On his way out of town on Tuesday afternoon, President Trump took some questions from the press corps and defended embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's youthful drinking habits. Trump said that while he has never had a beer himself he knows lots of people who have and he doesn't consider it a problem. This isn't the story we've heard in the past, at least as it concerns his son Donald Jr.'s reported issues with alcohol in his youth, and especially when it came to his alcoholic older brother Freddy, whose history is said to have been the reason Trump has always abstained. All the stories about their relationship have Donald angry and impatient with his older brother, including an anecdote about one dinner where Donald told Freddy to grow up and "make something of himself in the family business."
“Donald put Freddy down quite a bit,” said Annamaria Schifano, then the girlfriend of Freddy’s best friend, who was at the dinner and recalled Donald’s tendency to pick fights and storm out. “There was a lot of combustion.”
Since he's been president, Trump has pretended that he isn't as judgmental about his big brother's drinking as he used to be. He now claims to understand that Freddy simply wasn't cut out for the business. Nobody believes him. From his tone, Trump is actually not thrilled with the tales of Kavanaugh's youthful boozing either but he undoubtedly believes has to defend his hand-picked judge from all the vicious women who are assaulting his good name. After all, Trump has walked at least 19 miles in those shoes.
After Trump's comments on Tuesday, I was reminded of a famous illustration of his vengeful nature. When the patriarch Fred Trump Sr. passed on and the family heard the will, Freddy's family was shocked to find out that they'd been written out and would receive nothing. Freddy's kids sued, claiming that Donald had manipulated their grandfather, who had suffering from dementia, into making that decision. Donald retaliated by canceling an agreement to pay for the medical care of his infant nephew who had cerebral palsy. Apparently, the family came to an "amicable agreement" later, which probably meant that Donald agreed not to sue Freddy's family back.
Given all this family lore, I think most people have assumed that Trump cut Freddy's kids out of the will out of contempt for what Trump saw as his brother's embarrassing weaknesses. But Tuesday's New York Times exposé of Fred Trump Sr.'s real estate empire and how he bankrolled Donald's entire career suggests another possibility: That maneuver could have been yet another desperate cash grab aimed at bailing out the repeated failures of Trump's allegedly brilliant business career.
It's obvious just from observing him that Trump's supposed business acumen has always been 90 percent hype. He's just not that sharp. It's clear that he has always spent most of his days thinking of ways to make people think he's richer, smarter and more successful than he really is. He created the celebrity image of himself as a genius businessman, even managing to parlay his name into a reality TV show and a reasonably successful consumer brand in recent years. But it turns out that the wealth itself was almost entirely due to his father's business savvy, not his. In fact, according to Tuesday's Times report, Fred Trump spent his life figuring out ways to fraudulently and unethically flow massive sums money to his children, especially his favorite son.
Trump's origin story has always been that he received a "small" $1 million loan from his dad to start his real estate business, and had to pay it all back. Instead it turns out that Trump's famously parsimonious daddy actually loaned him at least $60.7 million, which is more like $140 million in 2018 dollars. Even rich guys have to admit that's real money. Of course, the subtext of that story was that his dad wasn't really all that rich. His business was in middle-class neighborhoods of Queens, not the glamorous Manhattan that Trump later conquered. Part of the Donald Trump myth has always been the idea that he was much more successful than his father.
That too is BS. Fred Trump was massively rich, and his wealth is what supported Trump throughout his career. The Times procured hundreds of thousands of confidential documents, including 200 tax returns from Fred Trump's business that show many years of shady business practices designed to hide all these transactions -- which add up to Donald Trump receiving at least $413 million in today's dollars.
Trump has always said he got "peanuts” from his father. That's a lot of peanuts. And they started rolling in when he was a tiny boy. The Times found that even as a toddler, he was earning the equivalent of $200,000 a year in contemporary dollars. He and was a millionaire by the time he was eight years old. Year after year he received more money from his father's various trusts, until he was getting $5 million a year all the way into his 50s. It's always been unclear how Trump could maintain his luxurious lifestyle even when his businesses were all cratering in the '80s and '90s. Now we know. Fred Trump took very good care of his boy even after he found out that Donnie was fiddling with the will without telling anyone and had his daughter Maryanne (now a federal judge) find someone to draw up papers stripping his son of sole control over Fred’s estate.
The Times, in an unusual move, called itself out in noting that for years the media took the books and TV appearances and shameless promotion at face value. It's not like they couldn't have checked out the facts before this. The family wasn't exactly low profile. But this massive piece of investigative journalism may provide a roadmap for an investigation into Donald Trump's more recent finances, which he's gone to great lengths to hide. If the Democrats take over the Congress next year they can subpoena Trump's tax returns. And the state of New York may have some interest in the Trump family tax avoidance strategies as well (although the statutes for prosecuting any possible crimes have likely expired).
In fact, the Trump kids should probably take a good hard look at the books and make sure they have what they think they have. Donald Trump learned to cheat at this daddy's knee but he's probably lost most of what he inherited by now and anything he's still got, he intends to keep. He's not likely to have cheated to benefit his kids the way Fred did. Donald J. Trump cheats for the benefit of one person, and one person alone.