BERNSTEIN: Previously on Trump, Inc.
MICK MULVANEY: Yeah, I think — that’s a fair question. We sat around one night and we were back in the dining room and going over it with a couple of our advance team, we had the list — and he goes, “What about Doral?” and it was like, “That’s — that’s not the craziest idea we ever heard. It makes perfect sense.” [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: This is the Acting White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney. He was speaking in October, to announce the White House had selected the Trump National Golf Course in Doral, near Miami, for the site next summer’s G7 Summit. The Doral, he said, was “far and away the best location.” The advance people had come back from their scouting and told him “Mick, you’re not going to believe this, but it’s almost like they built this facility to host this type of event.” The White House was announcing it was going to pay the President’s own business to host an international summit. At this same press conference, Mulvaney made another startling proclamation.
MULVANEY: Did he also mention to me, in passing, that — that — that — the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money. Now, there was a report — [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Mulvaney went from answering questions about Doral to Ukraine.
REPORTER: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding to Ukraine?
MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 —
REPORTER: The investigation into Democrats.
MULVANEY: — certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.
REPORTER: Withholding the funding?
BERNSTEIN: Reporters were startled that he was just saying this openly.
REPORTER: So, to be clear, what you’ve just described is a quid pro quo — it is funding that will not flow unless an investigation into the — into the Democratic server happens as well.
MULVANEY: We do — we do that all the time with foreign policy.
BERNSTEIN: Mulvaney was blunt.
MULVANEY: And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.
BERNSTEIN: Mulvaney later tried to walk that comment back, but the press conference laid bare the nature of the Trump presidency. Everything is transactional.
[RUMBLING MUSIC PLAYS, LIKE A QUIET DIDGERIDOO]
BERNSTEIN: In her deposition in front of the House Intelligence Committee in October, Dr. Fiona Hill, the former top aide to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, quite clearly said that corruption is a vector for Russian attacks.
She said: “Corruption is our Achilles heel here in the United States. And I am shocked, again, that we've had the failure of imagination to realize that the Russians could target us in the same way that they use corruption in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia. We, unfortunately, by not cleaning up our own act, have given them the doors in which they can walk through and mess around in our system.”
Hill says Russia uses its access to inject discord and make Americans willing participants in tearing down our own democratic institutions.
- FIONA HILL: President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.
BERNSTEIN: The White House ultimately backed off the idea of holding the G7 summit at Doral. It persists in saying, when it comes to Ukraine, well, “Get over it.”
[MUSIC BUILDS INTO THE TRUMP, INC. THEME]
BERNSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business of the Trump administration. I’m Andrea Bernstein.
Today on the show, we’re going to speak to a person who has a whole lot to say about business corruption and Russian influence in the U.S. He’s also become a central figure in the very story he’s been researching for years: Glenn Simpson.
Simpson first came to these issues as an investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal. Then in 2010, he co-founded Fusion GPS, a research firm. During the 2016 campaign he took on two clients with an interest in Donald Trump: first, a Republican opposed to Trump, and then, a lawyer who worked for the Democrats.
Fusion is the research firm most famous — or infamous — for hiring Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the so-called Russia dossier.
So today we’re going to speak with Simpson. He’s the author, with Peter Fritsch, of the new book: Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.
We also have a special bonus for you — an update on ProPublica journalist Heather Vogell’s story on the mismatched numbers in the Trump Organization’s reports to lending authorities, and to tax authorities. She’s found that a pattern of discrepancies extends to Trump Tower.
[MUSIC PLAYS DOWN]
BERNSTEIN: But first, in early 2018, Glenn Simpson’s testimony before Congress was publicly released. There was no audiotape. We wanted to speak to Simpson about it, but his lawyers wouldn’t let us.
That was in 2018. Since then, Glenn Simpson has been celebrated and vilified. Throughout it all, he has remained silent. But now he’s written that book, Crime in Progress, to tell his side of the story, and he’s speaking with us today.
BERNSTEIN: So, Glenn, let's get right to it. I think it's fair to say that your research on the 2016 campaign suggested very strongly that Trump was or is financially tied to Russia. Is that a fair summary?
SIMPSON: We broaden it to the former Soviet Union, but yes.
BERNSTEIN: You started in 2015, right? Researching —
SIMPSON: September 2015.
BERNSTEIN: — researching Trump.
SIMPSON: That’s right. For the Republicans.
BERNSTEIN: Oh! Same time as, I think, they started working on the Trump Tower Moscow — [LAUGHS] although none of us knew it at the time.
BERNSTEIN: So you started researching, and you developed a body of knowledge over the next nine months or so. When you got to the end of that research, what was your understanding of what the business was?
SIMPSON: It did take a long time to develop a coherent kind of theory of the case. What we ultimately concluded and still believe today is that, uh, Donald Trump figured out at some point in his, um, long and controversial business career that there was all of this money pouring out of the former Soviet Union, much of it stolen or hot or, uh, of, you know, unknown origin, um, and it needed a place to go and that he could resuscitate his own business empire by going after that money. And that, you know, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars did come out of that part of the world and into Donald Trump's businesses.
BERNSTEIN: So what were the ways that that happened?
SIMPSON: I mean, mostly, it was individuals acquiring individual properties. Um, there were other projects like the Trump SoHo where, uh, he was actually in business with people from that part of the world, um, and they were bringing even larger sums of money in, as equity for investment in the underlying property.
BERNSTEIN: So one of the things that we've found in investigating his business and, also — it's really sort of obvious — in the White House: there isn't a lot of vetting going on. And I'm wondering if you feel like … Was he just taking this because it was coming in? Or was he taking it because he understood that, uh, people from the former Soviet Union wanted those ties for their own reasons?
SIMPSON: I think willful blindness is probably the right term for this. Um, and there was ample reason to suspect that many of these people were involved in criminal activity or corruption of some sort. Um, it went on — it went on for much too long for it to simply be a sort of lapse in a due diligence.
BERNSTEIN: We're gonna skip [LAUGHS] the Steele memo for one second and just talk about what we've learned about the business relationships in the last three years — what have we learned that is either sort of confirmed or refuted or somehow changed your understanding of Trump and the business dealings with the former Soviet Union?
SIMPSON: I mean, most simply, that he is in business with a lot of people who are in organized crime and, um, that he — in some cases — clearly knew that. And I'd say that's the — the broadest observation you can make about it.
BERNSTEIN: You're talking about something we've learned in the last three years.
SIMPSON: Actually, some of it dates back before that. I mean, the start of our inquiry, which was really just into his business and whether, you know, he was a good businessman — whether he was as rich as he said he was. The — one of the first things we came across was a Felix Sater and his partner, um — and, you know, frankly, it was no great investigative coup. I just was reading old New York Times clips, and there was an article about this guy with this criminal past who appeared to be, um, you know, close to Donald Trump. And, uh, that set me off looking into court records to see what else I could find out about this guy. And eventually it became clear that this guy was, indeed, really close to Trump.
I mean, his — his family is Jewish, but they're from Russia. He immigrated to the United States as a child. His father had a criminal history, um, seemed to be involved in some sort of organized crime activity. So that was the beginning — that was the first dot in what turned out to be a long dot-connecting exercise.
BERNSTEIN: So let's just back up one second. For people who don't know or really understand what Fusion GPS is, what is it?
SIMPSON: I left the Wall Street Journal in 2009. I had a really great job as a free range investigative reporter, and I tended to cover financial crime, international organized crime. But the business was changing, the newspaper was changing. It had been acquired by a news corporation, and, um, I decided it was time to try something else. And I thought about what I really loved about journalism. And the thing that stayed with me over the years and never got old was the reporting aspect of digging into stuff and trying to figure out what was going on. So I decided to try to set up a business where I could continue to do that.
We set up Fusion in 2010, um, and began marketing our services as, you know, acquirers of reliable information for people who need information to make decisions, figure out, uh, why they're not winning in a contract competition; uh, to help them manage a complex piece of litigation. And as it turned out — and, you know, it's a useful service that is in demand and, uh, is economical for a lot of clients.
Given the other alternatives, like using a paralegal or someone else to collect documents — I mean, you know, we collect documents as essentially what we do, for the most part.
BERNSTEIN: How do you sort of square the idea of doing research-for-hire with the journalistic practice that you're carrying out?
SIMPSON: Uh, well obviously, uh, and you know, a newspaper is, uh, has a special status in our society as a sort of independent entity and, uh, struggles to be fair and impartial.
And obviously, if you're working for a private company, the relationship is different. However, the — the service that we sell is neutral in the sense that what we promise people is that we will acquire the information they need to make a decision. We don’t sell outcomes. We gather information. And - and part of the pitch when, you know, we talk to a new client is, “Please don't tell us what you think is happening, or what you want to try to prove, or any of that. Let us just Hoover up all the information and we'll tell you what we think is happening.”
BERNSTEIN: So you're saying in your book — and you've talked about — how most of your clients are sort of litigation kind of clients. How did you end up with a Trump assignment?
SIMPSON: Um, well, I spent most of my adult life in Washington, um, much of it covering politics, political corruption, campaigns, and elections. Um, so I know a lot of people in that world on both sides. So, um, in 2012 when, uh, the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, some people on the other side asked us to look into his business career, how, you know — how much taxes he paid, you know, whether he shipped jobs overseas, that sort of thing.
Um, and we were able to produce a lot of interesting, reliable material, um, that was in the public domain, but not easy to find. In 2015, along comes another tycoon who wants to be the Republican nominee for president. And we thought, “Well,” you know, “We did this four years ago. It was a lot of fun. Uh, let's see if someone wants us to do it again.” In this case, we thought of doing it in the Republican primaries instead of in the general election, so the natural client would be someone on the Republican side who wanted to stop Donald Trump.
BERNSTEIN: And that was your client?
SIMPSON: That was, yeah. We — we reached out to a Republican friend of mine and, um, I said, “Hey, would you guys be interested in procuring some, uh, research on Donald Trump's business career?” Um, you know, his lawsuits, how he treats his employees, his multiple bankruptcies, that sort of thing.
BERNSTEIN: At that time, did you, like, have an idea where the research would take you?
SIMPSON: Absolutely none. Um, it was — I mean, the way we structure our agreements with most clients is that it's a 30-day agreement.
You do not have to sign a long-term contract, and basically you get to taste the cooking, and if you like it, you can keep going. So it was originally just a 30-day assignment to write up, you know, what we could find on his business career and an overall assessment. It was an amazing sort of first month.
Um, I had never, ever seen so many lawsuits involving one person, and — you know, in my life. There was just so much litigation. It was really unbelievable. Um, but in general, the litigation was over his lousy business practices. I mean, he's just a dishonest person. He doesn't pay his vendors.
He, um, yeah, he — he goes bankrupt repeatedly. Um, he, you know, misstates the financial condition of his properties. And in the beginning it was just a picture of a guy who was not a reliable person and not a good businessman.
BERNSTEIN: Now you had done, as a journalist, a number of stories on Paul Manafort, long before he went to work for Trump.
SIMPSON: So when — when Peter and I worked together in the Brussels Bureau of the Wall Street Journal from about 2005 to 2008 and what was fresh and new in Europe at the time was, um, Russian organized crime and kleptocracy and the transition of, um, the former Soviet Union to, uh, market economies.
A lot of criminal groups were sort of seeping eastward, um, or, moving up in their own countries and, um, getting in legal trouble, having problems with Western law enforcement, needing influence in the West. Eh, and one of the first people to recognize that this was a booming market for his talents was Paul Manafort.
And so he began doing political consulting in the Ukraine, working for Russian oligarchs. And part of that work was, in fact, exercising influence on their behalf in Washington.
BERNSTEIN: And then it's the spring of 2016 — March of 2016 — and you've been investigating Trump's business for some time now, and you're beginning to understand these connections between people from the former Soviet Union, and then Paul Manafort shows up first as his convention-wrangler, and then, eventually, as his campaign manager. What were you thinking then?
SIMPSON: “Holy shit, what is going on here?!”
[MEANDERING MUSIC BEGINS TO PLAY LILTINGLY]
BERNSTEIN: In the book, you talk about a special query that you can put into the federal legal case database and you can get it to tell you when foreign courts are asking for evidence from US courts. What did you find?
SIMPSON: So we found a request from the Cayman Islands on behalf of a shell company, um, for evidence against Paul Manafort and his, um, partners, um, Davis — uh, Rick Davis — and, um, Rick Gates. And it laid out in about 20 pages, um, what appeared to be an incredible sort of litany of criminal acts and thievery.
Um, and, uh, they had — Manafort had promised this mysterious investor — unidentified investor — that he was gonna invest in all these businesses in Ukraine, and according to the filing, instead, they just sort of walked off with the money. We, um, couldn't tell originally who this mysterious party was, but by cross-referencing the names of the shell companies, it was in litigation with securities filings from around the world. Um, it became clear that it was Oleg Deripaska, who is, like, Putin's favorite oligarch.
BERNSTEIN: So Putin's favorite oligarch is suing the incoming Trump campaign manager.
SIMPSON: Exactly. So here we are, with all of these files that we've accumulated over, you know, almost a decade about, you know, what a crook this guy is. Again, it wasn't like we said, “Oh, this must be the Kremlin's agent who's being inserted in the Trump campaign.” It was like, “Wow, yet another crook, um, has come to the aid of Donald Trump.“
BERNSTEIN: He — he wasn’t a convicted crook at that time, although now he is.
SIMPSON: Correct. So I can use the term “crook” freely. [A BEAT] So he walks on the stage, and again, there's this accumulation of episodes and characters, um, and — and you begin to recognize patterns. And so the pattern in this case was a lot of dodgy folks with connections to the former Soviet Union, accumulating around Donald Trump.
BERNSTEIN: So is this when you decided to hire Christopher Steele.
SIMPSON: Uh, it's close to it. I mean, this episode with the court filing thing is March. At that time, Trump is locking up the Republican nomination and we're, um, contemplating, you know, our client is gonna probably fire us. So we're trying to decide what to do and we think, you know, knowing what we now know about Trump, we decide that we should work for the other side, because we've got to stop this guy because he's not fit to be president. And there's nothing really to do with Russia at this point. It has to do with the fact that everyone he's in business with seems to be, you know, a criminal. He has a terrible business history. He's an obvious liar. Um, just not fit to be, you know, mayor — not to mention President of the United States.
So that's when we decided that we were going to explore, uh, working for the Democrats. Um, and so that transition occurs between April and May. And as we do that transition, and we realize that we're going to have funding to keep going with a lot of the lines of our original inquiries, that's when we start thinking about hiring Orbis to do some looking around in Russia. I should add parenthetically that even then, we're not totally focused on Russia, and we're certainly not putting together some sort of conspiracy theory about what Russia is up to. We hired people to look for information in numerous other countries, because Donald Trump's business career had globalized, you know, in this last phase of his career.
BERNSTEIN: But that was a big turn for you, because you had basically specialized in document-based research, and you are hiring someone to sort of gather intelligence.
SIMPSON: Right. So, you know, as Peter likes to put it, um, there's no FOIA law in Russia — or if there is, it's not any good. [BERNSTEIN LAUGHS] Um, and, uh …
BERNSTEIN: So that was the way to find out about business. That's what you thought you were going to look for?
SIMPSON: So that was the kind of thing that, um, I thought Chris could, um, uh, look into.
BERNSTEIN: And he comes back right away with this first memo and it says, “There is a well-developed plan to make connections with Donald Trump on the part of the Kremlin.”
BERNSTEIN: What are you thinking?
SIMPSON: Well, so again, in the developing picture here, other things are also happening around this same exact time. I think — before the report comes in — we find out that there's a hack at the Democratic National Committee, and that the FBI suspects the Russians did it — the Russian intelligence services.
Um, so you might put Chris's report aside as, you know, just too wild, uh, to be believed — if the DNC hadn't been just hacked by the Russian intelligence services. But in those circumstances, you know, you have to … and because Chris is such a — uh, an expert on Russia and an experienced handm we had to take it seriously.
And so we began to shift a lot of our efforts — research efforts toward figuring out what was really going on here and, ideally, exposing it.
BERNSTEIN: One of the things I think that people have reacted to since the release of the dossiers: Putin has some big thing on Trump's business, and I mean, we know a lot more. We know, for example, that they were secretly negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow and asking the Kremlin for favors during the presidential campaign. Uh, but I don't think that we understand, like, is there some incredibly bad business deal gone wrong? Or is there something else that Putin has that we should be looking for that’s still out there? What do you think?
SIMPSON: I think we definitely don't know the whole story. Um, I think that what we know, we can make a couple observations. You know, one of the big ones is what you referred to, which is Trump was negotiating a secret business deal to do a development in Russia while running for president, and he hid that fact from the American people.
That is kompromat. That's the definition of kompromat. Kompromat is not sexual blackmail. It's a shared secret. Any shared secret that is embarrassing, incriminating. So if I notice something about you, and you know I know, then I got kompromat on you. So …
BERNSTEIN: And that's a Russian term, kompromat.
BERNSTEIN: And it's used all the time in Russian politics.
SIMPSON: All the time. So Chris's primary concern was that there — the Russians had kompromat on Trump. And, you know, he's clearly right — um, they did have kompromat on Trump. We didn't know what it was, uh, or what all of it was, um, but this was one of the possibilities. It's in the original early memos.
Um, whether there's more, um, and whether it also involves money, we don't know. He's gone to great lengths to prevent people from finding out, uh, what else there might be there. I just add parenthetically that, um, you know, Chris, Peter, and I sort of saw things a little differently than Chris and Orbis with regard to the famous pee tape, uh, which was, you know — it seemed just to be unprovable.
And, you know — from my perspective — sex is probably the one thing you can't blackmail Donald Trump over, ‘cause he seems to want everyone to know that he engages in lots of sex. Um, so, you know, I think Chris’ training as an intelligence professional, um, caused him to focus more on that than — than we did.
BERNSTEIN: You have said that this — what’s now known as the dossier — this collection of memos was raw intelligence, and that people have misunderstood it. In fact, in the book, you outline some pretty colorful language that was used when it was released. You were not happy.
SIMPSON: Absolutely not. Um —
SIMPSON: Well, so you know, Peter and I worked at the Wall Street Journal most of our careers, and it was a very exacting place. Um, and you know, you would do so much reporting that would end up on the cutting room floor, um, before you publish anything. And when we deliver our work to clients, it is like a term paper. It's got footnotes, it's got supporting documentation. And things like this, you know, they — they go into the research, but they're not intended to be really read by anyone, including our clients, sometimes.
Um, it just — it was professionally, you know, horrifying. It was also reckless, we think, um, because it seemed as if very little consideration was given to the possibility that if this document was true and whether they were going to get some people killed.
BERNSTEIN: Did it?
SIMPSON: Not that we know of.
BERNSTEIN: Now that it has gotten out in the world, obviously, I mean, it's had a very big effect on the American psyche — on maybe everything that's happened in the Trump administration. How do you feel about having commissioned those documents, sort of, given the reaction?
SIMPSON: Peter and I have no real regrets. Um, uh, you know, as we've described it, it was an act of citizenship. Um, uh, much of the stuff that, um, triggered the controversy we did when we didn't even have a client. Um, we weren't being paid. So, well, you know, obviously there were things that could've gone differently. I don't think the dossier needed to be published for this to be, um, addressed. I think that the Russia scandal might've happened anyway because we, you know, made sure that it, like, Senator McCain and other people were aware of this information, you know, so parts of history may turn out differently. It has obviously been unpleasant for us, um, as a company, for our families, uh, security concerns, legal bills.
BERNSTEIN: So what does that — what has it been like for you? This constant churn on Fox News, and you've been sued by oligarchs, and you were sued at one point by Michael Cohen.
SIMPSON: Um, it's a — you know, um, I kind of sometimes manage it — I could compare it to managing a, you know, skin condition or something.
SIMPSON: It's, uh, well, I mean, you know — it's really unpleasant at first to be slandered every day and have the President tweeting about you and, you know, uh, assaulting your, you know, friends and cherished colleagues and things like that. I mean, it's obviously really rude, but, um, you’ve got to live your life and, you know, day in and day out, you know, things are okay.
BERNSTEIN: Have there been points when you've been actually afraid?
SIMPSON: So the — the, um, you know, when the question is asked, like, “Do you feel like you're in danger?” The — it’s an underlying premise — is from the Russians.
Um, Russians generally don't whack Westerners, um, who don't travel to Russia. But we feel that the domestic conspiracy theory crowd is a real threat. And the FBI and the Washington police have been very responsive. Um, we have definitely gotten threats. You know, Cesar Sayoc had my name and his computer and …
BERNSTEIN: That's the CNN — the bomber.
SIMPSON: You know, the shoe box bomber. Um, you know, but lots of other people were in there too.
[LIGHT MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Fiona Hill, in her deposition, on, like, page 394, made this comment about how Russia has used corruption in former Soviet satellite States, like Mol- Moldova and Armenia and Georgia, to infiltrate their systems and disrupt them for its own ends.
And she said it's a failure of the imagination for us not to believe that that is what Russia is doing here.
BERNSTEIN: Obviously we have become a country where there is a lot of corruption in the last three years. And I'm wondering if you feel — if you agree with her that that is a particular vector, given your history of investigating all of this.
SIMPSON: I really do. And, um, her book is terrific. Um, you know, she really knows Putin well, and among Russia watchers, this analysis is, you know, widely accepted, which is that spreading corruption is a Russian government foreign policy.
BERNSTEIN: So let's just sort of keep thinking about that, because obviously this is in the context of, I mean — just recently from the White House, the President's Acting Chief of Staff announced that the President was going to be holding the G7 summit at his own hotel. Now, they're not doing that. However, as you know, when you're doing your first corruption stories, that is the most basic: some government official gave their own business a contract. And it — to me, that is sort of a symbol of how commonplace this kind of transactional government has become.
SIMPSON: Well, I don't think there's any question that, broadly, you know, kleptocracy, um, is — is sort of spreading in the West. Um, and this was actually the theme of the coverage that we did in the 2000s, which was the question of whether kleptocracy would come westward over time. And I think there's no question that it has.
BERNSTEIN: In the — in the last three years, what do you feel that you've learned that's new or that surprised you — since the so-called dossier?
SIMPSON: I think I fault myself for not recognizing earlier. First of all, the scale of foreign money that has flowed into his companies and the American real estate industry in general. I just, you know, I covered a lot of money laundering cases at the Wall Street Journal and money laundering in real estate. I don't think I ever wrote much about it. Um, so I was really stunned and, uh … to see how bad of a problem it is. After Trump was elected, um, you know, we continued to look at his business empire and try to understand how it worked. And, um, we know some of the things that we learned or things that you have covered, such as the hyping of properties and the misleading of customers, um, and the dodgy ways that these projects get financed, um, which really kind of resembles a Ponzi scheme. And, um, I didn't know that about Trump and his empire, um, when we got into this.
BERNSTEIN: You wrote in your book, “The truth was that legal work had little resemblance to the public-interest investigative journalism that Fusion partners had practiced so much of their careers and from which they derive their own self image, as, basically, good guys doing good things. They'd left that world behind years ago.” Why did you write that?
SIMPSON: Well, I think, um, you know, it — it … I think it's important to be candid, um, and you know, to — to make clear that we're not posing as journalists. We use methods from journalism, but, you know, we're consultants. And, um, among other things, that just subjects you to a different, you know, viewpoint of other people. They view you differently as a hired gun.
So whether or not you are, um, really careful to operate ethically and appropriately — which we do, uh, which we are — you're not going to be viewed the same way as a journalist. Journalists have a white hat on, pretty much, and that's how they're viewed. And so, um, regardless of sort of how well we conduct ourselves, um, we are treated differently.
People question our motives. And they accuse us of spinning things or conjuring things for the benefit of clients. It's actually not true. We don't do that. But I get why that perception is out there amongst some people.
BERNSTEIN: We have talked a lot on this show, particularly recently about disinformation campaigns. Like, Ilya was in Ukraine talking about the whole, uh, black ledger disinformation campaign, where Rudy Giuliani and his associates are trying to somehow suggest that the evidence that resulted in the conviction of Paul Manafort in two jurisdictions was tainted. But for a sort of casually-looking public, it seems like there’s, uh — easy to get confused between that kind of thing and what you're doing, and I'm wondering sort of how you navigate that.
SIMPSON: It's a tough question to answer. Um, I think in the short run, uh, disinformation works. Over time, however, people get wise. Um, sort of like Bill Barr's rollout of the Mueller report, you know, which he told us what was in it and then made us wait a month to actually see whether that was true so that it would — his version would sink in. You know, that only works once, right? If he does that again, no one's going to fall for it.
You know, similarly, you know, this whole sort of long parade of lies about everything is wearing out and people are less and less confused over who is telling the truth. So, in our work, you know, we still believe that the truth ultimately will out and that the facts really do matter, and that, um, you know, we need to document our work. We need to do it in a neutral way, and that ultimately that will prevail in a free society. Um, I think we should all be a little concerned about how much longer we live in a free society. But, um, you know, for now, the First Amendment is still in effect.
BERNSTEIN: How does it feel to be speaking?
SIMPSON: Uh, not that great. I’m, um — I just decided not to. I mean, I was never a big fan of giving interviews after, you know, I did it a lot when I was younger. Um.
BERNSTEIN: I'm surprised to hear you say that. I mean, you wrote a book ‘cause you wanted to tell your side of the story.
SIMPSON: That we'd like to … I like to get out our side of the story and, I just, um, I guess I just don’t … I don't know. Um, the whole process is, um, uh — I'd rather be doing work at my own work.
BERNSTEIN: Glenn Simpson, thank you so much.
SIMPSON: Thanks, Andrea.
BERNSTEIN: We’ll be right back.
[A MUSICAL FLOURISH PLAYS, THEN THE MIDROLL]
BERNSTEIN: Before we go, we have an update on a story we’ve been reporting on. ProPublica’s Heather Vogell has been digging into documents Trump’s business has filed.
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HEATHER VOGELL: The initial story that I did in October was focused on a number of discrepancies between what Trump and his businesses told tax authorities — in particular, property tax authorities — in New York City and what they told a lender when they were doing a refinance, in particular, for two properties: one of those was 40 Wall Street, which is his historic skyscraper in the Financial District, and the other is the commercial space that he still owns in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle.
BERNSTEIN: The different information Trump provided about his income and expenses on these properties could have helped him lower his taxes, or get more favorable loan terms.
VOGELL: For the things that we focused on, really, these numbers should be a lot closer. And when they're not, that can be a problem. False filings are subject to civil or potentially criminal penalties according to the tax officials. And, of course, if you mislead a lender, that could get you in criminal legal trouble too.
BERNSTEIN: So Heather looked into 40 Wall Street and Columbus Circle. She kept digging.
VOGELL: And so once the dust cleared on that first story, I thought, “You know what?” I — I did a quick scan, look at Trump Tower, and, um, look at, you know, the tax and loan filings for Trump Tower, and it appeared the income was fairly similar. But I went back and I said, “Why don't — I need to look at the underwriting more closely?”
BERNSTEIN: This is the Trump Tower in New York?
VOGELL: So this is the Trump Tower in New York. And so this was one of the properties we had documents for. And I went back and decided to take a closer look at a lot of the details and a lot of the inputs that went into, um, the loan application and the loan that was made to make sure that that information really jived with what was being told to the tax authorities at the time.
BERNSTEIN: And did it?
VOGELL: It did not! And so what I'm being told by people is that it's a material difference. It’s a significant difference.
BERNSTEIN: Heather found that when it prepared documents for the New York City tax authorities, the Trump Organization said Trump Tower was 83% full. When it filed documents that same year — 2012 — with a potential lender, they said the building was 99% occupied. Trump secured a $100 million loan, walking away with $68 million in cash.
In response to Heather’s reporting, the Trump Organization sent a statement that said “the reporting requirements dictated by our lenders differ from those dictated by state and federal agencies,” and added, “comparing the various reports is comparing apples to oranges.” Heather is continuing to hold these numbers up to the light of day.
VOGELL: You know, if nobody is making sure that these numbers are right, that leaves a lot of wiggle room for someone to manipulate them.
And other people have mentioned that this is what Trump has been, um, doing his entire life in his business looking for these — these — this sort of gray area and, you know, kind of manipulating it in a way that suits him, while not raising enough of a red flag to get the hammer to come down on him.
BERNSTEIN: Heather continues to investigate these Trump buildings: Trump Tower, 40 Wall Street, Columbus Circle.
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This episode was produced by Alice Wilder. The Executive Producer is Meg Cramer. The sound designers were Jared Paul and Bill Moss. The editors this episode were Jesse Eisinger and Eric Umansky.
Stephen Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica, and Emily Botein is the Vice President of Original Programming at WNYC. The original music is by Jared Paul and Hannis Brown.
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