Op-Ed: Following Trump’s money exposes the awful truth: Our president is a ‘financial vampire’

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in the White and Gold Ballroom at The Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. on Mar. 1, 2016.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Americans were confronted Tuesday with a profound problem, one that challenges our commitment to accountable democratic government and justice. It is an awful truth that we must face now that the New York Times has published a richly documented, 14,000-word expose alleging decades of deeply corrupt Trump family finances.

After 18 months of interviewing people who worked for or with the Trump family and scrutinizing more than 100,000 documents, the newspaper painted a portrait “unprecedented in scope and precision” of Trump family money, including “outright fraud” that enriched the man who is now the sitting president. Those extraordinary words require us to pay close attention.

Leaked financial records reveal decades of calculated tax cheating, according to the New York Times. Father Fred Trump created 295 revenue streams to transfer money to his children, many of which appear to have broken laws. A lawyer for the president claims the published allegations are false and the reporting “extremely inaccurate,” but the reporters cite bank statements, canceled checks, invoices and tax filings that reveal the apparent evasion of close to half a billion dollars of taxes in today’s money.


In one scheme the value of properties transferred from Fred Trump to his children was discounted by 94%. Prices paid for refrigerators and stoves were inflated 46%, which enabled dishonest tax deductions while cheating people in rent-stabilized Trump apartments by justifying higher rents.

Not a scintilla of verifiable evidence shows that Donald is anything like as rich as he claims.

As that paper’s former tax reporter and a journalist who has covered Donald Trump for more than 30 years, this was no surprise. In 1990 I broke the story that Trump was no billionaire. He called me a liar for months, until he had to put documents in the public record showing he was worth negative-$295 million.

Not a scintilla of verifiable evidence shows that Donald is anything like as rich as he claims. Candidate Trump said he was worth more than $10 billion, but his 2017 presidential disclosure statement shows just $1.4 billion.

Yet millions of Americans believe Trump is a modern Midas. They believe the president will lift them out of hard times, after a half-century during which the super-rich flourished and their incomes were mostly flat. The awful truth is that the man in the Oval Office is not a wealth-building entrepreneur, but a financial vampire who extracts cash from enterprises, leaving behind unpaid workers, vendors and governments.

The president’s father got his start profiteering, to the tune of millions of dollars, from programs to help returning GIs get housing, which prompted President Eisenhower to throw a fit. Donald Trump is already a proven tax cheat. He admitted to sales tax fraud in 1983. He lost two income tax civil fraud trials. His own tax lawyer, Jack Mitnick, testified that Trump’s 1984 tax return was fraudulent.


Court records show how Trump and his children misled investors in failed condo projects in Baja California and Florida. Trump promised strivers who paid tens of thousands of dollars to attend Trump University that he would hand-pick a faculty and give them a better education than the best business schools. That’s not what happened. In the end, Trump gave back $25 million after insisting he had done nothing wrong.

A Trump project in New York employed hundreds of workers who were in America without permission, paid them laughably low wages and worked them beyond legal limits. He denied knowledge of the situation, but a judge said Trump’s testimony was not credible. Trump promised to show voters that his immigrant third wife, Melania, always worked legally. Business records show she worked illegally as a model.

Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, is talking to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. So is his former campaign manager, who along with Trump’s first son and son-in-law eagerly embraced the Kremlin’s offer of campaign help. Trump’s first national security advisor has pleaded guilty to being an unregistered agent for Russian interests in Turkey. Son-in-law Jared Kushner sought to use Russian diplomatic channels to communicate secretly with Moscow.

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For many Americans the truth too horrible to consider is that Donald Trump could be a criminal, a wildly successful con artist. He may well be disloyal. For those who grasp what Trump is, the corollary truth is that our Constitution’s checks and balances are failing us.

The Republican majority in Congress refuses to properly investigate Trump. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is rushing a vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose legal writings indicate he might protect Trump from law enforcement.

Prosecutors, tax authorities, casino regulators and other government officials appear to have let the Trump family get away with dishonest conduct again and again. Trump has bragged that in return for campaign donations politicians always obeyed his wishes, and it seems many did.

The latest expose focuses mainly on the 1950s through the 1990s. We need to see Trump’s tax returns, and the books and records behind them, from this century. And if they show cheating, we need to enforce the laws Trump violated.

David Cay Johnston, a former Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporter, is the author of “The Making of Donald Trump” and “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.”

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