Author David Cay Johnston on the underpublicized crisis of the Trump administration
By Bliss Bowen
The title of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston’s newest book, “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America,” is bluntly accurate. Johnston’s deep understanding of the tax system and three-decade history of examining Trump’s financial deals adds to the gravity of the book, a page-turner laying out damage done to America’s economy, environment and international reputation by “political termites” installed at the CDC, EPA, HUD, OSHA, the departments of Education, Energy, Interior, Justice and State, and lesser-known but vital agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Johnston, who says he’s a registered Republican, debunks contentions that the repeal of regulations and cuts in programs and research will help taxpayers (one noteworthy statistic: for every federal dollar invested in human genome sequencing, $140 has been returned), and reveals insidious ways in which Trump is enriching himself at the expense of the nation’s purse and security.
A past president of Investigative Reporters & Editors, Johnston earned his 2001 Pulitzer for beat reporting while untangling tax code complexities and loopholes for The New York Times. He’s been reporting on Trump since 1988, when he investigated Trump’s casino operation for the Philadelphia Inquirer. As he did with his bestseller “The Making of Donald Trump,” Johnston backs his reportage with facts, figures and documentation.
“We’re the owners,” he says of our government. “If we don’t act like owners, people who profit off the government will continue to manipulate the system to their benefit and our detriment. Their No. 1 ally is Donald Trump.” How many times have you interviewed Trump?
From 1988 through ’92 I interviewed him a lot. He’s called me at my home from time to time since then. After that, when I had stories about Trump I usually fed them to other journalists because I was busy writing about our tax system and how government creates inequality. But I paid very close attention to him, built up what I am confident is the largest private collection of Trump documents in the world — it’s tens of thousands of pages. The last time we spoke, he called me at home, I was sitting in the chair I’m in right now in my living room in April of 2016, to tell me [mimics], ‘If you don’t write it the way I like it, I’m gonna sue ya!’ … He’s a bully. It’s his nature.
Why weren’t more voters aware of Trump’s bullying and his track record in Atlantic City?
The reason I wrote “The Making of Donald Trump” is that the national news media utterly failed to tell voters who Trump was. And it wasn’t for my lack of trying; I wrote about two dozen articles in 2015 and 2016, many of them aimed right at journalists … I offered the documents I have to people. Interestingly, about a dozen foreign countries have sent news crews to my home. ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS: not one.
Considering how keenly he tracks his press coverage, is it even possible for Trump to be oblivious to how his actions undermine national interests?
Donald believes that whatever he does is exactly what should happen. He makes things up. He creates his own reality. Have you ever heard of the RCEP? Because this is one of the most important damaging things Trump is doing to America. He killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trading deal with 13 Pacific Rim countries that was intended to orient those countries toward us and limit China and its economic and military and political power. Now I was a leading critic of TPP [but] I didn’t say, ‘Kill it.’ Donald kills it, leaves a vacuum, China begins advancing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program — 15 Pacific Rim countries plus India… Trump hasn’t done a thing about this. Then … Trump is appearing before a crowd in Warsaw last summer where the right-wing government there kept out anyone who wasn’t a guaranteed supporter of Trump, and 800 miles to the west the Japanese and the European Union are signing an enormous trade deal. We’re getting left out! And we don’t have ambassadors in most countries. Because Donald doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Do you think Americans would vote differently if they were better educated about history and government?
I’ve long said I’ve had much better conversations about economics and politics and culture with waiters at roadside cafes in Slovakia and Spain and Norway and rural Canada than MBAs I’ve sat next to in the first-class section of a coast-to-coast jetliner. We have an education system in this country that was designed way back in the 19th century to produce people to work in factories and offices who would be drones. We’re in a new economy. We need people with critical thinking skills, and we’re not teaching those skills.
Let me be clear. I think Donald Trump is a major disaster for our country. He is a clear and present danger to us, and he is determined to use nuclear weapons. But the people who voted for him, who bought his campaign sloganeering, they’re not dumb. … It’s just that people are disconnected from politics.
Is citizen journalism the answer?
Citizen journalism in my mind is roughly on par with do-it-yourself surgery. To do journalism requires skills. … Madison and Adams and some of the other [framers of the Constitution] wrote that what they feared would doom the United States wasn’t some foreign government invading us; it was extreme inequality. … We’ve gotta get back on track. That means people have to take some responsibility; they’ve gotta spend some time learning what’s going on. … You’ve gotta turn out to vote, and you’ve gotta vote not based on your emotions, but on understanding public policy issues.
How has this work shaped your perspective of our democracy?
They’re all grown now, but you can’t have eight children in this era and not be an optimist. We will get through this.
David Cay Johnson speaks at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 30) at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $55 at livetalksla.org.