Donald Trump rose to prominence and the presidency on the strength of his self-proclaimed mastery of “The Art of the Deal.” It was that business acumen, Trump claimed, that allowed him to turn a paltry loan from his father into a vast empire. But last week, The New York Times revealed that Trump was not the self-made billionaire he had claimed to be but rather the recipient of at least $413 million from his father, in part through tax schemes the paper described as “outright fraud.”
The painstaking investigation by Times reporters David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner is not just a skillful demolition of the origin story Trump told. It’s also a rebuke to generations of journalists who bolstered Trump’s tale. Trump provided the myth, but he needed the press to trumpet it out to the public. The result was a lie so durable that no single story, however brilliant, can unravel it.
As president, Trump has waged war on the “fake news” press. But long before he reached the Oval Office, he depended on overly trusting journalists to burnish his reputation. To their credit, the Times reporters are up front about the role their own paper played, noting early in the piece that his self-proclaimed narrative “was long amplified by often-credulous coverage from news organizations, including The Times.” In one particularly devastating example, they highlight a 1976 Times profile — “a cornerstone of decades of mythmaking about his wealth” — in which the then-30-year-old Trump simply passed off his father’s businesses as his own, claims the paper’s reporters obviously didn’t scrutinize at the time.
In the years that followed, media coverage would crystallize that image of Trump as a self-made success and deal-maker extraordinaire. Some pushed back on that story — the Times article names four journalists and biographers whose work was particularly vital: Gwenda Blair, David Cay Johnston, Timothy L. O’Brien, and the late Wayne Barrett. But on balance, reporters were taken in by Trump’s skillful manipulation, vulnerable to his understanding that they were “always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better.” The early profiles of the 1970s would generate the magazine covers, tabloid frenzy, and talk show interviews of the 1980s. By the 1990s, Trump was a pop culture icon, a symbol of wealth and power. And in 2004, NBC launched the blockbuster reality show The Apprentice, bringing Trump’s preferred persona as a respected and ever-successful mogul into the homes of millions.
“Money is at the core of the brand Mr. Trump has so successfully sold to the world,” the Times’ reporters conclude. “Yet essential to that mythmaking has been keeping the truth of his money — how much of it he actually has, where and whom it came from — hidden or obscured. Across the decades, aided and abetted by less-than-aggressive journalism, Mr. Trump has made sure his financial history would be sensationalized far more than seen.”
Now Barstow, Craig, and Buettner have provided the aggressive journalism that had been lacking. But it remains to be seen whether the facts they have mustered can convince the public that the story so many of their colleagues helped Trump tell was a lie.