When Donald Trump was wondering what mocking nickname to affix to Hillary Clinton, he quite cleverly settled on "Crooked Hillary," playing off the years of Republican investigations into faux scandals and the widespread sense that she and her husband Bill sometimes danced too close to the ethical line. The most brilliant thing about it was that it managed to muddy the waters about just who the crooked one was.
"I know you are but what am I" is a common Republican strategy, so it shouldn't have been too surprising. But when we look back now and recall that there was actually a vigorous debate in the media in 2016 about whether not Donald Trump but Hillary Clinton was too corrupt to be president, the mind boggles.
That's because, as I've argued repeatedly for some time now, even as he ran for president it was obvious that Trump was not simply someone who ignored some inconvenient rules or regularly stretched the truth in his life's work of self-promotion. No, he may well be the single-most corrupt major business figure in America. Not so much because of the scale of his corruption—there are Wall Street bankers who pulled scams with bigger dollar amounts—but because of its variety, its sheer depravity, and the way it was woven into everything Trump did.
Whether it was scamming struggling people out of their money with Trump University, lending his name to pyramid schemes, refusing to pay vendors, exploiting foreign workers, using illegal labor, doing business with the mob, or building properties that for some mysterious reason became the go-to vehicle for Russian oligarchs and mobsters to launder their money, Trump's corruption is so comprehensive and widespread that it's difficult to imagine him in his pre-presidential life getting through a single day without pulling a con on somebody.
And nearly two years into his presidency, we're still learning more about his unethical behavior and, yes, even crimes.
Let's look at just a couple of recent investigative reports, that in a different time and for a different president might have touched off all-encompassing scandals but today passed by with only the smallest bit of notice.
As you may know, some time ago Trump moved away from building things and toward licensing his name not only to consumer products (steaks, vodka, ties) but to hotels and resorts built by others, which allowed him to bring in steady income without risking his own capital. As ProPublica demonstrated in a new analysis, Trump and his children routinely promoted these projects with a series of public lies designed to deceive banks and investors into believing the projects were healthier than they were. Many of them ended up collapsing.
When a project was in its early stages, Donald, Ivanka, or Donald Jr. would routinely make public claims that most or all of the units in the building had been pre-sold, when those claims were false. For instance, Ivanka told reporters in 2008 that 60 percent of the units in Trump Soho were sold, when in fact the number was 15 percent. The project eventually went bankrupt and the Trump name was removed (which has happened to multiple Trump-branded properties). The same pattern was repeated elsewhere: The Trumps would lie in public about the number of units sold and their own investments in the properties, then walk away with their own fees when the whole thing went bust.
That isn't just vigorous promotion, it's fraud. Investors were deceived into buying into the properties by the Trumps' false statements about their financial soundness. In the case of Trump Soho, there was a real possibility that Ivanka and Donald Jr. would be prosecuted, an outcome that may have been averted by a well-timed donation to the Manhattan district attorney by Donald Trump's lawyer.
This kind of corruption and even possible criminality is a multi-generational Trump affair. It was only three weeks ago that The New York Times released one of the most extraordinary investigations of this era, in which they obtained years of tax returns from Fred Trump showing that he and his children—primarily Donald but also his siblings—engaged in a years-long conspiracy to commit tax fraud on an absolutely epic scale—not just taking advantage of loopholes but likely breaking the law, mostly for the purpose of avoiding estate and gift taxes as Fred Trump passed on a fortune of over a billion dollars to his children.
Donald Trump "and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show," the Times wrote. "Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents' real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings."
When the Times story was released, I spoke to a tax law expert at New York University, who told me that reputable tax attorneys, if asked by a client to participate in the kind of schemes detailed in the records the Times obtained, "they would not only have declined to do it, but they would have wondered if they have a duty to report what's going on" to the authorities. Serious tax lawyers, he said, "are not doing this stuff. They have reputations to protect. They're not interested in going to jail."
But much of the (all too limited) attention the Times story received was focused on the fact that Trump received a vast fortune from his father, in excess of $400 million in today's money. This directly contradicts the myth Trump had woven about being a self-made man who got rich only through his smarts and drive. "It has not been easy for me," Trump said when he was a presidential candidate. "My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars, I came into Manhattan, and I had to pay him back, I had to pay him back with interest." This was an obvious lie even at the time, but only now do we understand how much of a lie it was.
But no matter how much of Trump's corruption was revealed in 2016, the myth he had been building for three decades persisted. He managed to convince millions of people that the Trump name is synonymous not just with wealth, in the form of conspicuous consumption of the most grotesque sort, but with success itself. If you want a piece of that myth in smellable form, you can get yourself some Success by Trump cologne ("Success by Trump captures the spirit of the driven man … a masculine combination of rich vetiver, tonka bean, birchwood and musk create a powerful presence throughout wear").
And it was indeed a myth. What America elected was not a self-made man who got his wealth through hard work and savvy but a fraudster, the son of a fraudster and the father of fraudsters, as surely as if we had put John Gotti in the Oval Office. The Trumps don't just boast and lie, they appear to have committed actual crimes—and more than a few—however low the chances they'll ever be prosecuted for them.
That's what we know so far. If enough journalists keep digging—and if the public ever gets to see Trump's tax returns—who knows what other kinds of misconduct will be revealed.