And Now, The End Is Near
[THE SOUND OF RADIO STATIONS MIXING SIGNALS IN A CAR]
ILYA MARRITZ: Uh, we’re now on an unpaved road.
GPS: [MAKING AN INDICATOR NOISE] Your destination is on the right.
[THE SOUNDS OF ILYA GETTING OUT OF THE CAR — THEN, WIND]
MARRITZ: On a bright, sunny, cold day in January 2021, a bunch of us who make Trump, Inc., did something we don’t get to do much anymore because of the pandemic.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Alright. Now we’re finally all five of us here! Woo hoo!
MEG CRAMER: Oh my gosh.
MARRITZ: It’s really something.
KATHERINE SULLIVAN: Wow!
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: So nice to see everybody in real life. I have to say, I miss you guys.
[THE CONVERSATION FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: We met up in person. It was right after Trump encouraged an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and shortly before he was impeached as a result. We picked a location none of us had been to before — a place we knew we could be outside.
SULLIVAN: It’s actually kind of nice. I mean, these picnic tables are nice.
BERNSTEIN: [INCREDULOUS] You think this is nice?
MARRITZ: A place with symbolic meaning: Donald J. Trump State Park.
SULLIVAN: I do wish we had a frisbee or a dog. [A PAUSE, THEN MARRITZ GROANS]
JARED PAUL: Or both! Dog that catches frisbees.
[THE CONVERSATION FADES UNDER AGAIN]
MARRITZ: It’s the only sizable chunk of public land in the United States currently named for the 45th President. The park is in a wealthy suburban area north of New York City, and, at first, there doesn’t seem to be much to see.
CRAMER: Hang on. Do you guys wanna see the tennis court?
MARRITZ & BERNSTEIN: [TOGETHER] Yeah.
CRAMER: Let’s go look!
[THEY CRUNCH THROUGH THE SNOW]
CRAMER: Wow, there’s a whole tree that has collapsed over this.
PAUL: Woah! Is that water?
BERNSTEIN: Some kinda something that has disintegrated …
CRAMER: Six-foot high weeds growing out of the pavement.
BERNSTEIN: Like, some kind of concrete structure here that is at the back.
MARRITZ: There’s just kind of a lot of detritus at the south end. It’s, like, a lotta concrete bits and bricks, and, um …
BERNSTEIN: I mean, this is one broken-down … This is a ruin. This is a literal ruin.
PAUL: I see some Cardi B-themed graffiti over there.
BERNSTEIN: [CONFUSED]… What?
CRAMER: Here we are!
MARRITZ: As a state park, this place is 15 years old. But as a point of interest, it has some history. Senior producer Katherine Sullivan learned that the Count of Rochambeau was here with his men.
SULLIVAN: So this is called French Hill because the French troops, in the Revolutionary War, camped here twice during the Revolutionary War.
MARRITZ: Sometime after that, it became an estate with a tennis court. And in the late 1990s, Donald Trump came along.
[UNDER THE AMBIENT NOISE, LIGHT BACKGROUND MUSIC PLAYS]
SULLIVAN: Okay. So, he bought this whole park in a couple different sections. He bought this section in 1998. He wanted to build a golf course. That didn’t work, because it would’ve, like, led to problems for New York City’s water supply.
MARRITZ: Unable to turn the land into a money-maker, he did the Trump-y thing, and turned it into a money-saver. He deeded 436 acres to the State of New York in exchange for a tax break that could be worth much more than he paid for the land.
Today, the park has no rangers, no maps, no trash cans.
MARRITZ: Um, there’s no net — in fact, how do you know it’s a tennis court?
CRAMER: Look. You can see the painted lines on the asphalt …
[THEIR CONVERSATION CONTINUES UNDER THE NARRATION]
MARRITZ: We’re here to do more than tick another box on our Trump bingo cards.
As Donald Trump leaves the White House against his will, the unresolved conflict of interest that’s at the heart of the Trump, Inc. open investigation will disappear. The (sitting) president will no longer be a businessman with an active business. So we’re ending this podcast.
[THE SOUND OF THE WIND FROM THE PARK IS BOTTLED UP AND SILENCED — AND THEN, AFTER A MOMENT, IT’S UNBOTTLED AND PLAYS BACK UP]
MARRITZ: But there’s one last thing we think is important to do while Trump is still in office. We want to make a record — something for the people of the future, to help them understand the Trump presidency as we tried to understand it. The highest office in the land, tethered to a business.
So we made a time capsule. And set it to be opened ten years from now: the year 2031.
Our time capsule contains eight objects. Each one tells a tale: a birth certificate, a board game, a newspaper ad, a Ziploc bag full of shredded paper, a bar tab, a pair of museum tickets, some checks, and a USB drive.
And that’s today’s show.
CRAMER: Well, I think I should go first, ‘cause I have the first object.
BERNSTEIN: Yes, great.
SULLIVAN: Go for it.
CRAMER: So, Ilya, you printed out the thing that I asked you to print out?
MARRITZ: Yeah. Uh, hold on.
[THE SOUND OF RUSTLING PAPER]
CRAMER: ‘Kay. Let’s collect everything in the envelope.
MARRITZ: Trump, Inc. reporter Meg Cramer.
CRAMER: So this is a one-page document on a decorative green background … [FADES UNDER]
CRAMER: Thing number one is a birth certificate, from 1961. Not the original — this is a printout of a scanned document. A one-page form filled out on a typewriter.
BERNSTEIN: The most important thing about that is the place, right?
CRAMER: Yeah. Place of birth: Honolulu, Hawaii. [FADES UNDER]
CRAMER: It is President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate.
CRAMER: August 4th, 1961. 7:24 PM.
CRAMER: I wanted to include this object because it comes from a pivotal moment in the years leading up to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Trump did not invent birtherism, the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States. And his interest in this conspiracy theory coincided with a roughly six-week period in the spring of 2011 when he was publicly toying with the idea of running for president.
That March, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen flew to Iowa. When Cohen got back, there was a press conference at Trump Tower
MICHAEL COHEN: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Michael Cohen. I’m an executive at the Trump Organization.
CRAMER: Reporters were ready for a political announcement, but Cohen was there to talk about business.
COHEN: … I traveled to the Republic of Georgia to explore several real estate opportunities on behalf of Mr. Trump.
[FADES UNDER AGAIN]
CRAMER: A new Trump Tower in Batumi, Georgia — the country.
By holding out the possibility that he might run for president, Trump got something he valued: attention. The president of the Republic of Georgia, who was at this press conference, ended up fielding questions about Trump’s potential candidacy.
REPORTER: And just to follow up, Mr. Saakashvili, do you think Mr. Trump should consider running for president?
PRESIDENT MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: Well, [LAUGHS] that’s totally up to him.
[FADES OUT, THEN APPLAUSE AS THE OPENING MUSIC FOR THE VIEW PLAYS]
CRAMER: A few days later, Trump appeared on The View, wearing a dark suit and a long red tie.
[ONE OF THE HOSTS CAN BE HEARD INTRODUCING TRUMP, THEN FADING UNDER]
CRAMER: The hosts ask him about his candidacy, and some comments he made in a recent interview. Here’s Joy Behar:
JOY BEHAR: You recently said about President Obama — I’m gonna quote you — “He grew up, and nobody knew him. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. The whole thing is very strange.” What are you driving at there? Are you a birther, Donald?
CRAMER: Trump doesn’t come right out and say it.
[THE PANEL CAN BE HEARD TALKING OVER ONE ANOTHER, WITH TRUMP OCCASIONALLY ADDING IN]
CRAMER: Instead, he raises his doubts, sticks up for birthers. He argues with the hosts, they talk over each other, Whoopi Goldberg points out the racism. They run out of time and cut to commercial. When they come back, Trump is still on the couch. Barbara Walters says, “We very rarely do this, and it may be setting a bad precedent, but we love him, so we’ve asked Donald Trump to stay for the second segment.”
BARBARA WALTERS: [FADING UP] Real fast — could you beat Obama?
[SILENCE, THEN A LOW, TECHNO DRONE PLAYS]
CRAMER: Suddenly he’s everywhere: The Today Show, CNN, The Laura Ingraham Show — and, of course, Fox.
GRETCHEN CARLSON: Alright, Mr. Trump. Does it have anything to do with race? [AS THE AUDIO FADES, THE WORD “RACE” ECHOES]
CRAMER: President Obama tried to take the high road and ignore Trump, but he was also trying to pass a new budget, and the Trump show was getting more attention.
So, on April 27th, the President called a press conference in the White House Briefing Room.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As many of you have been briefed, we provided additional information today about the site of my birth.
CRAMER: He’s got this expression on his face that, to me, looks like he’s trying to take this seriously, but also, “Isn’t it ridiculous?”, but also, you can kind of tell he’s pissed. He never mentions Trump by name.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers. [A LONG, LONG PAUSE] We live in a serious time right now and … [FADES OUT]
CRAMER: Obama’s staff posted a PDF of the birth certificate on the White House website. That’s where I got my copy — the one I’m including in the time capsule.
[AMBIENT NOISE FROM A PRESS CONFERENCE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, AS REPORTERS TRY TO ASK QUESTIONS]
CRAMER: The same day the White House released the document, Trump held his own press conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A recent Republican presidential primary poll had him in the lead, ahead of the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
REPORTER: Sir, the President just called you a carnival barker at a sideshow. [FADES UNDER]
CRAMER: “I am very proud of myself, because I have accomplished something nobody else has accomplished,” Trump says. “I’d wanna look at it, but I hope it’s true.”
[HEAVY, LOW MUSIC PLAYS]
CRAMER: Even though Obama released his long-form birth certificate five years before Trump became president, it is an object that represents so many parts of Trump’s story.
[THE MUSIC MOVES FASTER, BECOMES MORE PERCUSSIVE]
CRAMER: In the year 2021, we all remember the basic contours of Trump’s foray into birtherism: racism, lies, a conspiracy theory that generated an endless spiral of doubt. What I want people in the future to understand is that this pattern became predictable. It repeated itself again and again throughout Trump’s presidency — right up until the very end.
CRAMER: Alright. Let's put it in the envelope.
BERNSTEIN: Which is — which is the envelope we’re using?
MARRITZ: Here you go.
BERNSTEIN: This, like — [INDISTINCT]
CRAMER: Okay, hold it.
[THE PAPER RUSTLES]
CRAMER: Okay. I have the next object, and — [A BREATH]
MARRITZ: It's big!
CRAMER: [AGREEING] — it’s big. This is the biggest thing we have. Okay. Let me get it. [A BEAT] If you're listening in the future, I think that this might be a collector's item someday.
MARRITZ: Object number two: Trump: The Game. Parker Brothers, 2004 edition.
[AUDIO FROM THE AD PLAYS. A DEEP VOICE SAYS, “DONALD TRUMP HAS A NEW GAME. WHAT IS IT?” BEFORE CHATTER OF PEOPLE PLAYING THE GAME. THEN, “TRUMP’S PROCEEDS FROM TRUMP: THE GAME WILL BE DONATED TO CHARITY” AND MUSIC PLAYS THE AD OUT]
CRAMER: And it says on the cover: “I'm back, and you're fired! Trump: The Game.”
MARRITZ: When we chose to add Trump: The Game to the time capsule, we were inspired by the work of ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell, who has looked tirelessly at the finances behind Trump-branded hotels, condos, and resorts around the world.
HEATHER VOGELL: What is his game, essentially? You know, what's the play here?
MARRITZ: Heather thinks of Trump's financial strategies as different types of games. She laid out three of them for us.
[MUSIC BOX-ESQUE MUSIC PLAYS LIGHTLY]
VOGELL: “Fake It Till You Make It,” “House of Mirrors,” and “Pay to Play.” [PAUSE] These were three of the ones that were most [PAUSE] sort of in-your-face.
[MUSIC FOR A MOMENT, THEN OUT]
VOGELL: So the first game is “Fake It Till You Make It.”
MARRITZ: This one is all about managing public perception of Trump-branded developments just as they were hitting the market.
VOGELL: Basically, instead of following the traditional path for opening a resort, he would go out and basically sort of trumpet the project as being “almost done, really great, really full of money. I'm investing my own money” before it had reached that point, essentially, in hopes that, uh, people would see it as a safer bet, and would pour their own money into it.
And that's money that can be used right away and — and turned around and sort of used to fund construction so you would have something on the ground to suck in more buyers and pull them in, and keep the thing going.
One example — and there were many from all over the world — but one of them was —
IVANKA TRUMP: [FROM THE 2009 INTERVIEW, FADING IN] … Toronto …
VOGELL: — when Ivanka, in a 2009 interview, um, talked about the Toronto project that they did as being “virtually sold out.” Those were the words.
IVANKA TRUMP: [FROM 2009, FADING BACK UP] … virtually sold out. So, from Hawaii to Istanbul … [IVANKA TRUMP FADES OUT]
VOGELL: The reality was that only 24.8% of units had sold. Um, and this was a project that actually ended up going bankrupt.
[MUSIC PLAYS BACK UP]
VOGELL: Trump had basically sort of prepared for that eventuality by making sure in his contracts that his licensing fees, which were the primary way he was making money from the project — the bulk of them would be paid upfront, right in the beginning, before the project had enough investment in it really to guarantee that it would even be completed.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC — SLIGHTLY HAUNTING]
VOGELL: The second game that I have brought is “House of Mirrors.”
MARRITZ: The point of this game is to be able to borrow more money from the banks, and pay less money in taxes.
VOGELL: That’s kind of the way I'm thinking about this next bit of reporting we did, which was comparing how Trump Organization represented the value and earnings in their properties when they were filing documents with property tax officials, and also when they were filing documents with lenders. The pictures that they painted in both of those circumstances did not match up in all circumstances.
VOGELL: In one mirror, the building looks flush with cash. It looks robust and big and healthy, and then that's the mirror that you want to show lenders, right?
And then you want to think about putting that same building in front of a totally different mirror. And in that mirror, it looks very lean, um — not flush — and that's the, uh, mirror that you want to show the tax authorities.
[ONE LAST BEAT BEFORE]
VOGELL: The final game was, really, uh, to me, one of the more brazen forms of rule-bending — if not rule-obliterating — that we found, and this was bribery. We called this game “Pay to Play”. [A PAUSE] What we found out was that the Trump Organization paid bribes through middlemen to New York City tax assessors in order to lower their property tax bills for several Manhattan buildings back in the 1980s and 1990s. We had five former tax assessors and city employees, as well as a former Trump Organization employee, tell us that this happened.
MARRITZ: “Fake It Till You Make It.” “House of Mirrors.” “Pay to Play.”
These were Trump’s signature moves in business. And he adapted them to politics when he campaigned for president, as a dealmaker. And then he took them to the White House.
In response to Heather’s stories about these tactics, the Trump Organization denied any wrongdoing.
[THE WIND FROM THE PARK PLAYS BACK UP]
MARRITZ: Trump: The Game comes in a sturdy cardboard box, measuring about 10 by 16 inches. It’s a convenient size for us, because it’s big enough to hold all the other objects we’re putting in our time capsule — so the game box is the capsule.
MARRITZ: On to object number three.
BERNSTEIN: So this is — [LAUGHING LIGHTLY FOR A MOMENT AS SHE LOOKS AT THE OBJECT] — full-page ads from Indian newspapers.
So one of them is the Times of India, and it is an entirely black background. It says, “Trump has arrived. Have you?” And then there's a picture of Donald Trump Jr. wearing a pink tie, his arms folded — he did not have a beard in this photograph — and he’s looking directly at the camera. And it says, “Book your Trump Tower residence before 21st of February, 2018, and join Mr. Donald Trump, Jr., for a conversation and dinner on 23rd February, 2018.”
And this was sent to Anjali Kamat by a friend of hers, and she sent it along to us.
[HEAVY TECHNO MUSIC PLAYS]
ANJALI KAMAT: It was a cold February night in Brooklyn, and I was about to fall asleep when my phone buzzed. It was a WhatsApp message from a friend in New Delhi who’d sent me these photographs. These full-page ads? They woke me right up. They were the most blatant example I’d seen of using the power of the presidency to sell Trump-branded real estate. Don Jr. was traveling to India to market luxury condos, and part of his pitch was the dinner invitation to buyers.
CNBC TV18 HOST: Well, I’m here — for the conversation part, at least — because it’s too early in the morning to have dinner. [LAUGHS]
DONALD TRUMP JR.: How are you?
HOST: Donald Trump Jr, welcome to CNBCTV 18.
DON JR.: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
HOST: Are you expecting a crowded dinner table?
DON JR.: Well, I think we …
KAMAT: I spent over a year investigating the Trump Organization’s business deals in India —
DON JR.: [FADES UP] It’s great to be back in India.
KAMAT: — where there were more Trump-branded projects than any other foreign country.
Almost all of Trump’s business partners there had been investigated for money laundering, bribery, tax evasion, and other violations.
For months, I pored through records in multiple languages, trying to pry information from actors in the notoriously secret world of global real estate and finance.
And then, just as I was wrapping up, the Trump team put it all out in the open: Don Jr. was holding dinners in every Indian city with a Trump project — Kolkata, outside of Delhi, Mumbai. Anyone who saw the ad and had $40,000 to spare for deposit on a Trump-branded apartment would get to meet the son of a sitting American president.
But — and this is important — because of lax disclosure rules, we still don’t know who they are.
ET NOW HOST: [INCREDULOUS, LAUGHING] You’re offering a dinner date with yourself to all your new buyers?
DON JR.: Well, but — I — if I didn’t, I'd be the first person in the history of real estate to not go meet with their buyers, right? So — but that's the problem. [MOCKINGLY, AS IF TALKING OUT THE SIDE OF HIS MOUTH] Because my father happens to be in politics … [FADES OUT]
KAMAT: People of the future: I don’t know if this seems normal to you. If it is happening in the future, it started here, in this time, over two hundred years after American democracy began. This was the moment it became just another day in Washington when the president could directly profit from his position.
And that’s why these full-page ads, transmitted to me in living color via WhatsApp early in the Trump administration, belong in the time capsule.
[SOUNDS OF STADIUM ROCK-ESQUE SITAR MUSIC PLAY]
IVANKA TRUMP: Hello, everyone!
KAMAT: By the time Donald Trump Jr. had arrived in India, the Trump family brand had just received a big boost. A few months before he flew there, his sister Ivanka made her own trip.
IVANKA TRUMP: Thank you for all being here, and for the incredibly warm welcome. And thank you, Prime Minister Modi, for joining us here today!
KAMAT: Though Ivanka was there in her role as an unpaid White House advisor, she still was earning millions from her family business.
IVANKA TRUMP: … all you are doing to build India as a thriving economy, a beacon of democracy, and a symbol of hope to the world. [APPLAUSE]
[LIGHT, BUBBLY TECHNO MUSIC PLAYS]
KAMAT: After her visit, things moved quickly for the Trumps on the business side.
The final permissions on the Trump Towers project near New Delhi were rushed through. A retired planning official told me it took “no time.”
And two months after that is when Donald Trump Jr. landed in India, with those striking full-page ads that read, “Trump has arrived. Have you?”
[SILENCE, THEN THE WIND SOUNDS]
MARRITZ: So let's put this in, yeah?
MARRITZ: Uh, I'm just gonna [THE SOUNDS OF BANGING AND PAPER] fold this, and [A BEAT] in you go. [A GRUNT, THEN A PAUSE] Okay, other way. [CHUCKLING] In you go.
CRAMER: Okay. So, this is the next object. So it's a clear Ziploc bag and it's got torn-up pieces of paper inside and a Politico article, um, and this comes to us from Eric Umansky.
ERIC UMANSKY: Rolling.
CRAMER: Okay, so, when we talked the other day and I asked you about contributing an object to the time capsule, right away, you were like, “I know exactly what I wanna put in.”
CRAMER: Um, so what’ve you got?
UMANSKY: [LAUGHS] I have a bunch of little ripped-up tiny little pieces of paper.
CRAMER: [LAUGHS] Wait, can you hold up the little ripped-up pieces of paper? I want to see them.
UMANSKY: You want proof of ripped-up paper? You can, like, hear the crinkle.
CRAMER: [SURPRISED] Oh! Those are —
CRAMER: Those are bigger pieces than I thought they would be.
UMANSKY: Well you know, as I read the story, it came in different sizes.
[MARIMBA MUSIC PLAYS]
UMANSKY: So, the story is that papers that touch the president’s hand need to be preserved. It is the Presidential Records Act, um, and it’s the law. And so there’s a whole system for archiving and keeping those records. Except, in this instance, Trump has been tearin’ ‘em up.
CRAMER: I remember when this story came out, because we interviewed Solomon Lartey, and he was one of the people whose job it was to tape these torn-up records back together. He worked in the White House Records office.
SOLOMON LARTEY: We had the clear tape, not the cloudy tape. And we were told, like — we were told to do this. We didn't have no, “I'm not doing this.” We were told that we had to do it. That it had to be done.
CRAMER: He worked in the White House Records office, and one reason he was willing to talk to us about this because he no longer works in the White House Records office — he was terminated. Um, and he doesn’t know why.
LARTEY: Anything that was negative, it was getting torn up. [CHUCKLES] Anything negative.
[MUSIC PLAYS DOWN]
UMANSKY: So I think that what is the feeling that I think is important to convey is: This kind of mix of absurdity, breaking of the rules — potentially of the laws —, hypocrisy, because — and this is, like, one of those random things that happened during the administration. You may remember when Nancy Pelosi ripped up the State of the Union address?
CRAMER: Oh yeah.
UMANSKY: So Trump, afterward — and I — and I have this quote, said: [IN A HIGHER-PITCHED VOICE]“That’s an official document. You’re not allowed to do that. It’s illegal what she did! She broke the law.”
So this, like, one kind of random thing I just think represents — or is inflected with — so many different aspects of the Trump administration.
[SILENCE, THEN PARK WIND NOISE AND TECHNO MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: Alright, let's put it in.
[THE SOUND OF RUSTLING PAPER]
CRAMER: Okay. Just gonna tuck it in there.
MARRITZ: Torn-up paper, a newspaper ad, a board game, and a birth certificate. We have four more objects to add to our time capsule.
BERNSTEIN: There’s a couple people coming to walk their dog.
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
[MORE CONVERSATION AT THE PARK CONTINUES SOFTLY UNDER THE MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: We’re back with the final episode of Trump, Inc., which we are recording at Donald J. Trump State Park, just north of New York City. It’s a pretty forlorn place, home to the ruins of a once-palatial estate.
BERNSTEIN: Oh, wait! Actually, let's ask this guy something.
BERNSTEIN: We did meet this one guy.
CHUCK NEWMAN: [FADES UP] Good! What you guys doing?
BERNSTEIN: He was coming back from a walk: Chuck Newman.
BERNSTEIN: Hi! We’re doing a story about, you know, Trump. [LAUGHS]
NEWMAN: About him.
BERNSTEIN: Do you come here — do you come here often to this park?
NEWMAN: I do. I actually volunteered to be the trail maintainer.
SULLIVAN: Oh wow.
NEWMAN: But this is a really small park. It’s 400 acres, total.
BERNSTEIN: Newman keeps an eye on this orphaned park. He told us a little of the story of this place, from before Trump arrived. How Rochambeau was here; how it became French Hill Farm — the property of a man named William Delavan Baldwin, a public service-minded executive with the Otis Elevator company.
NEWMAN: And, um, he was the first chairman of the Westchester County Parks Commission, and it said he donated 25 acres for extension of the Bronx Parkway.
BERNSTEIN: We’re here to assemble a time capsule, a sort of message to the future, from the last days of the Trump Presidency.
BERNSTEIN: Thanks so much.
NEWMAN: You’re welcome!
BERNSTEIN: We’ve added four objects to the capsule. Here’s number five.
SULLIVAN: Okay. So, what I have here is a receipt, and, you know, it’s, like, a kind of thin slip of paper, like a long rectangle. Um, and it's a receipt from the Mar-a-Lago club.
[SUDDENLY THE SOUND CHANGES COMPLETELY, TO THE SOUND OF CLAMORING FOOTSTEPS AND CAMERAS CLICKING]
BERNSTEIN: Katherine Sullivan tells the story.
[CHINESE PRESIDENT XI JINPING IS ENTERING THE CLUB]
SULLIVAN: April 6th, 2017. Early in his term, President Trump hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping — not at the White House, but at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
Trump greets him at the door as he arrives. Lots of photos are taken.
[THE CAMERAS GIVE WAY TO INDISTINCT CONVERSATION]
SULLIVAN: The two heads of state sit on an antique-looking couch along with their wives. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, drink tea. Donald and Melania Trump appear to be drinking Coke. On the schedule to discuss are bilateral trade, and the North Korean nuclear program.
XI JINPING: Ni hao!
TRANSLATOR: Hello! How are you?
SULLIVAN: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner enter the room with their children. Their daughter, Arabella, then five years old —
[THE SOUNDS OF SOFT, CHILDLIKE SINGING IN MANDARIN CHINESE]
SULLIVAN: — sings a song in Mandarin to Xi.
IVANKA TRUMP: Nice! Thank you so much.
TRANSLATOR: If she continues teaching like this, these two kids will be Chinese kids.
SULLIVAN: Then, there’s a formal dinner in Mar-a-Lago’s gilded dining room.
[AMBIENT NOISE FROM THE DINNER PLAYS]
SULLIVAN: Everyone is sitting at a long, lavish table. Along with the two presidents and their wives, you can see Ivanka and Jared and lots of advisors and staffers.
This is the same venue where Trump was once known for hosting wild parties before he became president.
[THE AMBIENT NOISE COMES NOW FROM A 1992 PARTY]
SULLIVAN: Now, over dessert of chocolate cake, Trump orders a massive airstrike against a Syrian airbase.
[SILENCE FOR A MOMENT]
SULLIVAN: After the meal, a small group of White House staffers, including Steve Bannon and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, retire to the club’s library bar.
[TECHNO-ESQUE MUSIC PLAYS]
SULLIVAN: The library bar doesn’t actually appear to have many books in it, though it does have a portrait of Trump in tennis whites. Its title? “The Visionary”. The group tells the bartender to leave the room. They have Secret Service guard the door while they help themselves to drinks.
[MUSIC PLAYS UP FOR A MOMENT]
SULLIVAN: About a week later, Mar-a-Lago generates a bill. It’s a thin slip of paper. It says the server’s name is “Colin”. It looks like a receipt you’d get at any restaurant. It reads: “16 Patron tequila, 22 Chopin vodkas, 10 Don Julio Blanco (tequila), 6 Woodford Reserve” — that’s Kentucky bourbon — for a total of $1,005.60.
[ANOTHER MOMENT OF MUSIC]
SULLIVAN: This receipt — which is what I’m putting in the time capsule — triggers a game of bureaucratic hot potato. Mar-a-Lago sends this bill to the State Department. There’s confusion about what it is, and who should pay for it. It’s batted around to different government offices. Eventually, the White House pays it — meaning that $1,000 bar tab is paid by taxpayers. We don’t know if the White House ever asked Bannon and others to pay the bill.
Along with this receipt from the library bar, there is a long back-and-forth email exchange — a kind of argument — about other costs for this trip.
It’s a little complicated, but what’s important is that Mar-a-Lago room rates exceed the rates allowed for federal travel. Booking at the club breaks some of the rules for federal invoicing. So, in order to accommodate Trump and his entourage’s frequent stays at the resort, the government creates a whole new credit card — a parallel system to avoid regulations and to pay large amounts of money to the President’s business.
[MUSIC FADES OUT INTO A CLOUDY ETHER]
I keep thinking about how Trump never became a normal president. People kept saying he would — during the campaign, during his inauguration, during his presidency.
But Trump himself never signed on to that. Instead, the government, and the political system, changed for him.
[THE COVER OF “MY WAY” THAT PLAYED AT TRUMP’S INAUGURAL BALL PLAYS: “I LIVED A LIFE THAT’S FULL”]
SULLIVAN: The night he was sworn in as president, three singers from Nashville performed at his inaugural ball. The song Trump chose for his and Melania’s first dance was “My Way”.
[THE SONG COMES BACK UP AS THE SINGERS HARMONIZE: “I DID IT MY WAY”]
[THE MUSIC FADES INTO WHIMSICAL, MEDIEVAL FAIRY TALE-STYLE MUSIC]
MARRITZ: Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a despotic leader. He ruled like a king, although, technically, he was a president.
While the land was rich, the people were poor. Some didn’t have enough to eat, some couldn’t afford to heat their homes through the long winters.
The leader didn’t care. He let his dukes and earls — they were called oligarchs — plunder the country’s wealth, while he built himself what he thought would be the finest estate in the world. It had massage parlors, a bowling alley, a boxing ring, a stuffed lion, a 100-car garage, a zoo, a galleon on a lake. There were taste-testers, to make sure his meals weren’t poisoned.
For ordinary people, life became miserable. One year, in the middle of winter, they revolted. When the revolutionaries reached the President’s estate, they found he had fled the country — by helicopter.
As they walked the palace’s marble halls, under crystal chandeliers, they felt a mounting sense of disgust.
[MUSIC FADES OUT TO NOTHING]
MARRITZ: Where had all this wealth come from?
[THE WIND FADES UP]
BERNSTEIN: Alright, Ilya. What have you brought?
MARRITZ: I have two paper tickets — museum-type tickets — that I picked up in Ukraine.
MARRITZ: Our sixth object is a pair of tickets to the estate of the former strongman President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. It’s a place that is sometimes called the museum of corruption.
MARRITZ: And I'm the kind of dork who, when they travels, keeps a lot of, like, bus tickets and museum tickets and stuff like that, and uses them for bookmarks.
And what you see is this, like, sumptuous interior with, like, chandeliers and drapery and fluffed-up pillows. And it looks like there's a birdcage, for some reason, on the coffee table. [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: The tickets, for me, were a souvenir of my trip to Ukraine, and I pinned it up in my office cubicle. But then, looking at them every day, they started to stand for something bigger: money that can’t be traced.
[THE WIND GIVES WAY TO TECHNO MUSIC]
MARRITZ: Without secret flows of money, Viktor Yanukovych could never afford to build his palace on a public servant’s salary.
Yanukovych’s trusted advisor for many years was an American, Paul Manafort, who hid his earnings in accounts in Cyprus and the Caribbean before coming back to the States and working for Donald Trump’s campaign.
[A BREATH OF MUSIC]
MARRITZ: And without a system of financial secrecy, there is no Donald Trump. It’s with him every step of his career. When he’s starting out, he pretends to be a self-made man — when, in fact, almost all of his wealth comes from his dad. And, over the decades, he does business with so many anonymous buyers and shadowy development partners, that it’s really impossible to know who’s been paying him.
Donald Trump broke the norm that Presidents are supposed to tell Americans about their finances, show their tax returns. When he filed a financial disclosure, as required by law, it included more than 500 entities — most of them black boxes that remain mysteries today. It’s like he threw a cloak of invisibility over his business.
These tickets to a gaudy estate in eastern Europe represent what happens when money and politics mix with no transparency.
[THE WIND RETURNS]
MARRITZ: Okay, so, I’m putting these in. Thanks, Katherine.
[THEN, A TRANSITION TO A RECORDED TAPE]
COHEN: As exhibit 5A to my testimony shows … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: Our penultimate object for this time capsule was entered into the congressional record.
COHEN: [FADES UP] I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1st of 2017 — when he was President of the United States — pursuant to the coverup which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me, the word used by Mr. Trump's TV lawyer for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.
[TAPE ENDS, AND THE SOUND OF THE WIND COMES BACK]
BERNSTEIN: Okay. So what I have brought is a photocopy of two checks. And the first one says “Donald J. Trump” — it's his personal account, 725 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. You can see that familiar signature.
[TECH MUSIC OVERTAKES THE WIND, SLOWLY, SOFTLY]
BERNSTEIN: The day we first saw Exhibit 5A was February 27, 2019, when Michael Cohen — who once Donald Trump’s personal attorney and one of his most loyal aides — was testifying before the House Oversight Committee. This was more than two years into Trump’s presidency. Sitting in the WNYC newsroom, I nearly screamed. The document contained multitudes: sex, silencing, betrayal, the mix of White House and business, abuse of power, criminality — and Trump’s ability to evade consequences.
Donald Trump must have signed tens of thousands of checks as a businessman, maybe more. We’ve seen giant blown-up versions of them in press conferences, small versions in court papers and government records. Always, there in the right-hand bottom corner, Trump’s signature, scrawled out with the thick imprint of a Sharpie marker, letters all angling up, each of them a mini Tower.
Checks are narrow slips of paper, maybe a quarter the size of a full 8.5 x 11” page. They can easily be caught by the wind and whirled away. That’s what exhibit 5A looks like.
BERNSTEIN: In the year 2017, after he was sworn in as president, Donald Trump and his business wrote eleven such checks to Michael D. Cohen. One was for $70,000, ten others were for $35,000 each — $420,000 in all.
Here’s how they came to be written.
[ETHEREAL MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: In October of 2016, just before the election, presidential candidate Trump had already been battered by the release of a private tape where Trump said, about women: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” At the time, Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s fixer. As Cohen famously said, he would “take a bullet” for Mr. Trump.
COHEN: Well, going back into the story, as I stated when we … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Then a new revelation threatened Trump’s campaign. This one from Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who said she’d had an affair with Trump.
COHEN: And it got to the point where it was down to the wire. It was either we — somebody wire the funds and purchase the life rights to the story from Ms. Clifford, or it was going to end up being sold to television, and that would have embarrassed the President, and it would have interfered with the election.
BERNSTEIN: And so, as Cohen tells it, Cohen met with Trump in Trump’s office in Trump Tower with Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer, and they agreed they would pay $130,000 for Clifford’s silence. And then Cohen and Weisselberg went off to Weisselberg’s office to see if they could come up with the name of a third party who could front the money — maybe a member of one of Trump’s golf resorts. But they couldn’t think of anyone.
Weisselberg denied wrongdoing.
[HEAVY TECH MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: So Cohen took out a home equity loan, which he got by lying to the bank. He used this money to fund a limited liability company — Essential Consultants, LLC — which he set up in Delaware to hide its ownership. And the money was paid out, and Clifford remained silent, and Trump won the election. And the idea was, the Trump Organization would reimburse Cohen for the hush money, calling it a “retainer fee.”
COHEN: One month into his presidency … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Early in 2017, Trump invites Cohen to the White House — to the Oval Office.
COHEN: And it's truly awe-inspiring. He's showing me all around, and pointing to different paintings. And he says to me something to the effect of, “Don't worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedEx'd from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.”
[TECH MUSIC FADES OUT]]
BERNSTEIN: More than a year after this Oval Office meeting, in April of 2018, FBI agents in New York raided Cohen’s home, and his office, and a hotel room where Cohen was living while his apartment was being renovated. At first, Donald Trump promised to pay for Cohen’s defense in this criminal investigation. But then, Trump broke that promise, and stopped paying for Cohen’s lawyers. Cohen started cooperating with prosecutors, setting off a chain of events — guilty plea, sentencing, public “mea culpa” tour — that allowed us to see Exhibit 5A.
Donald Trump had a series of Michael Cohens in his life: people, businesses, politicians lured by the glitter and excitement of being in Trump’s orbit, willing to get into bed with him and do what he asked. When Trump was done with them, he’d toss them away and buy their silence. It almost always, always worked. For a decade, Michael Cohen was the agent — the enforcer of this pattern. But Trump miscalculated Cohen’s loyalty — his willingness to swallow a broken promise.
“I did this illegal act,” Cohen said when he pleaded guilty, quote, “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” Cohen went to prison. The Justice Department, with its policy of not indicting sitting presidents, closed its case.
[A MOMENT OF QUIET]
BERNSTEIN: What was left were the receipts that Cohen placed in the public record.
BERNSTEIN: They are the physical manifestation of the way Donald Trump used his money to maintain his power. And now I'm going to put them in the envelope because I am freezing.
[THE SOUND OF PAPER RUSTLING]
BERNSTEIN: Here we go. [A BEAT] We’ve got one more, Meg?
CRAMER: We got one more.
SULLIVAN: We’ve got one more!
JARED PAUL: So I have here a flash drive which I have an audio file of helicopter sound.
MARRITZ: Our eighth and final object comes from Jared Paul.
PAUL: For people in ten years, we have a thing called USB flash drives, which was a tiny thumb-sized stick … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: If you’ve been listening to the show, you know Jared’s work. He’s our sound designer.
PAUL: … but it has one audio file on it, which is helicopter sound.
[THE LOUD BLAST OF HELICOPTER PROPELLERS PLAY SUDDENLY, AND VOICES CAN BE HEARD SHOUTING]
PAUL: It’s a scene we all know — President Trump, on the South Lawn, surrounded by microphones on long boom poles, [SHOUTING AS THE HELICOPTER SOUND IS MADE EVEN LOUDER] shouting to be heard over his nearby helicopter! [BACK TO NORMAL VOLUME] Whether or not he realizes it, Trump’s routine of addressing the media right next to the noise of Marine One is a sound design choice.
[IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HELICOPTER SOUND, ONE REPORTER’S VOICE COMES IN CLEAR: “CAN WE DO ONE OF THEM INDOORS?”]
PAUL: In choosing to do press briefings right next to one of the loudest pieces of machinery that exists — rather than, say, in the quiet, purpose-built press briefing room right there in the White House — Trump is using sound to tell a story about his relationship with the media.
He is designing a scene that is inherently chaotic, even before he arrives — in which he’s inevitably yelling at the media, and they have to yell back if they want to have any chance of being heard.
[A CHAOTIC MUDDLE OF REPORTERS SHOUT OVER THE HELICOPTER, UNSUCCESSFULLY]
PAUL: And the reporters are typically not heard — listening to tape of these briefings, you can barely pick out a word of any of their questions. More often, you’ll hear Trump cutting off reporters to tell them to speak up, because, quote, “You have a helicopter raging back there.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah. I can’t hear a word you’re saying.
PAUL: Then, with the questions inaudible, Trump can freely extrapolate whatever question he feels like answering in that moment. His answers can be heard over the din because of the microphones in his face.
This dynamic is emblematic of the relationship with the media Trump has cultivated throughout the past four years, in which he seeks to control who asks him what, when. If it’s a question he doesn’t like, it will be drowned out. Most of all, his voice will always be the loudest.
[A MOMENT OF ISOLATED HELICOPTER NOISE]
PAUL: Up to now, in recent history, presidents have always attended the inauguration ceremonies of their successors. Then, the First Family leaves the capitol by helicopter.
[HELICOPTER NOISE, GROWING DEAFENINGLY LOUD BEFORE FLYING AWAY]
[SLOWLY, GRACEFULLY, THE HELICOPTER SOUND GIVES WAY TO THE WIND FROM THE PARK, AS IF IT WERE FLYING OVERHEAD]
MARRITZ: Okay. We have laid the envelope inside Trump: The Game. Now we’re gonna seal it shut. Or, at least, you know, shut it.
[THE SOUND OF A GAME BOX SQUEAKING CLOSED AS THE AIR ESCAPES]
BERNSTEIN: Wait, Meg! So, we’re not actually burying this.
CRAMER: We’re not actually gonna bury it, no. [LAUGHS] I mean, for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t want to litter. I think that’s very important. Also, I did a little bit of research on time capsules, and they were like, “Whatever you do, don’t bury your time capsule. It is the number one way time capsules get lost, and then people of the future will never be able to discover the things that you wanted them to.” So, instead of burying this, I think we should give it to NYPR’s archivist, Andy Lanset. And then he can look after it!
MARRITZ: We didn’t want to leave the park without leaving something, though. And Meg had something — a symbolic “we were here” — though she wouldn’t tell us what it was. We just needed to find the right place for it.
NEWMAN: Well, if you go down … See this — the rock walls here? If you head down there, maybe a hundred yards, there's a monument. [HIS PHONE RINGS] ’Scuse me. Give me one second. [ANSWERING PHONE] Chuck Newman.
MARRITZ: Chuck Newman, the trail keeper, told us about a bronze plaque on a big boulder that tells the story of this land, from the time before Trump.
NEWMAN: So it’s — it's about a hundred yards down. You'll see, like, a rock outcropping. It's not marked in any way.
[WITH THE WIND, THE SOUND OF CRUNCHING LEAVES]
CRAMER: This is a very well-maintained trail!
CRAMER: [EXCITED] I found it! C’mon!
SULLIVAN: Wait, did she find it?
[A QUICK BEAT]
CRAMER: Okay, come see what’s on the other side of this big rock!
SULLIVAN: Wow. Wow.
MARRITZ: Well, [EMPHASIZING EACH WORD] how about that! I’m surprised you could see that from the highway.
SULLIVAN: You have some good eyesight!
BERNSTEIN: I mean, I can’t believe there’s a plaque here. I mean, it’s like, who would ever find it, unless you’d know to look for it?
MARRITZ: So, Meg, what’s your surprise?
CRAMER: So, this is a half-sized bottle of water, Trump Natural Spring Water. Um, and we’ve had this bottle of water for a long time, and we’ve never opened it. And I thought that if we were going to leave something behind we should leave something environmentally friendly behind. So I think we should finally open this bottle, and I think we should dump out its contents right here.
[ANOTHER QUICK BEAT]
CRAMER: Do you mind? May I?
[CRAMER OPENS THE BOTTLE, AND ITS CONTENTS POUR OUT ONTO THE GROUND AS THE WIND AND THE HIGHWAY SOUND FADES AWAY, SEEING US OUT]
[TRUMP, INC. CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: This episode was produced by Meg Cramer and Katherine Sullivan, with additional reporting by Anjali Kamat, Heather Vogell, and Eric Umansky. Our editor is Nick Varchaver. Sound design and original scoring by Jared Paul; Hannis Brown wrote our theme and additional music. Special thanks to Latif Nasser, and WNYC Archivist Andy Lanset.
Our Executive Producer is Matt Collette. Emily Botein is WNYC’s Vice President for Original Content. Stephen Engelberg is Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS IN EARNEST]
MARRITZ: This is our last episode of Trump, Inc. and we have a lot of people to thank, including the people who made this show what it is: Charlie Herman, Bill Moss, and Alice Wilder.
MARRITZ: We also want to thank so many others who helped make this show possible, including — but not certainly limited to: Isaac Arnsdorf, Ruth Baron, Doris Burke —
BERNSTEIN: — Caleb Codding, Megan Detrie, Jesse Eisinger, Peter Elkind, Justin Elliot, Robin Fields, Andrew Golis, Ed Haber, Isaac Jones, Matt Katz, Derek Kravitz, Jeremy Kutner —
MARRITZ: — Rick Kwan, Ian MacDougall, Alec MacGillis, Emily Mann, Meg Marco —
BERNSTEIN: — Cayce Means, Celia Muller, Jen Munson, Liora Noam-Kravitz —
MARRITZ: — Jake Pearson, Joe Plourde, Jim Schachter, Wayne Shulmister —
BERNSTEIN: — Melinda Siriwardana, Dick Tofel, Marilyn Thompson, Anjali Tsui, Lucas Waldron, and Katie Zavadski!
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS, GIVING WAY TO LIGHT, DREAMLIKE ELECTRIC MUSIC]
MARRITZ: Thanks also to the legal teams at both WNYC and ProPublica. And additional thanks to ProPublica’s research desk and its production, engagement, and facilities teams.
BERNSTEIN: We also want to share deep appreciation for our New York Public Radio colleagues, including the journalists in the WNYC Newsroom and at On the Media, plus the teams in the Greene Space and in the marketing, engineering, IT, and facilities departments.
MARRITZ: And all of the people who helped up gather tips, documents, and information, including the many named and unnamed sources who trusted us.
And most of all we want to thank you, our listeners.
BERNSTEIN: We were reporting on Donald Trump before this project, and we’ll surely be reporting on him after, so be sure to follow our work by listening to WNYC and staying subscribed to this feed — we don’t know exactly what’s next, but it’s a safe bet it’ll land here.
[MUSIC CHANGES TONE, AS IF GOING THROUGH A TIME MACHINE]
BERNSTEIN: I’m Andrea Bernstein.
MARRITZ: I’m Ilya Marritz.
BERNSTEIN: Thanks for listening.
[THE TIME MACHINE NOISE BECOMES A HELICOPTER AND FLIES AWAY]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.