It couldn’t be true that the New York Times was going to publish the story on page A19. The paper was reporting that the president’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry had retired from her job as a federal judge so that people would stop investigating her for misconduct, based on her role in what appeared to have been a comprehensive intergenerational Trump family program of tax fraud. It was a story to jump to right away when it appeared online, and when you read the online version, it said at the bottom, “A version of this article appears in print on April 11, 2019, on Page A19.”
How was this page A19 news? The story from which it followed had been given its own special section of the newspaper, to mark how extraordinary it was. Through long, diligent work, the Times had pinned down the facts and numbers to destroy even the most modest version of Donald Trump’s story about having built his own fortune—demonstrating instead that the president of the United States owed his wealth not to business smarts but to dependency on his father and a long series of crooked and deceptive financial transactions.
And now, the news had caught up with one of his siblings. The Times explained:
Judge Barry had been a co-owner of a shell company — All County Building Supply & Maintenance — created by the family to siphon cash from their father’s empire by marking up purchases already made by his employees, The Times investigation found. Judge Barry, her siblings and a cousin split the markup, free of gift and estate taxes, which at the time were levied at a much higher rate than income taxes…
The family also used the padded invoices to justify higher rent increases in rent-regulated buildings, artificially inflating the rents of thousands of tenants. Former prosecutors told The Times that if the authorities had discovered at the time how the Trumps were using All County, their actions would have warranted a criminal investigation for defrauding tenants, tax fraud and filing false documents.
Similarly, Judge Barry benefited from the gross undervaluation of her father’s properties when she and her siblings took ownership of them through a trust, sparing them from paying tens of millions of dollars in taxes, The Times found. For years, she attended regular briefings at her brother’s offices in Trump Tower to hear updates on the real estate portfolio and to collect her share of the profits. When the siblings sold off their father’s empire, between 2004 and 2006, her share of the windfall was $182.5 million, The Times found.
The great bafflement or frustration about Donald Trump’s ascension to the most powerful job in the world has to do with the interaction between his own shamelessness and the fecklessness of the press.
The great bafflement or frustration about Donald Trump’s ascension to the most powerful job in the world has to do with the interaction between his own shamelessness and the fecklessness of the press. He is obviously unqualified and disqualified for the presidency, by any previously known standards, but none of those standards seem to apply. No one has figured out how to make them apply.
Least of all the Times. It brought out that stunning, exhaustive investigation into the Trump family finances six months ago, packaged with video and a whole interactive news feature and a sidebar boiling it down to the takeaways—it explicitly said this was fraud—and nothing happened. The news cycles kept on churning.
Usually, when the Times botches its Trump coverage, people line up to denounce the paper for being somehow protective of the president and deferential to the dignity of his office. The ideology of respectable newspapering isn’t built for dealing with an authoritarian yet incompetent bullshit artist as president, whose principal interest in the position is to find the maximum rewards to his ego and his finances he can squeeze out of it. One doesn’t go around calling the president a crook and a liar and a fool, if one is an objective newspaper seeking to write authoritative history in real time—even if the actual historians (if there are any left, in the after times) will certainly say he was those things.
But obviously, the Trump fraud story was meant to do the president real harm. It just didn’t succeed. And the Times, in confusion, sort of wandered away from the whole towering thing it had created. If no one else picked up on it, was it really news?
The problem may have been with the belief that a story could stop Trump if it were big enough and definitive enough. No story has enough bulk to stop the endless roiling flow of news from washing past it and moving on.
The model for making something stick to Trump is the one provided by Trump himself, who wakes up every day ready to repeat the same set of grievances as if they just occurred to him. Whenever some new trouble or semi-scandal comes along, he reflexively changes the subject back to one of the old subjects, and soon enough whoever brought up the new thing gives up and moves on too, while he keeps on jabbering about whatever he wants to jabber about.
It might seem tasteless for a newspaper to copy Trump’s approach, but it’s an effective strategy. The Times itself knows this, because it’s the strategy the paper has been using on the Boeing scandal.
It might seem tasteless for a newspaper to copy Trump’s approach, but it’s an effective strategy. The Times itself knows this, because it’s the strategy the paper has been using on the Boeing scandal. After the first 737 Max plane crashed, the paper set out to cover the question of whether a safety flaw in the remodeled passenger jet had caused it to crash itself. As soon as the second 737 Max crashed, it became clear that if the two were connected, it would mean colossal failure and wrongdoing by Boeing and the regulators responsible for it.
So the Times has gone after that story, piece by piece, connection by connection, on the front page. “Boeing Scrambles to Contain Fallout From Deadly Ethiopia Crash,” page A1. “Doomed Boeing Jets Lacked 2 Safety Features That Company Sold Only as Extras,” page A1. “Boeing Was ‘Go, Go, Go’ to Beat Airbus With the 737 Max,” page A1. “In Test of Boeing Jet, Pilots Had 40 Seconds to Fix Error,” page A1. Every new discovery is a chance to tell the whole thing all over again, with incrementally more confidence in where it’s leading.
Why not do the same for Trump? Any story that adds another detail to the original account of fraud would be as newsworthy as the giant investigative package was. It’s all the same story! If a Boeing executive retired to get away from the inquiries, the way Trump’s sister retired, it would be on the front of the paper. Instead, this morning, I opened the paper to see if it was really true they’d buried the judge’s disgrace on A19. It wasn’t. They’d moved it to A23.