BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
[SOUNDTACK OF TRUMP TAJ MAHAL AD/UP & UNDER]
Ah, the Trump Taj Mahal, Donald Trump’s glitzy Atlantic City casino, home to a glamorous gambling and resort experience and a string of money-laundering allegations, before the whole operation folded in 2016. The Taj is one of several problematic Trump family business ventures probed by the reporters at Trump, Inc., an investigative podcast from ProPublica and our own WNYC newsroom. Ilya Marritz, Andrea Bernstein and Eric Umansky spent several months attempting to dig up the suspected conflicts of interest that continue to plague the Trump White House. Hello, the whole lot of you.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Thanks Bob.
ILYA MARRITZ: Good to be here.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thanks for having us.
BOB GARFIELD: Over the past year and a half, there has been a lot reported, incrementally, about Trump real estate deals, about lawsuits, bankruptcies, curious bank loans, partnerships with shady characters, foreign and domestic, and there’s been a lot written about potential conflict of interest between the president's official duties and his business empire. What was Trump, Inc. seeking to add to the conversation?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: One of the things that we noticed was that stories would come and go, a new thing would come across the newsfeed and that would be that. One of the things that we wanted to do with Trump, Inc. was create a landing place where people could follow along in a way that made sense and also that we would be very transparent about: Here are the things we can't figure out, here are the things we want you to help us with.
BOB GARFIELD: On filling the holes, you did depend quite a bit on crowdsourcing. What kind of stuff came in over the transom?
ERIC UMANSKY: Right, this is Eric. We’ve gotten well more than 100 tips, and one was that the Trump International, one of Trump’s golf courses, had been ordering presidential seals to use as golf tee markers.
BOB GARFIELD: Tee markers, those are the little signposts that are shoved into the turf at the tee areas to show what hole you’re on.
ERIC UMANSKY: Using presidential seals for commercial purposes is illegal. After we reported this, the Trump Organization, the golf course, took off the tee markers. So, thank you, listener.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, tee markers, it seems to be trivial except to do that demonstrates Trump's willingness to stake out private benefits from public office, despite promises to do no such thing. An early Trump, Inc. episode kind of jaw-droppingly exposes the lies behind that pre-inaugural press conference that purported, anyway, to document Trump’s method for stepping away from his businesses while serving as president.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: These papers are just some of the many documents that I've signed…
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Next to the podium there’s a table with stacks and stacks of manila folders filled with sheaves of white papers fastened by butterfly clips. It’s all meant to give an air that something serious and sober is happening.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, you know, I don’t know what was said that day that was true but even the props were a lie.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: [LAUGHS] Here was a case where he was saying, these are the papers that I've signed turning over control to my sons. The AP later reported that there was nothing in those folders. Since then we learned that he can draw money anytime he wants from the Trump Organization. Donald Trump, Jr. is selling condos in India right now and he is marketing, himself; 100 buyers could fly to the US to meet with the son of the US president.
BOB GARFIELD: You had this piece of tape where Don, Jr. was expressing surprise that the practice of selling access to the president’s family as a kind of perk of buying a condo in Mumbai would be regarded as unethical by anybody.
WOMAN: You’re offering a dinner date with yourself to all your new buyers -- [LAUGHING]
DONALD TRUMP, 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?
WOMAN: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
DONALD TRUMP, JR.: So but that’s the problem. Because my father happens to be in politics, there's always a catch….
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is a guy who says that the Trumps just love doing business in Mumbai.
DONALD TRJMP, JR.: For me, as an international market, I found it to be the easiest place to try to do business.
ILYA MARRITZ: This is Ilya. To do business there, very often you have to pay bribes, whether it's to government officials or party leaders or people like that. One reason that a lot of multinationals have stayed away, and that's the place where the Trump Organization has the most foreign deals, and we know that a lot of Trump’s business partners on the five different projects that he has there either have been investigated or gotten in trouble or are under heavy suspicion for doing that kind of stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: There was this one condo project the Trump Organization and their partners provided plans for that apparently did not accurately reflect what the completed condo apartments would look like. They were trying to subvert fire regulations by, if I understand it right, submitting phony plans. And when they got called on it, Don Trump, Jr, took a kind of unusual step.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: So this is the Trumps’ first attempt at a project in India, in Mumbai, and this project was not successful because to save fees they put forward plans that basically half of each floor would be fire deck and you don't have to pay taxes and fees on the fire deck side of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Fire deck is what gives first responders access to upper stories of the building, right, if -- in case there’s a fire emergency.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Exactly, and the local officials looked at this and they said, no, this doesn't make sense, we’re not approving it. So then Don. Jr. goes to meet with the equivalent of the governor of the state, which is one of the largest in India, to try to get him to overrule the local officials. And what the governor told our reporter Anjali Kamat was that he refused to do something that was blatantly illegal. He wouldn't approve the plan and that plan then died.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the things that was unclear from your piece is whether there was any kind of quid pro quo discussed.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: All we know is that local officials told us that projects, in general, never got that far without the payment of bribes.
BOB GARFIELD: In the most recent episode of Trump, Inc., you talk about Trump's conversation with the prime minister of Vietnam. How did you find out about it and what raised your eyebrows?
ERIC UMANSKY: This is Eric. Justin Elliott, a ProPublica reporter, had gotten a tip last year that there was some kind of funny business involving a casino in Vietnam and Donald Trump. We looked at it. We, frankly, couldn't do anything with it; we couldn't figure it out. So we put it aside. That's what happens with lots of investigative journalism.
And, fast forward a few months, we’re now doing Trump, Inc. and a listener contacted us and said, quite literally, I overheard something at a party that I think you should follow up on. It, indeed, did check out. There’s a guy named Phil Falcone. Phil Falcone runs, among other things, a casino in Vietnam. It is not making a lot of money.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s for tourists only, right?
ERIC UMANSKY: The Vietnamese are not allowed in there. And it turns out when citizens of a country aren’t allowed into the casino that's in that country, business doesn't typically go very well.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Go figure.
ERIC UMANSKY: Phil Falcone has been pushing to change the laws to allow Vietnamese citizens to go to the casino and, thus, he can make a lot more money. Phil Falcone happens to have a very helpful lawyer.
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JUSTIN ELLIOTT: President Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who represented Donald Trump in a range of private business and personal matters for many years.
ERIC UMANSKY: This is Justin Elliott.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: I'm a reporter at ProPublica.
ERIC UMANSKY: And Marc Kasowitz did, we understand at the behest of Phil Falcone, was to set up a call, right after the election, with the president-elect and the prime minister of Vietnam.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Protocol is key when power is about to change hands. And there’s a lot of thought that goes into who gets called back first. US allies like Great Britain tend to be on the top of the list, and the president is typically briefed by the State Department and everything sort of goes through them. But not this time.
ERIC UMANSKY: The State Department found out about this from the casino company. That's not a good day for the US government or the State Department.
ILYA MARRITZ: This is Ilya. Phil Falcone has not gotten the special license that he wanted from the Vietnamese government. Nevertheless, it's extraordinary that the US State Department, the Obama State Department was entirely cut out of this initial phone call.
BOB GARFIELD: Two-word question, ready? Nick Verbitsky?
ILYA MARRITZ: Nick Verbitsky is a super listener to the Trump, Inc. podcast who took it upon himself to go down to a county clerk's office in the northern suburbs of New York and start looking through Trump-related property tax filings.
NICK VERBITSKY: We are on the third floor of the Records Department in the County Clerk’s Office for Westchester County.
TRUMP INC. HOST: And he did a search for “Trump lawsuits” in the county records.
NICK VERBITSKY: Is this where I can sign up for an account, just to be able to print documents?
NICK VERBITSKY: Okay, great.
ILYA MARRITZ: And that led us to one of our recent episodes, the peculiar situation that many local governments now find themselves in of being sued by the president’s company in order to lower their property tax bill.
BOB GARFIELD: You have not just deputized ordinary folks in the course of this investigation, you have worked with David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, Forbes, the Investigative Fund, the Chicago Sun-Times, other outlets.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: This is an ongoing story in which organizations that might otherwise be competing against each other -- the New Yorker, the Washington Post, ProPublica, Forbes -- divide up the work and move forward with the story because the records are so massive. There are financial records from around the world, there are land records from everywhere, which are incredibly time consuming to go through.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Andrea, what you just described, in a non-journalistic context, competitors working together on something, there’s a name for it, it’s called collusion. [LAUGHS]
In an environment where the president is claiming that there is collusion among the “lying news media,” is this kind of cooperation among competing news organizations something that’s going to end up somehow biting you in the --
BOB GARFIELD: Okay.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: I think not because it's in the service of the truth. We’re not making up stuff. We are collaborating to bring out facts that are otherwise extraordinarily difficult to get into the public domain.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, fair enough. And I'm not sure this is a criticism necessarily but as you alluded to earlier, Trump, Inc., so far, anyway, has clearly identified more questions than answers. So in a second season, what do we most need to know that is thus far unanswered, and what can we expect to hear?
ERIC UMANSKY: The truth is there are still these fundamental, these basic questions about, well, who is Trump working with, who is financing the business, what money is he taking from his business?
ILYA MARRITZ: This is Ilia. I would like to understand what the Trump Organization is. We are trying to bear witness to a thing that people don't want us to see but that we know is in the interests of the American people and the generalist interests of the people the world. Bearing witness to this business, the Trump family business and the business interests attached to it, that is not simple but that is our task.
ERIC UMANSKY: And I, I want to underline one other thing, which is that why does all this stuff matter? Is it just a kind of, you know, little petty profiteering? What's so bad if they make a few extra bucks?
The real problem is faith in the decision making of the US government. Is the president of the United States, the administration, more broadly, acting in the interest of the citizens of the United States or in the interest of the businesses that the president runs?
BOB GARFIELD: I’ve asked you about the questions so for unanswered. I guess I should also ask you what do you list as the major accomplishments of the series to date?
ERIC UMANSKY: We have all been surprised by just the level of problematic deals that you see. Everything that we turn over turns out to be more troublesome, more questionable than the last thing. You are dealing with, frankly, a very broad and persistent pattern.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, a lot of smoke, guys. But when comes the fire? Is there a fire?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: We don’t know!
ILYA MARRITZ: We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: We don’t know. It’s the president of the United States. The stakes are high. We’re paying attention.
BOB GARFIELD: Colleagues and friends, which I suppose I have to declare, thank you very much.
ILYA MARRITZ: Thank you.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thanks, Bob.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much.
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BOB GARFIELD: Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein are journalists in the WNYC newsroom. Eric Umansky is an editor with ProPublica. Their work can be heard on the remarkable podcast, Trump, Inc.
That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan, Philip Yiannopoulos and Isaac Napell. We say goodbye to Isaac this week. He has been a splendid intern and we wish him all the best of luck. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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