The Media Today

The White House responds to NYT report on Trump money

October 4, 2018

President Trump called it “old, boring and often told.” Sarah Sanders labeled it “a totally false attack, based on an old recycled news story.” Charles Harder, the president’s lawyer, threatened to sue. But when Donald Trump’s press secretary was asked to name anything in The New York Times’s blockbuster story that was specifically inaccurate, she drew a blank.

To any objective observer, the 14,000 words of deeply investigated work that rolled off the New York Times printing presses on Wednesday morning, splashed across eight pages of the front section, were nothing short of extraordinary. David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner spent more than a year digging through documents and interviewing key sources to authoritatively answer a simple question: What’s the actual truth about how Donald Trump got rich? Their conclusion, presented in painstaking detail, boils down to one major source of the president’s wealth: his father. The report details how Trump, his siblings, and their father utilized dubious tax schemes, including outright fraud, and revealed that the president is far from the self-made man he has claimed to be.

ICYMI: CJR editor says he’s been irked by one common critique of the NYT Trump investigation

Despite the administration’s protests, it was packed with new information, and lauded by journalists across the industry the day after it hit the Web. David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist whose 2017 scoop on Trump’s taxes was at least partially responsible for getting the Times investigation started, tells me that the Times journalists went far beyond any previous coverage of Trump’s wealth. “I’ve spent years on this,” he said. “Tim O’Brien, the historian Gwenda Blair, the late Wayne Barrett—we’ve all had little pieces of this. [But] this is light years beyond where we ever got.”

CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope praises the Times for embracing the long game, publishing a report that “transcends the headlines of the day, focusing on an elemental, fundamental aspect of this man and this presidency that, it turns out, is even more divorced from our common understanding than we might have previously thought. It is an example of journalism as long game, a sport that more of us need to be playing.”

For those who hand-wave the piece’s conclusions by claiming it simply tells us things we already knew about Trump’s business dealings, Pope offers a rebuttal: “In fact, you didn’t know it,” he writes. “You thought it. You believed it. You intuited it. But that’s entirely different from having the raw information to back your theory up, to actually show, thanks to months of hard work, how it’s true and what it means.”

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Explicit in the Times’s story is a criticism of previous reporting—including by the Times itself—that was overly credulous, allowing Trump to create and burnish the fiction that his wealth was self-made, the result of “a small loan” from his father and years of hard work. The reckoning with previous reporting on Trump-as-deal-maker is a story that deserves more reflection, especially from outlets like the New York Post who often served as launderers for Trump’s own tips. As the Times report makes clear, Trump was bailed out again and again by his father, supported to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and aside from a handful of reporters, for decades no one seemed to care.

Barstow, Craig, and Buettner still lack one set of documents vital to telling the story of Trump’s recent business dealings: the president’s own tax returns. Asked Wednesday if those documents would be released, Sarah Sanders replied, “I’m not aware of any plans to do so.”

RELATED: NYT and The New Yorker attacked for recent scoops 

Below, more on the reverberations from the Times’s blockbuster report.

  • How it happened: Now that you’ve read the 14k-word piece, read how they did it. 18 months, 100,000 documents, and one locked room: Barstow, Craig, and Buettner explain how their investigation unfolded, and what questions remain unanswered. Showtime will also air a behind-the-scenes documentary of the reporting process on Sunday.
  • He’s not going to sue: Though Harder threatened the Times with legal action in a statement, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that Trump has made such warnings before, and that he rarely follows through. “Not only would Trump be unlikely to win such a claim, according to legal experts, he would be required as part of the discovery process to provide private financial documents that he has long resisted making public,” Farhi writes.
  • The cost of deception: Crain’s New York calculates that Trump and his siblings could owe New York state more than $400 million in unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties if the numbers in the Times report are accurate.


Other notable stories:

  • On Thursday morning, senators will review the FBI’s completed report on its investigation into Brett Kavanaugh, report The Washington Post’s John Wagner and Seung Min Kim. Democrats have criticized the process as hasty and incomplete. The report is intended to stay private, but few expect it will remain so for long.
  • Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has gone missing after visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the AP reports. Karen Attiah, The Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor, writes that Khashoggi, who contributed to the Post, “is one of the leading proponents of freedom and democratic change throughout the region, and he frequently denounces the harsh tactics deployed by the Saudi authorities against prominent clerics, business owners, female activists and social media figures.”
  • For CJR, Annie Gowen describes dangerous times for the press in Kashmir. The outgoing Washington Post India bureau chief, Gowen writes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced Trumpian tactics in his approach with the media, and that reporters in Kashmir have faced a rise in violence and intimidation.
  • Connie Chung writes an open letter to Christine Blasey Ford, explaining that she was sexually assaulted by her family doctor as a young woman. “I am writing to you because I know that exact dates, exact years are insignificant,” Chung writes. “We remember exactly what happened to us and who did it to us. We remember the truth forever.”
  • The Washington Post Magazine is relaunching, with the first issue set to appear in print on Sunday. Dan Balz snags the first cover story with “a definitive inquiry” into the state of the Democratic Party.
  • San Francisco Magazine is expected to make staffing cuts and shift away from a hard news focus, reports Joe Eskenazi, a former senior editor at the magazine. Modern Luxury, the company that owns the title, wants to cut costs, and has already slashed San Francisco Magazine’s freelance budget.

ICYMI: Are we all suffering from data breach fatigue?

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.