believe they're genetically superior. They believe in what they call the horse race breeding theory of genetics. You know that his doctor just said, being overweight and what not, "But his genetics, they're really superior."

Debbie:  Talk about the anonymous, mysterious arrival of the pages of Trump's tax returns that arrived at your house last year. First of all, why you?

David:  If you believe as I do that Donald Trump had this sent by somebody, this return makes perfect sense.

Debbie:  You think it was sent to you by his...?

David:  Oh, yeah. No. It came in the US mail. I've given the news organizations the cover letters so they can see it, and it says client copy so it didn't come from government files somewhere. Donald has a long history of leaking material on himself. When the New York Post in the summer of 2016 published the what I call "sleazy porn pictures" of Melania, they certainly are not art. I invite you to go to New York Post and look at them. This is not high art. I don't have any problem with nudity at all, but this was just porn. Donald's spokesman had no complaint. That tells me is Donald leaked the pictures or he told someone to go ahead and put the pictures out there. When I got the return, I was literally shooting a picture with my cell phone of Mar a Lago from across the waterway. My phone buzzed and my daughter said, "Urgent, you got to look at your email." I thought to myself two things is this real, and does anybody else have it? What that return showed was an enormous income, almost three million dollars a week, and a tax bill of 36 million, which is about 23 percent of his income. However, he'd included most of the tax being from a back up tax system called the AMT. Take away the AMT and his tax rate was less than three and a half percent. That's an important number because the poorest half of Americans who file tax returns, their tax rate that year was more than three and half percent, just a little above it. Their average income was $300 a week. Donald's income was almost three million a week. He wanted to be taxed less lightly. He called for eliminating the AMT. His policy was, "I want to be taxed more lightly than the poorest half of Americans."

Debbie:  The AMT is alternative minimum tax, is that correct?

David:  The alternative minimum tax, right. The particular portion that applied to him is called the refundable AMT. Essentially, in the next year or the next two or three years, he would get back 85 percent of the taxes that he paid, but Donald realized and anybody would know that. When I emailed the White House, Sean Spicer, I immediately focused on the AMT. Donald's reaction to that where he went ballistic, tells me that he thought he was going to get me to write the story about, "Hey, he made a lot of money, he paid a lot taxes." He didn't know how well I knew taxes that I would point to... That's a little surprising given that I tried to give, once, Donald tax advice and he couldn't follow it because he doesn't know anything about anything, but especially not taxes, even though he claims to be the world's greatest expert on taxes.

Debbie:  What made you decide to give the story to Rachel Maddow?

David:  I didn't. That's not what happened. We published it at, and then I became what's known in the trade as the get, you want to get the interview with somebody, and my friends and I who do DCReport, we're basically volunteers. 

Debbie:  Hey, you don't take a salary for that.

David:  No, I put money into it. We discussed where to take it. We agreed that if I went to the Times, it would all be caught up in the Times editing process and take days and somebody would break the story that we had to go to TV.  Unanimously, guys in my team said, "You got to go to Rachel. She has the audience and what not." Rachel was criticized for her 17 minute opening monologue. Watch her every night. She does a 17 minute monologue every night, and then there was this people said, "There's nothing there." All I can tell you is any journalist who said there's nothing there, they don't know what they're writing about, and there are lots of journalist who accurately quote people, but have no idea what they're writing about. These journalists didn't call me. Journalists from Germany and Japan and Spain and all over the world called me. American journalists did not.

Debbie:  Why?

David:  This also happened when I did "The Making of Donald Trump." When I get interviewed, and I've done a dozen interviews this week with foreign journalists. They've actually read the book. They ask smart questions, generally, not always, but generally. American journalists, the questions I...I don't have any time to read your book, but I understand you don't like Trump. It's appalling. The standards that we've allowed to sink, and it's because the money is gone. There was a time when, at the LA Times, national correspondents flew first class. You'll be lucky today to get a coach ticket at a discount to go somewhere.

Debbie:  Let's talk a little bit more about "It's Even Worse than You Think." It is the other side of the story told in your previous book, The Making of Donald Trump, and the Michael Wolff book, "Fire and Fury." It is instead exploring who Trump is and what his allies say about him, and the new book explains what the administration is doing to damage the government, our income, health and safety. I want to talk about Trump's work ethic because you write in Trump's first 202 days in office. He spent 65 days at Mar a Lago, his New Jersey golf course or Trump Tower, that's almost one day in three.

David:  That's continued by the way. One in three.

Debbie:  The taxpayers are footing the bill for this. Why isn't there more outrage about this in Congress or in the Senate?

David:  Donald has never been a guy you would call a hard worker, and we now know he puts in essentially a five hour day minus lunch, and spends hours and hours watching television to see what people are saying about him. The people who I championed in my books, the bottom 90 percent who have real grievances, he's the person they still believe is going to save them.

Debbie:  Why? Why, David?

David:  Because they don't understand that putting Goldman Sachs people in charge and passing a tax bill is basically a shopping list for Goldman Sachs clients, and removing job safety inspections and things are not in their interest because they don't follow politics closely. They're not dumb. Sit down in a blue collar bar, and watch a messed up play in baseball and football, and listen to the analysis of people. My goodness. These people know how to analyze this stuff. They're just not connected to politics and they block Donald's calm. It's very hard for people who've been calmed to admit they were taken. You have to say, "I was dumb. I got taken," to yourself, not to the rest of the world.

Debbie:  Yes. Some are ashamed in that.

David:  We have people in prisons, people I've written about who just went on to do horrible things because they wouldn't admit that they got taken. Then there is this core of people, I suspect, based on a social research, between a quarter and a third of Americans who hate the civil rights movement. They don't want to sit next to a Latino on the plane. They don't want an Asian in the cockpit, and God forbid, they don't want to report to a black woman boss, and Donald is their champion. He's their hero. I've been surprised that some of the people who've come up to me, including wealthy, educated people, who come up to me and say, "Well, whatever you write, you know that Donald is right. I go, "Right about what?" They go, "You know, about, about...I don't know," and I thought, "You know, those people."

Debbie:  He's exposed the underbelly of this country?

David:  Absolutely. He's exposed that a lot of people just can't come to terms with the civil rights movement. They do not believe we are all created equal. Remember the day that Richard Nixon resigned, and I covered his resignation. 29 percent of Americans still supported Nixon. Donald Trump will never resign. He's not a patriot like Richard Nixon. Much as I don't like Richard Nixon's policies, and all the things he did wrong, at the end of the day, the man did the right thing for the country. He resigned. Donald Trump is about Donald. He's not about America. If he is removed from office and not tried and convicted criminal and sent to prison, he will tour the country for the rest of his life, attacking the government. The way you know that is what he did during the campaign. He pointed out people in the crowd and said, "Beat that person up. I'll pay your legal bills." He didn't do it just once, he did it again and again and again in various different ways.

Debbie:  You state that there is a single factor that defines Donald Trump's presidency, making it unlike the 44 administrations before, be they great, middling, or corrupt. This is one of your lines, "Be they great, middling or corrupt, the president's past all shared a trait missing in the Trump presidency." What is that factor?

David:  It is an effort to somehow make America better. They leave behind a legacy that things are better. Chester Arthur, totally corrupt New York politician who became president by accident he was vice president called in his crooked cronies and said, "You're never to darken the door of the White House again. I'm the president now." He gave us the Pendleton Civil Service Act, among other things. Donald Trump's presidency is about Donald's ego, to the glorification of Donald. As Tony Shorts says, "He needs people to be adoring to him."

Debbie:  You have talked about how this fake news movement that we are now contending with is actually not that new. You've talked about how the last 40 years, there's been an honest effort to discredit honest journalism in this country and promote dishonest journalism.

David:  A serious effort to attack honest journalism. I don't if they call it an honest effort.

Debbie:  A serious effort. Why? Why is this happening?

David:  Journalists start in the business of being liked. We're in the business of telling new things that aren't comfortable. Powerful people don't like things. When I reveal how Jack Welch's retirement package worked, and did the economics of it, it wasn't even a long or prominently played story. It was so devastating to him that he immediately wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying, "I'm relinquishing all of these, and some people," he said, "don't respect contracts." I just described this contract and then you respecting it, but the shareholders should know what he was getting because it was totally at odds with his public statements, and it was hidden from them. I don't do this to be loved. There are people who will tell you, the guy that I kept safe from life in prison will tell you what a great guy I am, but there are plenty of people who will tell you that they hate me with a passion.

Debbie:  That doesn't bother you?

David:  No. You do what's right. You do what you believe is right, and what in my business you can prove is true. If you can't prove it, you can't print it.

Debbie:  Do you envision a time when Washington will ever be truly accountable to the people again?

David:  Yes, if we get rid of the current campaign finance system. I've interviewed over a hundred Congressmen and Senators. They all hate the groveling and the begging for money. They know it's inherently corrupting, but they're all risk averse, as economists would say. They won't change it. Over time, human beings progress, but as Monty Python said, "There was the dark ages." We can slip back into very bad things. If American citizens are vigilant, if they start paying attention to their government, being as involved in politics as they are in the last scrimmage in the football game, we all have a better Congress.

Debbie:  Do you feel optimistic about the future?

David:  You can't be the father of eight children in modern America not being a total optimist. On the long haul, I think that we will do very well. We'll become more prosperous, but we will not be as well off as we could be because, for example, Trump has abandoned the Pacific, and China has filled the vacuum, and is orienting the Pacific countries away from us and to China.

Debbie:  You speak at length about this in the book?

David:  Yes. Japan has made a huge trade deal with the European Union. The Trump was off doing, "Oh please, glorify me," in Poland at the time. We're going to pay some long term economic prices for these things.
The question we face is, "Is Donald Trump an anomaly, a mistake that we're going to recognize and we're going to correct?" That correction means we're going to remove a lot of people from Congress who are supporting him in November. Is he the beginning of a trend, and will people, without Donald's deficits in terms of making things up in his personality disorders, come forward and move us into becoming a fascist country in which you're going to lose your individual liberties? Donald Trump, clearly, has no regard for your liberties. We're going to find out really fast. We got two elections coming at 18 and 20. I'll be glad to tell you on the day after election day, either one of those two elections, depending how it goes, but certainly, by the end of the second, whether we're going to have a brighter future or a very dark future, and cease to be a beacon of liberty around the world. For all of our flaws, and we got plenty of them, whether we're going to continue the progress to ennoble the human spirit, to see what human beings can accomplish if we free them up and provide them with the liberty to make the best of themselves that they can.

Debbie:  David, I'd like to close the show with a quote from your book, The Making of Donald Trump. You wrote, "Whatever your views, become deeply informed. 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."

David:  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is who turns out to vote.

Debbie:  David Cay Johnston, thank you for these wise words and thank you for joining me today on "Design Matters." David's latest book is "It's Even Worse than You Think, What the Trump Administration is Doing to America." You can read more written by David at This is the 14th year I've been doing "Design Matters," and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.