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“There’s No Check on Trump Except Reality”: A Q&A With Wayne Barrett

The veteran New York journalist dishes on Trump, Giuliani, and more.

Joe McNally/Getty Images

Lost amid the post-election clatter about what the media missed is an appreciation of the hardworking journalists who had Trump nailed when most of us were still in swaddling. Wayne Barrett, the longtime investigative reporter for the Village Voice, is one who only now is receiving his just due at the national level.

Barrett’s Trump: The Deals and the Downfall was first published in 1992 (it has since been reissued as Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth), at a moment when New Yorkers thought themselves rid of “the Donald’s” malign hold on their collective imagination. His biography is a rich and layered—Caro-esque—excavation of the dirty-dealing, insiderism, and blind greed that made Trump a powerful figure in 1980s New York, and which eventually brought him down, beset by a string of bankruptcies, a scandal-plagued public divorce, and a forced retreat from public view—which proved, to our great national misfortune, a temporary one.

What makes Barrett’s work so vital today is his prescient depiction of Trump: It was all there for us to see, if only we had known to look. We learn how Fred Trump, Donald’s father, leveraged his connections to the Brooklyn political machines to gain access to federally backed mortgage funding, which he then turned into a real estate empire in the city’s outer boroughs. We find a young Donald taking those experiences and political assets with him to Manhattan as a brash, young developer. And throughout, there are the deals: the Commodore Hotel, the West Side Railyards, Trump Tower, the United States Football League, and finally, and tragicomically, the Atlantic City casinos—a string of failures, or at best, semi-successes.

Barrett makes the links and names the names because his understanding of New York City politics and society is unrivaled. What’s more, at Trump’s lowest point, he discovers in Donald Trump a “fatalism” of character that will eventually take him to the White House. “His fatalism allowed him to hold himself blameless; his determinism convinced him he’d be a winner again,” Barrett writes. “On the public stage where he’d played out every act of his life he was too much of a showman to be embarrassed by a single disastrous performance. The cumulative effect of this life view—so deep seated it appeared to be instinctual—was the confidence that all of this would come and go.”

We sat down with Barrett in his home in Brooklyn to talk Trump, the media, and what America can expect of its new president. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There’s been a lot of talk about the media’s failings over the course of the election. Do you think that’s fair?

I don’t really feel like print journalism failed us in this campaign. I think there was some outstanding investigative work. I think there were some terrible failures on the part of print in how Hillary was covered. But I don’t think we failed as an investigative institution.

Mike McIntyre did a story in the spring about Trump SoHo that was absolutely devastating, it was the front page of the Times. And it was not just devastating about Donald, it was devastating about Donald Jr. and Ivanka. What he showed was remarkable, which is that Trump was under investigation and he wound up settling with his depositors who had bought units in Trump SoHo. The settlement agreement specifically provided that they couldn’t cooperate with the Manhattan District Attorney, which to me is obstruction of justice, an illegal document. And soon after Anderson Cooper did an interview with the family on CNN, you know, with the kids there—who are not Ted Cruz’s kids, these are grown-up adults, they’re supposed to be running a company.

Donald had virtually nothing to do with raising them. So why were they supposed to be emblematic of what a great father he was? Ivanka was eight years old when Ivana and Donald split, and she never lived with him again. She barely knew him when she was eight years old, by her own account. So Anderson Cooper has them all on. He doesn’t ask a single question about Trump SoHo of either Donald or the kids, who had been sprayed all over the front page of The New York Times with an extraordinarily well-documented story. And to me it was just one of many examples throughout the campaign of excellent print stories that could get no traction.

Do you think that was true down the stretch of the campaign as well?

The shame of the Comey letter is really not that Comey wrote it, but that it displaced all the news for the final two weeks of the campaign. That was when the Times did its second extraordinary tax story. Front page again. It was just completely pushed aside. The Wall Street Journal three days before the election revealed a $150,000 payoff that [National Enquirer chief executive David] Pecker made to silence a Playboy centerfold who claims she had an affair with Donald. I mean, if there is any story that sells on television, it is a sex story, but nobody reported on it on television.

I was at Columbia Journalism School in 1968. It was the first year that they had a broadcast journalism program at the greatest journalism school in the world. Fred Friendly, who had been Edward R. Murrow’s producer, was hired to run it. And the concept of broadcast news, which was effectively written into law, was that if you get free airwaves, granted by the United States government—a trillion dollar asset at least—your only compensation is, you give us a little news. You give us a little fair news that meets journalistic standards. It wasn’t supposed to be a profit center. It was supposed to be a payback to the public for the free franchise. And now all it is is a profit center unguided by any journalistic principles. Guided purely by ratings and advertising. Television journalism proved in the course of this campaign that it has no ethic. It’s not like everybody who is on it is a bad guy. Some people are outstanding. But the industry as a whole has no ethic, owes us nothing. All it owes us is the same as what any other sitcom owes us, which is a product we are willing to consume.

Trump has no history of public service. While he’s partnered with the government on many projects, he has never given anything back. How will that affect his presidency?

There’s no better example of that than Atlantic City. His first hotel, Trump Plaza, you literally drive off the expressway and you drive right into his parking garage and then they have a moving sidewalk and you get out of the car and get on the moving sidewalk and it carries you right into the casino and there’s no windows in the casino and so you can literally go to Atlantic City without ever seeing Atlantic City. He didn’t keep any of the promises, he never built a single housing unit. He was supposed to build housing in exchange for all the benefits, the zoning benefits and all the other permits he got, which were quite extensive on all of his properties there. So you’re absolutely right that there was never any attempt to give back.

When I was writing my book, I sat down with Joe Sharkey, who was the Democratic Party boss in Brooklyn when that really meant something. And I said to him, and he was in his 80s when I interviewed him, “When did you first see Fred Trump at the Federal Housing Administration?” He said, “I went down to Roosevelt’s inaugural and after the inaugural I went over to the FHA and Fred was already there.” These guys were consummate state capitalists. Both father and son, everything that they did benefitted them one way or another by government program. The entire tax abatement program for The Commodore [now the Grand Hyatt New York, a hotel that Trump acquired and renovated in 1980, his first major construction project in Manhattan] was invented for him. It wasn’t like we slotted him into an existing program, we created this entire tax incentive program for Donald. And for Fred. And when Hugh Carey opened his campaign headquarters to run for governor in 1974, Fred Trump put the phones in. These guys were at the ground level of the Brooklyn Democratic machine when it was probably the most powerful machine in the United States. Certainly the most powerful in the state of New York.

Wayne Barrett

They reached this pinnacle of power with Abe Beame in City Hall and Hugh Carey in Albany, both of whom came out of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, both of whom cooperated in creating this entire incentive program to launch Donald as a major figure. He actually kind of bragged about this during the campaign. He made no bones about the fact that he was somebody who knew how to manipulate politicians.

When he did that first deal for The Commodore he hired Louise Sunshine. She was on his payroll for many decades after that. She was Carey’s chief fundraiser. She was the perfect conduit to the Carey administration for him.

Then he meets Roy Cohn. Now, if you were in your late 20s or your early 30s and you were looking to hitch yourself to a wagon that would pull you forward—if you could sit down with Roy Cohn and be charmed—there was something wrong with you. I had lunch many times with Roy Cohn.

What was it like having lunch with Roy Cohn?

Roy Cohn ate with his fingers. I kid you not. He brought a little glass inside of his coat pocket. He would pop little white pills when he thought you weren’t looking. He was the most satanic figure I ever met in my life. He was almost reptilian. I think he’s going to handle the swearing-in at the inauguration. They’re not going to bring a judge, they’re going to have Roy. And then Roy’s going to go back to the White House and fuck a 12-year-old. In the Oval Office.

I think Roy was the second-most important figure in Donald’s life, next to Fred. The point is that if you could meet the guy and say to yourself, “I want to be with this guy … ” Roy was already representing the heads of all five crime families in the city of New York. And the FBI affidavit said that the five crime families would meet in his law office because the feds couldn’t eavesdrop. It was lawyer-client. That’s where the bosses got together, in his office. The feds couldn’t do anything. That was an attraction to Donald.

So these were signs from the get-go, Donald was looking for the dark side. He was angling for the dark side.

Why was he so attracted to the dark side?

He understood that the dark side was the way of power. And he proved to be correct.

In your book, you quote an anonymous Trump intimate as saying, “He is the most present human being I ever met. He lives entirely in the moment. He doesn’t define himself through relationships or through some spiritual interests or concerns. He defines himself and redefines himself from day to day by what happens in his life.” Do you think that could actually make him a good president? 

I think it’s remarkably good description of Bill Clinton. I think it’s remarkable how similar in some respects Bill Clinton is to Donald.

These qualities, of course, also helped lead to Trump’s financial troubles in the 1990s.

Donald in ‘88 and ‘89 was doing incomprehensible deals that were unsustainable on their face, thinking he could not lose. Almost every one of those deals blew up in his face. It was like one lemon after another in a manic, manic state. I thought he was on the same kind of manic run the last two years. I thought he had damaged his brand and that it was all going to explode. I thought he was like on a 1988-89 re-run. And then it turns out that he wins.

In the 1990s, he was anything but manic. He was extremely subdued.He was less visible than any other time since he emerged in the 70s, because he was constantly negotiating his own survival.

The banks were really deplorable in how they handled this. He was not only too big to fail, he was too big to jail. They could have put him in jail at any point in time. It wasn’t a question of a dollar wrong here, a dollar wrong there, they were totally fraudulent financials. If you look at the financials for Trump Palace—the staff was instructed to create completely false financials to get the bank loan for Trump Palace, the evidence was right there in paper. And the banks wouldn’t complain and nobody investigated and so he was hiding in the ‘90s. He was just glad to be alive. And biding his time.

In your bookyou write about Trump’s talent for side-stepping bodies and extricating himself from damaging situations. What do you think that will portend for his relationships in government, whether they be in his cabinet or in Congress—people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? 

I don’t think they’re going to get fleeced. Ryan’s going to get his dream. He can go into every poor person’s kitchen and take out whatever’s in the refrigerator. He’s been waiting for years to do this. Now he’s going to have two houses of Congress and a president who will just ... “OK, you wanna do the budget? OK, that’s fine with me, you just do the budget, Paul. When it comes to poor people, you’re in charge.”

A guy like Steve Bannon …  I don’t know much about the guy, so I could be completely misunderstanding him, but I think that’s a guy Trump uses up quickly. That’ll be a body he steps over. Kellyanne Conway, that’s a body he could easily discard. I think the people he will chew up and step over are much more needy. You can’t be like that with a guy with an institutional base like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.

I think Donald has an understanding with these guys. He had this preposterous tax cut in his campaign. Not even Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell would do the Trump tax cut, but he’s gonna be perfectly satisfied to just let them draw up the tax cut that they’re gonna get. It’s gonna be the biggest tax cut in history, probably. And he’s perfectly willing to call it his own if he thinks it works. If it starts getting a lot of blowback, he’ll say, “Well, these guys did it. I’m still the man of the people. We made billionaires bigger billionaires, that wasn’t me.” But I do think largely the budget decisions are going to be driven by Congress.

Could Trump fly out of control as president?

Trump voters think Obamacare just benefits black people. We’re going to discover how many white people, and how many Trump voters, benefit from Obamacare. The guys in Congress don’t give a shit. They’ve made up their minds. They’re determined to get rid of it and there’s no way you can get rid of it the way Donald described on 60 Minutes. There’s no way you can do that and preserve what he regards as the best parts of it. Preexisting conditions—you can’t keep the provision that says you’re entitled to insurance with preexisting conditions because the insurance companies are not going to accept that. So you’re not going to be able to preserve pre-existing conditions without preserving the mandate itself. And you can’t preserve the mandate without preserving the subsidies. One thing leads to another. Congress understands that and they don’t care. So they are not going to preserve pre-existing conditions. You can’t do that when they work with all these lobbyists from the insurance companies.

I don’t think 60 Minutes did a single serious story about Donald Trump during the campaign. We used to think of them as the epitome of investigative broadcast journalism. They go totally in the tank, and they get the post-election interview. CBS’s coverage generally was the worst of network broadcast journalism.

There’s no check on his power except reality. That’s what I’m saying about Obamacare. He would like to figure out a way to do what he said on 60 Minutes. He doesn’t want 32 million people off of health benefits. He’s a realistic enough politician. And so Donald is restrained. Yes, he’s putting [Michael] Flynn and this crazy woman [K.T.] McFarlane in his cabinet—I mean complete warmongers. If Rudy Giuliani gets in, these are all people who you would think would put us on a pathway to war. But I don’t think Donald has any interest in war. He doesn’t own a munitions factory. It’s too late for Donald Jr. to start one.

I’m saying, not that Trump is a rational actor, but that reality will rationalize him. If he starts a war with Iran it can bring down his presidency. Let’s give him credit for one thing. He understood his own voters. He ran against endless international adventures at such great cost.

He also said that he’d “bomb the shit out of ISIS” though, which is not exactly an isolationist position.

I don’t think his base will in any way embrace starting another war in the Middle East. Maybe he’s not gonna go Rudy. That would be a very, very dangerous combination, if Rudy is in there too. Very dangerous. I don’t know who the counterpoint is. You get a Romney in there you get a counterpoint. Put a Petraeus or a [Sen. Bob] Corker in there you might get a counterpoint. These guys are not regime change guys. But Rudy is a true believer in regime change.

But I think the restraint is reality. He does have his finger on the pulse of what these voters want. And voters do not want a new adventure.

Trump is a massive failure. Everything he does, it doesn’t work. And yet here we are, he’s the president. How do you account for his success?

The glamor is intoxicating. He understood that carrying this big dick, having a blonde on his arm, getting into the casino businesses where everything seemed to convey a fast life, when it’s really a dead end for so many people ... Trump Tower is really the only great project that he actually built. As a builder, not as a developer, but as a builder. It’s the best corner in the world. It’s a triumph of a project. That can make your name. The triumphs are what last in this culture.

He seemed to have it all, and that stays in the mindset. So he has a track record of bankruptcy and failure, but there’s also this narrative that he’s the embodiment of brashness, boldness, decisiveness, and that’s what people choose to see. You see that plane ... This plane is in every American living room. Night after night after night, with his name emblazoned on it. What better conveys great wealth, unbelievable success? And no one even notices what Hillary flies in. It’s not that we never saw her walk down the steps from a plane, but I don’t remember ever seeing the plane.

Is greed what motivates Trump?

I think greed has been the driving force of his life, but now he can be a passive investor. So much money is going to come to him over the course of the next four years that he can be as greedy as he wants to be, and not actually have to do much to enhance his financial interests. I think he will step over the line here and there. He already seems willing to do that. But it’s going to be easy money. The easiest money he has ever earned.