ANDREA BERNSTEIN: [OVER THE SOUND OF AN AIRPLANE ANNOUNCER] Hello, Trump, Inc. listeners! It's Andrea Bernstein. I'm on a plane — I’m on a tour for my book, American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power, and during this tour, Anna Sale — who’s the host of the WNYC Studios podcast Death, Sex, [and] Money, interviewed me in front of a sold-out crowd at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
And we thought you’d be interested in this conversation, which tells a little bit about how we do what we do. Here goes:
[TRUMP INC THEME MUSIC PLAYS BRIEFLY, THEN APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]
ANNA SALE: Hi, I am Anna Sale. I host the podcast Death, Sex, and Money from WNYC Studios, and we say it's the show about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. I am Andrea's colleague at WNYC —
BERNSTEIN: Yes! [LAUGHINGLY] We’re colleagues!
SALE: — Yes. Uh, Andrea co-hosts the Trump, Inc. podcast, which, if you have not heard, it’s incredible. And she’s, of course, the author of the new New York Times-bestselling book, American Oligarchs. And that's what we're going to talk about this evening. When Andrea was getting ready to send the book out into the world, she called me and she said, “Anna, there's a lot of death, sex, and money in here!” We've got to talk about it. [CROWD LAUGHS]
BERNSTEIN: There really is!
SALE: So that’s what we're gonna do this evening. But I want to start, Andrea, to hear about your process. Um, Andrea used to be my editor in the WNYC newsroom when we were covering politics together, and as I was reading this book, I was thinking, “How has she managed to put together a story in a way that I've never thought about before, about two families that have been so thoroughly reported on and investigated, not just by the political press core, but by Robert Mueller, by U.S. attorneys, um, by the tabloid press?” And [PAUSE] I came away sort of not just understanding these families in a new way, but also understanding the American moment that we're in a really, uh, deeper way. So, Andrea, when you were thinking about this book, what was the framing that you wanted to start with? Like, what — what did you feel like was the piece that was missing, and then where did you start the reporting to do that?
BERNSTEIN: So, it is a multigenerational saga, and I wanted to write it as a multigenerational family story, which is the [BREATH] basis of, obviously, a lot of fiction narratives and, is a really compelling thing to read. So the way that this book began, I mean, it — it — it came out of the reporting that we've been doing on the Trump family business and the Kushner family business at WNYC and ProPublica. And I had just finished reporting a big story, uh, for the New Yorker that we do with ProPublica and WNYC about how Don Jr. and Ivanka Trump avoided criminal indictment.
And after I finished writing that story, which was a big feat, I remembered that I had gotten — many months earlier — an email from an editor that I had not really followed up on. So I thought, “Oh, maybe I should be in touch with that book editor.” [SALE LAUGHS] So I went and sat down with a book editor, and he had known that I had covered the Bridgegate scandal, which was when Chris Christie's, uh, aides had closed off access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. And I had done a lot of reporting on that. And he said, “You can do this story about the Trumps and the Kushners. Same people, same world.” [CROWD LAUGHS] And I thought about it, and I decided he was right.
BERNSTEIN: It was actually — it was literally the same people and the same world and it was people that I knew. So I had that as a starting point. And I began to think about the reporting that I had done, and the ways that the patterns of behavior had been passed on from grandfather or father to son, to daughter, father to son, to son. And I thought to myself, “How does that happen?” And so as I began to think about the story, I began to think, “What is it about these families that makes this, not just a family story, but also a story about our time?” And I had covered the 2016 Presidential campaign and I — so I thought it wasn't like Trump just appeared on the scene and won the election because of a lot of flukes or a lot of explanations. It was about something that happened in our democracy, and I wanted to understand all of that together: the multigenerational saga of the families, but also of the democracy. So that's where the story idea came from, and I really knew right away that's the story that I wanted to write. Um, I didn't know, for example, when I put Ukraine on page one [CROWD LAUGHS] of the introduction, that I would be speaking to you all tonight when the President's defense has just, uh, rested its case in the impeachment trial that involves Ukraine.
Um, so it's sort of like the final chapters are still being written in real time. Um, but I knew that that was the story that I wanted to do. And then I just started to read everything. And one of the things that I find so amazing, and I know you know this, but like, most people don't read everything. Most people don't read what is in front of them, and they don't really understand it.
And most journalists — I mean every … I don't blame people, because people are overwhelmed, and there's a lot to read. But one of the things I did was I read every document. I read and read through every court file that I could find involving the Trump and Kushner family. I went and pulled all the land records. I just — I have so many stacks of documents. And then I put Post-Its on them. And then I took the Post-Its that were important and I organized them and I kept staring at them until a pattern emerged. And that is really how I wrote the book, which I know sounds painless, and it definitely wasn't painless. [CROWD LAUGHS]
SALE: And you say in the Notes on Sources section of the book — which I looked at really closely, cause I'm like, “How did she do this?” — um, and you say that neither Donald Trump nor Ivanka Trump talked to you and did an interview for the book. Charles Kushner, uh, Jared Kushner's father, and Jared Kushner answered some questions of yours, but not all of your questions. So how did you get into sort of the mechanics of these families, and how they pass down lessons of how to maneuver in business and in politics without that access?
BERNSTEIN: It — so it turns out that a lot of people in New York have firsthand knowledge [CROWD LAUGHS] of these families and were willing to talk about it. So, um, I did speak to over 200 people, and there were people who identify themselves as the friends of Donald Trump or of somebody, Trump or somebody, Kushner, but they were — they said to me, “You can’t use my name because I don't want the serous, which is a Yiddish word for sort of grief.” [CROWD LAUGHS] Uh, and, uh, so they wouldn’t — I didn’t — I couldn't use people's names, so I just felt like, “Okay, I have to work extra hard.” I, every event that I'm going to write about, I have to really make sure I talk to as many people as I can get on the phone.
And I just kept calling people and calling people and calling people. And I was kind of shocked when some people said yes, they would talk to me, but people did. I had to protect a lot of people, because I think everybody understands that our president is quite vengeful. So, uh, people were nervous about talking to me and I said, “Okay, I will protect you.”
So that was the bargain, but I made sure that if it was in the book, it was going to be correct. And then I also hired a fact checker to check all the facts. So there's probably some mistakes — I’m sure that there are — but I really, really, really tried hard to get the story right by just talking to as many people as I could.
And — and when my editor said, you know these people, he really was right, in ways more deeply than I knew. It's a surprisingly small world.
SALE: And you begin the book with the 2009 wedding ceremony of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and it's a who’s-who. You're naming all of these people from New York society, New York politics, New Jersey politics, New Jersey society. And then as — as I was reading the book, I was thinking, “Wow, like, there's so many ways in which these families were doing the same things in real estate, you know, fifty years before that wedding.” Were they aware of each other before Ivanka and Jared?
BERNSTEIN: So, I — I mean, yes, because, um … And they were aware, and there are sort of places in the book where their stories kind of mesh, but they weren't really working together or sort of involved in each other's world until that wedding. And one of the reasons why I wanted to start the book with a wedding is because it's a book about the marriage of money and power, so where better to start than at a marriage? [SALE AND CROWD LAUGH] Um, but also because there's a reason why a lot of drama starts with a wedding, because it's a time when something is actually happening. A group of people comes together. It's kind of like a live event, live theater, and something transformative happens right in front of them.
And it was sort of moment of real drama. So that seemed like a good place to start the story. Plus, it was a place to show where — here was Donald Trump and Charlie Kushner to a somewhat lesser extent, gathering people around him in a display of power and inviting all these people to the wedding that could serve their business interests.
And in that way, sort of compromising people by bringing them close. And it's a big, big theme of the book, about how the Trump and the Kushner family have brought people close to them, hired them, gotten in business deals with them, gotten other kinds of relationships, and then used that to enhance their own power.
SALE: So the Kushners and the Trumps operate in the same ways in a lot of ways, but they have very different backgrounds. Ivanka Trump's grandfather — I did not know until I read your book — in 1927 is when he incorporated his company, his real estate company, also the year that he was arrested.
BERNSTEIN: Right. So he was arrested for being at a Klan rally, and we don't know what he was doing there. [CROWD EXPRESSES SHOCK] We don't know. I mean, literally, I went in and sort of looked through all the documentation and I never — I mean — I … was he a bystander? Was he being disruptive? We don't know. What we do know about Fred Trump was that he was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for, uh, not renting his apartments to blacks. And this many, many, many years later, decades later, when Donald Trump was also working at the company and they promised — I mean, there were many depositions showing that they, in fact, were — were not renting apartments to blacks, and they settled the case with the Justice Department and promised not to do it anymore.
SALE: So I just wanna, like, [CROWD LAUGHS] I want to take a moment, like, when I was reading your book, Andrea, the kind of reporter you are, you've found this 1927 New York Times citation about arrest at a Klan rally and the number that — the names of the men who were arrested, including Fred Trump, and then you make clear that it's not quite clear —
SALE: — what he was arrested for, but you say that there was some sort of citation for refusing to, uh, leave a parade or something like …
SALE: So the clarity of your journalism and the detail and the suggestion of what that could have been about, um, I just really much appreciate.
BERNSTEIN: I mean, I tried to write what I know, and one of the things that I felt was very important is when journalism and writing and documentation and academia and science are under such assault, I really wanted to really put together what I knew and what I could corroborate, and that's what I wanted this book to be. I wanted this to be a space of truth. Not of what I thought or what other people felt.
SALE: Something else you document thoroughly is for Fred Trump, he knew that real estate was not just about location, location, location, it was about political donation, donation, donation. [CROWD LAUGHS] And I wondered, do you have a sense of how he learned how to maneuver around New York City politics at that point?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. I mean, he was a really entrepreneurial guy and he, I mean, he worked really hard. His father died — his father, Friedrich Trump — died in the Spanish influenza epidemic, and he — when he was a teenager — and he had a job where he would pull carts on icy roads because the mules would slip. So he was a hardworking guy, and he was in real estate.
And what he figured out in the mid ‘30s is he wanted to get a piece of a bankruptcy. A company that was in bankruptcy court was being divided up and the judge really had wide discretion about who was going to get the pieces and he really wanted to get a piece. So he figured out at that moment who controlled the judges. And who controlled the judges in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn Democratic political machine, and he understood that he had to cultivate ties with that Brooklyn political machine because they were doling out. They control the judges, they control the contracts, so he starts to create these ties and he gets a piece of the contract, but then his huge break comes when he realizes that the Federal Housing Administrator was also a tool of the Brooklyn machine, and he starts to curry favor with this person, a guy named Tommy Grace, and he gets this outsized portion of Federal Housing Administration loans, which enables him to build these huge projects in Brooklyn and Queens.
And before World War II is over, he becomes a millionaire in 1940s dollars, and that's what launches him. The ability to see that it's government support of real estate that is going to lift it all up. And he had to get to the decision makers to make sure that when they had discretion, things are going to go his way.
And I mean that, it so defines the Trump business model through the decades, currying favor with whoever. Figuring out where is the person who is going to be able to deliver the thing you want, and then figuring out how to curry favor with that person, whether it's through a donation, whether it's through giving to their favorite charity, whether it's through charming them and taking them on his helicopter.
There are a variety of ways, but Fred Trump and then Donald Trump's sort of used, went through all of them.
SALE: And you talk about the Kushner family also figuring out how to pull those levers as well. How old was Jared Kushner when he made his first political donations?
BERNSTEIN: 11. [CROWD LAUGHS] This was one of the donations that his father had orchestrated. [CROWD CHUCKLES AGAIN] Uh, and so if you … you can go and look it up in the federal elections, it says, uh, records. It says, “Jared Kushner, student.”
SALE: And it was like $1,200?
BERNSTEIN: $2,000 —
BERNSTEIN: It was two separate contributions of $1,000, I think.
SALE: But before we leave Donald Trump's parents, I want to talk a bit about his mother because some things I didn't know from the book. She was an immigrant from Scotland. And what was her job when she came to the United States?
BERNSTEIN: She was a domestic.
So she worked for Andrew Carnegie in his mansion, a sort of Gilded Age home, and it's where she got her tastes that we're all now familiar with: columns, gold, fancy things.
I mean, it really does come from Donald Trump's mother.
SALE: And it made me wonder about that — do you have a sense of the class, like, ramifications of their marriage? They met at a dance hall, Fred Trump and Trump's mother. Like what was … ?
BERNSTEIN: You know, they were still immigrants. He was still on the way up. She was very, I mean, aspiring, and so they married.
I mean, one of the things that's interesting about Donald Trump's family is his grandfather came to the country and made his fortune at a time when, even though there was a lot of wealth inequality, you could still change your class. So there was more elasticity. So there was a lot of land. It had been appropriated from Native populations, but it was basically given to immigrants.
There were other government supports, and it meant that you could arrive in this country poor and become very rich. So there was much more mobility. It's something that's become much harder, especially since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 which has decreased social elasticity, and made it much harder for anybody — any Friedrich Trump arriving today would have a much harder time doing what Friedrich Trump did.
SALE: And you note that Friedrich Trump in part left Europe because of the inheritance? The tax rules around inheritance.
BERNSTEIN: Right? Right. I mean, there's a lot of inheritance stuff in the book. And I actually have the wills of Fred Trump and Joe and Ray Kushner and I sort of traced the patterns and you can see how they are getting money to their children and grandchildren. And it's one of the real themes that I look at is the intergenerational transfer of wealth, because it's what's enabled each successive generation to become wealthier and wealthier, more and more quickly. And it's something that both families perfected the art of and are still doing to this day.
SALE: So speaking of the next generation, when Donald Trump marries Ivana Trump, who wrote the prenup.
BERNSTEIN: Oh, Roy Cohn wrote the prenup. [CROWD LAUGHS] Roy — so, so let me say something. There's so many … The epigraph of my book is a quote from an unpublished interview of Charles Kushner that was given to me by, uh, a journalist who worked at the New York Times.
And it says, “No human being could write this script. Only God could have.” And one of the things that kept amazing me is that people who showed up early in early chapters of the book, like Roy Cohn is one. Roger Stone is another. Paul Manafort is another. I was all writing about them early on, and they're in the early chapters of the book and then they come back in Act Five.
I did not know that Donald Trump was going to say, where is my Roy Cohn? When I was writing about his relationship with Roy Cohn, who he met when the Justice Department was suing the Trump family over racial discrimination. And so Donald Trump hired Roy Cohn and Roy Cohn did all kinds of, uh, hyper aggressive and sometimes over-the-line legal work for Donald Trump.
One of them was the prenup that they wrote with Ivana, in which Ivana Trump actually got very little.
SALE: And will you tell us who officiated their wedding? I didn't know this either.
BERNSTEIN: Uh, Peale. [CROWD LAUGHS] Norman Vincent Peale officiated their wedding, so —
SALE: Author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. I mean, yeah. [CROWD LAUGHS] Weddings for Donald Trump are always power scenes. So as was that, lots of city officials came. Same for his second wife, Marla. Same for his third wife, Melania. Hillary and Bill Clinton came to that wedding during the campaign. Donald Trump talked about how people came to his wedding because he — including Hillary Clinton — because he gave money to her foundation.
SALE: I have one last question for you, Andrea, but — but I want to let you all know that Andrea is signing books.
BERNSTEIN: I guess I'm signing books! And I want to say even if you have a book, please buy another one. [CROWD LAUGHS] Because, you know, the RNC spent $94,000 to bulk-buy Don Jr.’s book so he could be on the bestseller list, and I have you all. So please buy my book, gift it to a friend. I read the audio book, if you like audio books. It’s also on Kindle and I very much would like to sign them for you. And also please read it. Yes.
SALE: And it's already been on the New York Times bestseller list, but we can all keep it there. So my last question for you, Andrea, is what do you think is, like, the family code of the Trump family? What — what are the, sort of, organizing principles?
BERNSTEIN: So I think the family code is “Family above everything,” so first of all, his actual family, but then people who are loyal to him, those people are favored. And I think we have seen that brought to the U S government. Everybody else is on the outside. Everybody else is expendable, and there is this blurring of family interests and business interests that goes on. I mean, [SIGHING] it's really hard for me to overstate how crazy this is, because I spent so many years looking at political donations and reading FEC disclosures and seeing, like, where the money went and how it got into politician's pockets, and with President Donald Trump, people just pay him directly and outright, every single day. They go to his hotel, they go to his golf clubs, they might buy a condo. They just pay him money and he is tracking who pays him money. President Zelensky, in that phone call, made sure to tell him, “I stayed in a Trump-branded hotel.” Because Donald Trump cares who’s paying him money. So, it is an extraordinary thing, that people can pay him money and then be on the inside, and then get the government in motion to do things that will enable them to make money even faster. And, unfortunately, that is the position that we’re in now.
BERNSTEIN: I do want to say one thing, though. The last word of the book is hope. [CROWD LAUGHS] And I really, really worked hard on — I’m — I — I — I promise you, I didn't make you read 425 pages and then just say, “Be hopeful.” There is a really rational and, um, I hope, well-argued reason about why I still have hope. And, um, so I want you to get to that word. [CROWD LAUGHS AGAIN]
SALE: And I will tell you, because Andrea is not just an incredible investigative reporter, but also a sort of poet, it — “hope,” it is motivated by a conversation she had with another Kushner, Tony Kushner. [BERNSTEIN HUMS JOKINGLY, THE AUDIENCE LAUGHS KNOWINGLY] — no relation — which I thought was just a wonderful little flourish. Thank you, Andrea Bernstein. [AUDIENCE CLAPS]
BERNSTEIN: Thank you for coming.
BERNSTEIN: Hey, it’s Andrea. One last thing. I’ll be speaking in Brooklyn on February 6th with Kai Wright, the host of the newly-relaunched United States of Anxiety podcast, and also the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, so you’re going to want to be there. It’s at the Garfield Temple, and it’s sponsored by the Community Bookstore. You can go to their website to find out how to get tickets. See you there, I hope!