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“Trump, Inc.”: A True-Crime Podcast About the President’s Business Dealings
April 19, 2018
The Michael Cohen episode of the podcast, which traces his bizarre journey from unranked law school to personal lawyer of the President of the United States, is particularly evocative.Photograph by Brendan McDermid / Reuters
odcasts are a good form for presenting the surreality of this era, Eric Umansky, an editor at ProPublica, told me recently. “You can capture the absurdity in ways that you can’t in text,” he said. The excellent investigative podcast that he works on, “Trump Inc
.,” from WNYC and ProPublica, began in February and concludes next week. Its premise is at once straightforward and audacious: it asks big, specific questions about Donald Trump’s famously mysterious business dealings, including those concerning possible connections between his Presidency and his profits; investigates them; and encourages listeners to pitch in and help. It features several personable, savvy-sounding reporters: Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, of WNYC, and Jesse Eisinger and Heather Vogell, of ProPublica, and it has a collaborative spirit. Reporters from other outlets (including The New Yorker’s
Adam Davidson) offer additional information and insights. One episode features David Fahrenthold, of the Washington Post
, answering listener questions; another was inspired by a comment that Fahrenthold made about Trump suing local municipalities in which he had businesses; a listener tip resulted in a mini-episode about Trump commissioning golf-tee markers with the Presidential seal on them. Umansky told me that one “superfan” listener “went to the courthouse in Westchester to look up cases for us.” Everybody gets to be a detective. Or, as the show’s Web site puts it, “Help Us Dive Into the Swamp
.” In this week’s episode, we splash around with Michael Cohen, and the waters are murky indeed.
” launched a genre of podcast that doesn’t solve mysteries but that tells us a lot about the clues, and “Trump, Inc.,” in some ways, fits that mold. It came about, Umansky told me, after a flash of insight at a brainstorming meeting last fall. Bernstein, Marritz, Eisinger, and Justin Elliott had just collaborated on a story about the Trump SoHo hotel and condominium, “How Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., Avoided a Criminal Indictment
,” which was published in The New Yorker in October. They and their colleagues were thinking about new ideas to explore, and they covered a whiteboard with questions—many of them fundamental and still unanswered after their year of research on Trump. “From an investigative standpoint, this is fuckin’ frustrating, right?” Umansky said. “We still don’t know basic things. And then we looked at the board and said, ‘What happens if you turned it around and said the story is
all the questions?’ The fact that there are so many fundamental questions is itself the outrage on some level.” Trump and his company have been so elusive and non-transparent that it seemed that there would be a public service “in showing the blank space,” he said. “Who are his partners? Where is he getting loans from? How is he making money now? From whom? And on and on and on.”
The first episode, “Trump’s ‘No-Conflict Situation
,’ ” presents us with a scene we all remember: the first press conference of the transition, on January 11, 2017, which featured Trump, Ivanka, Eric, Don, Jr., a tax lawyer named Sheri Dillon, and a table full of manila folders containing paper bound with butterfly clips. “There’s been a looming unanswered question: How will Trump handle all the potential conflicts posed by his multinational business?” Bernstein says. “By the day of the press conference, there’s actually a good deal of suspense.” The night before, two huge stories had broken: one, from CNN, suggested collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the other, from BuzzFeed, made us aware of the Steele dossier and its salacious contents. The political mood was typically anxious, and the press conference seemed intended to give the impression of probity.
Skillfully, the podcast presents the scene through the eyes of Walter Shaub, who was then the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. He introduces himself, sounding kindly and earnest. (“Nobody likes it when the ethics guy shows up at a party,” he says.) He was feeling nervous: throughout the transition period, he’d wanted to get to work right away, but the Trump transition team had been in limited contact and largely unresponsive. He hoped that the press conference would assuage his worries. The podcast alternates between the hosts’ narration, Shaub’s descriptions and impressions, and audio from the press conference. When Shaub sees the stack of folders, Bernstein says, “his heart sinks.”
“I think it was immediately obvious to anybody who’s ever had a folder in their life that the lack of labels or the lack of dog-ears or weather-beaten quality to the papers means that this was not a stack of files that had been in use,” Shaub says.
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Trump says, “These papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.”
“I just remember watching with dismay as the worst of my fears are coming to pass,” Shaub says.
As Dillon outlines what Trump will do to sever his business interests from the Presidency, Shaub continues to quietly freak out. Trump won’t put his assets in a blind trust, and Dillon’s assertions about “complete relinquishment of management, no foreign deals, ethics-adviser approval of deals” are hard to swallow—in part because Trump immediately starts contradicting them. “We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to,” he says. “I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict.” He brags about rejecting a deal with Dubai, saying, “I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know I have a no-conflict situation because I’m President.” Shaub was horrified. “Those stacks of mysterious folders were a sign that the old rules no longer applied,” he says. Shaub later steels himself and makes a speech at the Brookings Institution that he thinks will sound the alarm about Trump, and possibly get Shaub fired. It doesn’t, and the madness marches on.
As the series unfolds, it regularly astonishes us with such details, and lets us hear the voices of the people involved and affected. We learn about casino money-laundering rule violations, for which the Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City, was given record fines; the high-end money laundering that expensive real estate like Trump’s Manhattan properties can facilitate; and the Trump Organization’s ties to a member of India’s cabinet. Even the Inauguration, that much discussed spectacle of surreality
and American carnage, generated huge financial suspicion: there are millions of dollars’ worth of unaccounted-for contributions of the record amounts of money raised.
The Michael Cohen episode, in which Bernstein and Marritz trace Cohen’s bizarre journey from unranked law school to personal lawyer of the President of the United States, is particularly evocative. We learn that Cohen has “embraced descriptions of himself as ‘Trump’s Tom Hagen’ ”—the lawyer of Don Corleone in “The Godfather.” We visit some of Cohen’s old haunts: the site of his first law job, the City Hall-area office of a Manhattan personal-injury lawyer who once pleaded guilty to bribery charges; the Queens taxi base owned by his client Simon Garber, from which Cohen operated a law practice for many years (Garber, a Russian taxi magnate, has been convicted of assault, arrested for battery, and pleaded guilty to criminal mischief); and a medical clinic near a shuttered podiatrist’s office that Cohen helped set up on Avenue X in Little Odessa, near Brighton Beach. There, we hear a woman lean out a window and yell to Bernstein to bring her a cup of black coffee from the grocery store. “Are we doing this?” Marritz says, giggling nervously. They bring the stranger her coffee, and a young guy in a red tracksuit who is hanging out in the hallway asks them for five bucks. “This neighborhood feels really far from Fifth Avenue Manhattan, where Cohen hangs out these days,” Bernstein observes.
By 2003, Cohen had made money. He owned many valuable taxi medallions; he began buying apartments in Trump’s buildings; he joined the Friars Club. He ran for City Council in Manhattan and associated with the son and daughter of Harry Winston, the diamond magnate. In 2007, there was a piece about him
in the Post
, in which he praised Trump’s properties and Trump praised Cohen’s smarts. The episode is populated with ne’er-do-wells: disbarred attorneys, doctors with suspended licenses, people charged with violence and fraud, people associated with the Mob. A mysterious figure from the Inauguration episode pops back up like a character in a Dickens novel. Step by step, the podcast makes clear that Cohen, until now, has never been charged with anything, but has surrounded himself with people who have, and has built his fortune and reputation among them and their businesses. It does much to fill out our understanding of the cigar-smoking figure dominating headlines this week. If you like true-crime podcasts, in other words, have I got the podcast for you.
, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2007.
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