The Truth About Trump

The Truth About Trump

by Michael D'Antonio


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For all those who wonder, "Just who is Donald Trump?",
The Truth About Trump supplies the answer.

Drawing upon exclusive interviews and exhaustive research, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael D'Antonio presents Trump's full story, from his beginnings as a businessman to his juggernaut presidential campaign. Along the way, D'Antonio charts the successes and failures, scandals and triumphs, and relentless pursuit of money and fame that have made Trump who he is today. D'Antonio also details the origins of the Trump family fortune, Trump's history of using politics to get ahead, and how he has mastered the media to turn publicity into power.

First published in 2015, and now updated to cover Trump's rise to political prominence, The Truth About Trump is an unsparing, eye-opening account of the life and career of the most talked-about man in America.

“A carefully reported and fair-minded account.”—USA Today

“A brisk and entertaining read, drawing on interviews and documents and distilling decades' worth of news coverage to tell the story of Trump's childhood, family, business deals, and political forays.” —The Washington Post

"Balanced, well sourced, and perfectly timed."—Financial Times (UK)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250105288
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 88,919
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

As part of a team of journalists from Newsday, Michael D’Antonio won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting before going on to write many acclaimed books, including Mortal Sins. He has also written for publications such as Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times Magazine.

Read an Excerpt

The Truth About Trump

By Michael D'Antonio

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Michael D'Antonio
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11696-3



He was a very difficult guy, but he was a great teacher for me.


Although he had been summoned by a US Senate committee to answer for $4 million in windfall profits he took from a government housing program for war veterans, things could have been worse for Frederick Trump. He could have been Roy Cohn.

For much of the previous month, Capitol Hill and the nation had been transfixed by the Army-McCarthy hearings, where military men battled with Joseph McCarthy, the notorious Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, over the conduct of his belligerent chief aide, Cohn. (Things had gone so badly for Roy Cohn that his political career would be ruined. The hearings were just as bad for the senator. One witness became a sensation as he famously asked of the senator, "Have you no decency, sir?" Young Cohn would leave Washington in disgrace. Shunned by colleagues, McCarthy would soon die, at age forty-eight, of alcohol-related liver disease.)

The drama of the McCarthy hearings was still fresh on July 12, 1954, when Fred Trump sat at a witness table to answer questions about graft and profiteering in a Federal Housing Administration building program. In another time, corruption in an agency that subsidized builders who constructed apartments for World War II veterans might have riveted the nation's attention. But in McCarthy's wake, the American people could be forgiven if they took their eyes off the Capitol for a moment.

Trump had been called to answer questions raised by the first witness to testify before the committee. In his testimony, federal investigator William McKenna said Trump ranked near the top among builders who shared in excessively high payments approved by the FHA officials who were almost certainly on the take. Many of these bureaucrats had accepted expensive gifts — TVs, watches, appliances — from developers. Others lived so far above their means that it seemed obvious they had been bribed with substantial sums. The builders, in turn, got favors worth millions of dollars. According to McKenna, Trump had benefited, in particular, from the rule-bending practiced by a powerful Washington figure named Clyde L. Powell. Powell had allowed Trump to finish construction at Beach Haven six months before he had to start repaying his federally subsidized loan. In that time Trump pocketed $1.7 million in rent payments.

McKenna's testimony about Trump and others had appalled committee chairman Homer Capehart — the senator from Indiana used the word "nauseous" — who said that builders had taken advantage of both the federal government and countless vets. Capehart was taking cues from President Dwight Eisenhower, who had flushed red with anger when McKenna told him about the FHA troubles. The first nonpolitician to be elected president since U. S. Grant, Eisenhower had campaigned on a promise to root out corruption. The president had nothing against developers in particular. He had recently met with another big New York builder, William Zeckendorf, to urge him to take on the project that would become L'Enfant Plaza in southeast Washington. But Ike truly loved the fighting men he'd led to victory in World War II. When he had unleashed federal investigators with an executive order — calling the FHA developers "sons of bitches" — Senator Capehart, a more ordinary politician, had spied an opportunity.

Like Eisenhower, Capehart was a Republican. The FHA had been created by the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the events under investigation had all occurred while another Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, was in charge. If Capehart could make enough noise about the FHA, he might hurt the Democrats in the coming congressional election. So he said that the builders and the FHA were mired in "a grand scandal" far worse than the infamous Teapot Dome corruption case of the twenties, in which bribes were accepted by officials to grant rich oil leases on federal land. Teapot Dome, which involved oil reserves worth hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars, happened under a Republican, Warren G. Harding.

Capehart, who came to the Senate after a career selling jukeboxes and popcorn machines, was renowned as a self-promoter. He decided that the hearings would become a traveling show that would open in Washington and then cross the country so that more Americans could watch him grill colluding bureaucrats and builders. With a little luck, TV cameras might appear to broadcast the show live. As any astute politician understood, television would make the investigation and the scandal far more important to the general public. Committee lawyers, senators, and witnesses would be seen as dramatic characters, and the scandal would be understood as a narrative of good and evil. In the end, the acronym FHA might even enter the political lexicon and become as powerful as the words Teapot Dome, which everyone knew represented corruption.

In the days of testimony that preceded Fred Trump's appearance, most of the witnesses had played their expected roles. After first explaining that he would not answer any questions because he refused to incriminate himself, Clyde L. Powell deflected his interrogators by repeating, "My answer is the same, sir" or "My answer is heretofore as given." Others tried, but failed, to explain the shocking returns made by the builders. In one case, every $5 put up by a developer quickly became $1,737. In another instance, $10,000 grew to $3.1 million. One builder pounded the witness table as he insisted upon his innocence. Another suffered a heart attack in the hours after his testimony.

No one performed more brilliantly than the witness who consumed most of the afternoon hearing on July 12. Dapper in a fine suit and carefully trimmed mustache, Fred Trump sat at the witness table flanked by attorneys. Like every other witness, Trump was seated at floor level and was thus required to look up to the dais where the chairman sat, like a judge in a courtroom or a king on his throne. But Trump didn't behave like a supplicant or an accused man. Instead, he spoke confidently of the convoluted, but legal, means he used to get the most for himself out of a program that seemed almost designed to benefit a builder who could read regulations as well as he could read a blueprint.

At times Trump's testimony proceeded with a "Who's on first?" quality worthy of Abbott and Costello. Asked when he had purchased some land, Trump answered, "Five or eight or ten years" prior. Questioned about a project estimate that included an extra 5 percent "architect's fee," which mostly went into his own pocket, Trump insisted it was included to satisfy the FHA. When a skeptical Senator Capehart pressed him, Trump added, "And it is provided by the regulation."

"What is provided by the regulation?" said Capehart.

"The five percent architect's fee."

"Have you ever seen a regulation that says that?"

"No, I'm a builder."

"Then how do you know these regulations provide for a five percent architect's fee?"

"They wouldn't have allowed it if they didn't."

So it went for much of the afternoon with Trump warning at times, "That is a very iffy question," and then launching into descriptions of the complex methods he used to squeeze maximum profit out of the taxpayers. He explained, for example, that the land under his Beach Haven development was held by a trust devoted to his children. The buildings, however, were owned by half a dozen corporations. Every year these six entities paid rent to the trust — really his children — for the use of the land. Under the terms of the lease the Trump kids might receive $60,000 or more in pure profits every year for ninety-eight more years. Then the lease could be renewed for another ninety-nine years.

With similar candor Trump explained how he had paid himself the general contractor's fee that had been included in the estimate he submitted to the FHA, and how he fattened his own wallet by having one of his corporations do business with another of his. To the senators this was the equivalent of a man mowing his own lawn and then insisting he should be paid for the chore. Trump insisted that he was more like the tailor who pays a low-wage assistant to sew a custom suit, then charges his customer full price. If the quality is the same, thanks to the tailor's supervision, why shouldn't he get the money?

In Trump's tailoring at Beach Haven he submitted a plan to the government that called for extra high construction costs, which allowed him to borrow more money and get the government's approval to charge higher rents. The final tally on the project showed that Beach Haven had been built for $4 million less than the estimate. (Worth $35 million in 2015.) The extra high rents set when the project was approved remained in place, even after the excess profits were revealed, because the FHA permitted it. Similarly, the cash left over from the FHA building loan stayed in a Trump bank account. As far as he was concerned, this money was fairly earned and, technically speaking, not personal income. As he explained, as long as he didn't put the cash in his pocket, the $4 million could be regarded as a rainy-day fund for Beach Haven.

With the occasional aid of his lawyers, Trump testified for more than two hours straight. Much of what he said would disturb anyone who believed that the taxpayer dollars invested through the FHA program were supposed to serve the noble public purpose of aiding veterans as much as possible. But Trump and other builders would say that their windfall profits compensated them for the excellent work they did creating tens of thousands of homes at a breakneck pace. Any suggestion that he had violated any regulations or laws was "very wrong, and it hurts me," said an indignant Trump. He was the one who ought to be vexed, not the senators, because of the "untold damage to my standing and reputation."

* * *

Although Fred Trump had clearly violated the spirit of the FHA program he had not been caught in any criminal act. Plenty of Americans might admire and even root for an ambitious and clever fellow who understood the ways of the world and exploited them for his own gain. Trump was just such a fellow; a classic New York character who could have been drawn from a Gilded Age memoir of political corruption called Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. The Plunkitt in question was George Washington Plunkitt, a nineteenth-century New York State legislator who had famously declared, "I saw my opportunities and I took 'em." One of Plunkitt's most famous essays focused on what he called the "honest graft" practiced by politicians who made sure their friends received special favors, including help with real estate deals.

The rascal's humor in Plunkitt stood in sharp contrast to the acid observations of Thorstein Veblen, who also wrote a Gilded Age classic. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen showed that the American elite lived according to an ethic of utter greed and immorality covered by a veneer of proper education and manners. Far more powerful and thus more dangerous than Plunkitt's hacks and hangers-on, the members of Veblen's leisure class were enabled by great fortunes amassed by brutal men who enjoyed "freedom from scruple, from sympathy, from honesty and regard for life."

Known popularly as "robber barons," Veblen's subjects bore names such as Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. He saw in their conspicuous good works, lavish spending, and time-consuming leisure pursuits such as yachting and golf a concerted effort to distract others from their predations and inspire both admiration and imitation. Great fortunes also bought dependents and descendants access to the highest realms of business — finance, industrial monopolies, oil and minerals — where their status would be preserved with the aid of advisers, lawyers, and others who hoped to join the leisure class themselves.

* * *

In the 1890s, as Plunkitt wrote his essays and Veblen lectured at Cornell University, Fred Trump's father could access neither Tammany Hall nor the leisure class. Born and raised in Germany, he had emigrated from Bremen via Southampton in October 1885 traveling in steerage aboard the new, Glasgow-built SS Eider. Just sixteen years old, Friedrich had been trained to work as a barber in a country already oversupplied with young men who knew how to use scissors and razors.

Donald Trump's grandfather first stepped on American soil at Castle Garden, where an immigration center occupied a former fort built on an island constructed of landfill off the southern tip of Manhattan. Arriving immigrants were put through a gauntlet of inspections before being permitted to walk across a bridge to the borough. Once safely in New York City they were free to travel anywhere in the United States and its territories. Like many other new arrivals, Friedrich Drumpf had his name summarily changed by immigration officers. According to government papers, he departed Castle Garden as Friedrich Trumpf, and he would carry this name for years to come.

After six years in New York, Friedrich followed news of a mining boom to the West, where new cities and towns were rapidly developing. In Seattle's red-light district he thrived as the owner of a restaurant that offered warm meals and prostitutes in private rooms. It wasn't quite the Horatio Alger myth come to life, but in a country that equated wealth with virtue, Friedrich was becoming a true and virtuous American. Seven years after his arrival in New York, he went to the US District Court for the Washington State and, after renouncing his "allegiance and fidelity" to "William II Emperor of Germany," signed the declaration that made him a US citizen. In this document the f in Trumpf disappeared.

Having become a citizen and a businessman named Trump, Friedrich looked for opportunities to become rich. He spied one in a Cascade Mountains mining camp called Monte Cristo, which was overrun by prospectors looking for silver and gold. Seeing a more reliable source of cash in the prospectors than in the dirt, Trump falsely claimed to have found gold on a plot of land, which allowed him to seize control of some prime real estate without actually paying for it. (A "strike" gave a prospector exclusive access to a parcel.) Trump never worked his claim but instead built a boardinghouse. The boardinghouse was a big success. Friedrich's profit was all that much greater because he had paid nothing for his location.

As he turned his nerve and hard work into wealth, Trump showed himself to be a genuine American. In the 1890s, much of the Pacific Northwest was practically lawless, and the landscape teemed with men and women who happily exploited civilization's not having quite taken hold. Formalities meant little in the isolation of the forests and mountains, so grit and audacity might be enough to bring success. The entrepreneurial outlaw was now gradually replacing the Indian fighter as the archetypal frontiersman, and no one in a place such as Monte Cristo would be shocked to learn that one man had simply occupied another's property. Trump may have been bolder than most as he accepted a shipment of lumber and built his business on another's land, but lots of men were living and mining on land they didn't own.

No one would have been surprised, either, that Monte Cristo turned out to be a false promise kept alive so that John D. Rockefeller, whose speculation had touched off the gold and silver rush, could escape with a big profit. In 1891 America's wealthiest man had invested in the mining region on the basis of a geologist's highly optimistic reports. Rockefeller built a large processing facility to prepare ore for shipment along a new railroad line. However, production was meager, and eventually Rockefeller and his syndicate partners learned that the geologist had been wrong. They quietly sold, at a profit, and took their money back East.

When Rockefeller's secret — there was no ore — got out and Monte Cristo was abandoned, few complaints were raised about the geologist's mistake and the New Yorker's stealthy retreat. What good would it do? Besides, a new gold rush had begun in the Klondike region of northwest Canada. Roughly one hundred thousand men stampeded north after two ships arrived in Seattle with prospectors bearing the equivalent of $1 billion in 2015 in gold. Friedrich Trump departed for the Yukon, intending to repeat his success at Monte Cristo. After landing in Alaska he endured one of the most demanding and deadly wilderness treks imaginable. Trump began by operating one of the tent restaurants that specialized in meals made of horses that had expired on the trail. Soon came a real establishment built out of shingles and planks — the New Arctic Restaurant and Hotel — where once again he made prostitutes available. The New Arctic was located first in a town called Bennett and then floated on lakes and streams to the larger settlement of White Horse. Again occupying land he didn't actually own, Trump kept his place open day and night and made far more money than all but the most successful prospectors. As the boom ended, he departed White Horse, leaving the New Arctic to a partner, who would soon lose the business.


Excerpted from The Truth About Trump by Michael D'Antonio. Copyright © 2016 Michael D'Antonio. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Preface to the 2016 Edition: True Trump,
1. The Trumps of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Klondike,
2. The Boy King,
3. Apprentice,
4. Fear City,
5. Donald Saves Midtown,
6. Towering Trump,
7. Celebrity Donald,
8. Donald in Suckerland,
9. Luck Runs Out,
10. Trump the Spectacle,
11. New Trump,
12. Candidate Trump,
13. Trump the TV Show,
14. "The Beauty of Me",
15. A Not-So-Innocent Abroad,
Postscript: Understanding Donald,
Also by Michael D'Antonio,
About the Author,

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