An informative new book by Pulitzer Prize winning author, David Cay Johnston, covers the past four decades of Donald J. Trump’s business practices and sheds light on how people admitted to the tycoon’s inner circle, and others who have only glancing interactions with him, are often singed by the association.
After reading The Making of Donald Trump, you might think long and hard about accepting any job offer from one of Trump's organizations.
In this heavily annotated book, Johnston mines 30 years of detailed personal notes taken from interviewing Trump and his associates for articles published in the business sections of The Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times, and for The Temple of Chance, a book on the Atlantic City casino industry published in 1992. He also references public records from some of the over 3,500 court cases Trump has been involved in over the past 40 years.
The book is written in an easily digestible style, with mercifully short chapters allowing readers to come up for air from details of practices that many business owners would find unethical.
After an overview of Trump family history in America, Johnston turns to Donald’s personal history as a businessman who took the real estate investing tactics learned from his family, an early choice to employ the services of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief lawyer, Roy Cohn, and a penchant for skirting the law (both civil and tax codes), and single-mindedly made gathering wealth and power the center of his life.
While much, if not all, of the information Johnston imparts in the book has been published elsewhere over the past 75 years, Johnston has gathered telling incidents from Trump’s public life and put them in one spot where they are impossible to ignore. When taken individually or out of context, it would be possible to brush them off, when taken in as a whole, patterns emerge and they tell a very different story from the brand image Trump has cultivated around himself.
For example, in the 1980’s, he owned casinos in Atlantic City and had gone on a multi-billion dollar real estate spending spree with money borrowed only on his word. By 1990, he was nearly bankrupt with loan payments past due to seventy banks. The New Jersey Casino Control Commission deemed Trump’s business too big to fail and he received a government bailout, eighteen years before many of the banks he was in debt to were themselves deemed too big to fail.
The casinos went through bankruptcy proceedings again in 2004 and 2009, each time returning banks and investors pennies on the dollar for their investments, but enriching lawyers for both the banks and Trump.
His legal team has expanded from the days when Roy Cohn led Trump’s legal strategy, but, while Trump has a well deserved reputation for wielding his lawsuits like a cudgel against journalists and individuals he disagrees with, a significant portion of the 3,500 lawsuits in his past and present name him as the defendant. He’s testified under oath regarding a range of issues surrounding contracts, taxes, gambling, commercial endeavors, employment, and marital lawsuits, among other things.
However, more commonly, the lawsuits have revolved around failed real estate developments, most recently failed real estate developments that Trump licensed his branded name to. Johnston’s book covers failed deals in Mexico, Hawaii, and Florida where the suits were settled as recently as 2014. And, as is typical with suits involving Donald Trump, the final settlements are sealed so subsequent real estate purchasers have a difficult time learning who won.
As Johnston notes in the book, Trump does not like to talk about things that might tarnish his personal brand. However, he has a history of disparaging people who he dislikes and shows a penchant for revenge when he feels that he has come out on the short end of a transaction. In Chapter 3, Johnston details how, in what was supposed to be a motivational speech given at Bixpo 2005 in Loveland, Colorado, Trump delivered a rambling, unscripted speech that had little to do with business. Speaking to a crowd that had paid to learn his advice on how to succeed in life and business, he instead griped about the Denver Airport, former wives and former associates. He even bragged about getting even with an employee who he felt had been disloyal, calling the woman “ugly as a dog.” Apparently, he fired her because she wouldn’t use her personal connections to influence a banker Trump wanted access to.
Employees aren’t the only ones who become targets when Trump is displeased. Also drawn from public reports of court proceedings at the time, Johnston explains how Trump cancelled health insurance for his epileptic grand-nephew as a way to get back at the baby’s father, Trump’s nephew.
There is more, much more, in the book and it’s a revealing look at how business is conducted by one individual who has made an art of exploiting laws and rules tailored to benefit the financial elite in America.
As a profile of an individual who has built businesses based on his personal branding, the book serves as a reminder that to be believable, branding must be consistently followed throughout the organization from top to bottom. To do otherwise is signaling that the brand is a façade. In the book’s epilogue, Johnston makes the same point and quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald who noted that action is character.
After reading this book, take some time to consider whether you would want to work for an individual who acted like Donald Trump. Unless you enjoy personal drama in your everyday life, I’ll bet the answer is “no.” There are far easier ways to become wealthy and far more ways to lead a successful life.
"The Making of Donald Trump" is a fascinating story of a complex life and one you'll want to read cover-to-cover.
This book is currently on Amazon's best seller list.