It’s a little late, but perhaps it’s better late than never. That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind the decision of the New York Times to devote considerable reportorial resources and space to an investigation into the source of President Donald Trump’s wealth.
Though the report’s conclusions are delivered with the breathtaking gravity that suits a journalistic coup of immense proportions, the story landed in the public square this week like a lead balloon. Why?
The problem wasn’t the reporting. The paper’s team did a deep dive into the finances of the Trump family and discovered that the president’s oft-repeated claim that he built his business empire on his own, with only a paltry $1 million loan from his father that he was forced to pay back with interest, was simply false. He was, in fact, the beneficiary of much generosity from Fred Trump, one of the dominant real-estate moguls in New York City during the mid 20th century.
The elder Trump directed vast sums into the pockets of his children for decades and provided the financial platform as well as the political influence on which Donald Trump built his own considerable financial empire. As the paper points out in the lengthy story’s conclusion, the president’s share of his father’s investments continues to make him hundreds of millions of dollars nearly 20 years after Fred Trump’s death. Just as important, it was Fred’s money and clout that helped pull Donald out of the financial straits in which he found himself in the early 1990s when his Atlantic City casino went bust and other business ventures failed.
It was also during the 1990s that Fred began divesting himself of much of his wealth, ensuring through various schemes that as little of it went to the Internal Revenue Service as possible. The result was, as the Times put it, “a pattern of deception and obfuscation” that at bare minimum sailed close to the border of illegality.
For those who are fascinated by forensic accounting and analyses of the New York real-estate business, this is riveting stuff. For the rest of us, it’s something of a snore. The fact that the White House didn’t respond with its usual over-the-top vitriol — opting instead for a statement labeling the piece “misleading” without providing specifics, plus a Trump tweet calling the news “old” and “boring” — tells us all we need to know about the piece’s relevance.
Why the tepid response? The timing was awful, for one thing: Even the fervently anti-Trump readership of the Times is too obsessed with the latest slanders being slung at Brett Kavanaugh to expend much energy on the news that Donald Trump isn’t the self-made man he claimed to be.
But the deeper problem here is that we didn’t need a massive article with sidebars to know that Trump wasn’t telling us the truth about being a self-made man. As the Times acknowledged, several Trump biographers had already noted as much, And more to the point, no American with an ounce of common sense needed to be told that the son of a man whose wealth was estimated in the hundreds of millions wasn’t a Horatio Alger hero.
The Times’ performance here is reminiscent of conservative outlets that continued to write about Barack Obama’s friendship with terrorist-turned-academic Bill Ayers and his 20-year attendance at a church led by a radical pastor for years into his presidency. It was interesting background material but essentially meaningless once the American people chose to put him in the White House.
The self-made-man myth was, like so much of Trump’s rhetoric, self-promotional shtick rather than accurate autobiography. There aren’t enough Pinocchios in the Washington Post’s fact-checking arsenal to cover all the lies Trump has told in the three-plus years since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower to enter our political life. There is some value in calling them all out, but even the Trump acolytes who attend his rallies like they’re Grateful Dead concerts can’t possibly believe the president pulled himself up by his bootstraps.
More to the point, the very tax tactics that the Times uncovered are part of why they love him: He was able to outfox the government agency that treats other Americans as easy prey. Even if these maneuvers weren’t exactly kosher, the Times concedes, the IRS accepted them all — and at this late date, civil fines are the biggest punishment on the table if authorities decide the Trumps broke the law. Other sanctions are limited to harrumphing by those who already despised Trump.
Even if this story had been published in 2016 before the election, does anyone seriously think many Trump voters would have spurned him? No one other than his political opponents cared that he was the first presidential candidate in memory to refuse to release his tax returns. Trump voters liked the fact that he was a rich guy who games the system in ways they can’t and thumbs his nose at the governing and chattering classes while doing so.
While the Times has added to our store of knowledge about Trump’s rise, it has revealed nothing about why he became president. For that, we have to turn to the story readers care about this week — where we see Trump sticking with Brett Kavanaugh rather than discarding him, likely leading to the confirmation of a fifth conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
What Trump voters take away from all of this is that only a man who had already beaten the IRS was smart and tough enough to beat Hillary Clinton. And even if some of us wonder about the truth of that assertion, it’s an issue that no longer really matters, like Trump’s myths about being a self-made man.