November 9, 2016
David Cay Johnston speaks out about having, quite literally, written the book on Donald Trump
by Ian Dreiblatt
So, uh… what just happened?
America just had probably the strangest election in its history.
At Melville House, we’ve had the privilege of contributing to the political discussion by publishing the book of record on the meanest, ugliest, smallest, and least qualified candidate in major-party US electoral history: David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump. The book spent the first four weeks after its release on the New York Times Best Sellers List, cropped up everywhere from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee to actual Hillary Clinton campaign ads, and landed Johnston interviews everywhere from the New York Times to Democracy Now! to The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and beyond. As the pall of this morning’s absolutely bewildering news was beginning to fall, we reached out to Johnston—a Pulitzer Prize-winner who’s been reporting on Trump for nearly thirty years—to ask how it feels to do the work that’s shaping headlines.
1) Your book, The Making of Donald Trump, has ended up playing a huge role in discussions of this election — you’ve been quoted in numerous articles, called in as an expert on countless shows, and even appeared in Clinton TV spot. What’s that like?
This is a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s been nice to be asked on so many broadcast and cable shows here and abroad to talk about the facts in my book. There were a few days when from the first radio or television spot to the last nineteen hours passed—and many days of eleven hours—as well as heavy travel to speak to people in states from Massachusetts to Arizona. It was also wonderful to bring in many tens of thousands of dollars of revenue to my local public broadcast station (WXXI) for the use of its studio.
On the other hand, it’s been troubling that the big three networks ignored the most troubling facts in my book, particularly about Trump’s deep lifelong engagements with organized crime, Italian and Russian, and most especially a major cocaine trafficker for whom Trump risked his casino license. Week after week, I watched people who have never met Trump, and know nothing about his unsavory conduct, invited as experts onto Sunday morning network politics shows, while I was a frequent guest on national news shows overseas from Australia to Canada to Germany to India.
Had the networks and major newspapers given half as much attention to Trump’s criminal ties as they did to Clinton’s emails, I suspect the vote would not have been the same, and far fewer people would believe that Trump is an agent of integrity.
2) What events from Trump’s campaign do you feel your book accurately foresaw?
Trump paid no attention to facts, could not answer basic questions about economics, geopolitics, or military doctrine, and on these and other issues he often just made up many of his statements. Ignorance and fabrication are key themes in The Making of Donald Trump, and this is exactly what anyone reading my book was primed to expect.
3) Were there any ways you felt events on the campaign trail confounded the expectations the book up for you?
Nope. Trump’s scattergun answers, his inability to focus, his denigration of people based on their faith, their skin color, or their heritage, and his repeated campaign shakeups — none of it surprised me, nor, I suspect, my readers. My readers understood that when Trump gave vague answers it was the mark of a con. For example, Trump claimed that “no one reads the Bible more” than he does, but when asked to cite a favorite passage he often responded “there’s so many, so many…”
4) In the book, you address so much: Trump’s family history, his checkered past as an employer, his habit of seeking revenge against those who wrong him, his litigiousness, his penchant for keeping terrible company. From the standpoint of today, with this election at long last behind us, is there anything you might have emphasized more or less strongly? Excised or included?
I wish I had included Trump’s response when asked by Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous what he saw of himself and Marla Maples in their daughter Tiffany, born out of wedlock. Trump said of his second daughter, still in diapers, “she’s got Marla’s legs. We don’t know yet whether she’s got”—cupping his hand on his chest—“this part, but time will tell.” Maples, laughing nervously at the first comment, rolled her eyes at the second. Similarly, while we did not have rights to publish a professionally staged photo of Trump with his first daughter, Ivanka, when she was fifteen, I wish I had described it: his hands on her hips as she sits on his lap, her hand caressing his face as they sit on a statue of parrots having sex. It is one of many such photos that indicate the crude nature of the man, who said that were Ivanka not his daughter he would date her.
5) Serious question: There’s some pretty dark material in The Making. Do you feel that uncovering some of this history has changed you in any way? Are you a different journalist, or a different person, for having written this book?
Writing this book did not change me, but it did increase my concerns about the future of our democracy. From reader responses I know that some people changed their view of Trump based on the thoroughly documented facts in my book — all drawn from the public record. I heard from people, some in person at public lectures, that after reading my book they concluded that Trump is unfit to hold any office.
Many people sent vile emails, calls and Tweets, more than a few with threats against me and my family, but not one of these came from a reader. The lesson there is that our democracy requires what both Aristotle and the framers of our Constitution taught: citizens must inform themselves, learn facts, and keep in mind that the purpose of politics is not to acquire and exercise power, but to build a good society. Otherwise our liberties can be gone with the election of just one demagogue.
6) It’s 2 in the morning on election night, and Trump appears exceedingly close to clinching this. What now?
We congratulate Donald Trump, if he gets 270 or more electoral college votes, on his victory, and recognize that the peaceful transfer of power, even to a president some of us did not vote for, is the overarching concern that all Americans should respect in every election. And then those of us who are journalists should do our job, which is to critically cover those in power, and the rest of us should pay close attention so that our democracy endures.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.