Pulitzer winner David Cay Johnston: Will Trump's America end in "firing squads"?

Investigative reporter on why he feels sorry for Trump, despite the latter's long career of crime and corruption

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 27, 2019 7:00AM (EST)

David Cay Johnston visits Build at Build Studio (Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
David Cay Johnston visits Build at Build Studio (Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

Congressional hearings about Donald Trump’s attempts to extort  Ukraine into helping him in the 2020 presidential election on his behalf have concluded, at least for now.

These weeks of public and private hearings on the Ukraine scandal have established that Donald Trump and senior members of his administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, were involved in this plot. Documents released last Friday through a FOIA lawsuit provide further evidence of the scale of the Trump’s regime abuse of power and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

These hearings have also shown that Trump used his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and other operatives to conduct shadow diplomacy as part of the Ukraine scandal. It seems clear they advanced Trump’s political interests (and likely their own financial interests as well) over the interests of the United States and the American people.

Revelations about the Ukraine scandal continue. One of Giuliani’s partners in the extortion scheme, Russian-born businessman Lev Parnas, now claims that he has video and audio recordings of Giuliani, Trump and others.

According to recent reports, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., one of Trump’s lead cultists and water carriers in Congress, actually participated in efforts to force the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden on invented corruption charges.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior member of Trump’s cult, is now granting the president’s aborted wish in Ukraine by initiating a congressional “investigation” of the Bidens for their alleged crimes in that country.

In defending Donald Trump’s Ukraine gambit, the Republican Party has become a willing and enthusiastic agent of Vladimir Putin’s psychological operations strategy against the United States. The goal is to provide cover for Russia’s ongoing interference in American politics and to manipulate another presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump.

In total, the Ukraine scandal is more evidence that today’s Republican Party cares more about partisanship and power than they do loyalty to country and patriotism.

The Republicans’ only defense is “So what?” Unable to deny the facts of Trump’s corruption, apparent criminality and defiling of the presidency, the Republicans and their right-wing disinformation media and public default to a cult-like logic that Trump is something like an American king or emperor. As such, he is literally above the law while also simultaneously being the human embodiment of the law and the nation.

David Cay Johnston has been writing about and observing Donald Trump for more than 30 years. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of the bestselling book "The Making of Donald Trump." His recent book is "It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America." Johnston is also the founder of the nonprofit news service DCReport.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Johnston explains why the Ukraine scandal should not be a surprise given Donald Trump’s many years of success as a white-collar criminal — skills he learned from his father as well as mentor Roy Cohn. Johnston also highlights how the testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland is key in exposing the tendrils of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s betrayal of America and the rule of law.

Johnston also details what the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump should include and why the 2020 presidential election is so important if the American people want to protect their democracy and not be fully conquered by a fascist tyrant in the form of Donald Trump — or by a much more dangerous Republican successor.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with David Cay Johnston through the player embedded below.

You have been closely observing and writing about Donald Trump for more than three decades. With the Ukraine scandal and these weeks of congressional hearings none of this should really be a surprise. Given Trump’s public behavior and personal character, he has shown himself for many years to be corrupt and with no respect for the law. In many ways I am surprised that Trump’s house of cards hasn't fallen apart sooner.

Absolutely. I thought Donald Trump would be in trouble much earlier. But he is very accomplished, thanks in large part to his father as well as his mentor Roy Cohn, at how to defeat law enforcement in all its forms. It's not just the grand juries he beat, but tax authorities he beat and the civil actions against him. Trump’s really masterful at it and that's part of what we've seen with these hearings. The other thing we've seen is that the Republicans — many of whom spoke out against Trump before he took office — have turned into quislings or cowards, depending on what term you want to use to describe them, who are more concerned about being primaried than about their oath of office.

This is an extraordinarily disturbing turn of events. Since Ambassador Sondland has thrown Trump and everyone else under the bus there has not been one bit of change by the Republicans. Devin Nunes immediately goes back to the totally discredited Ukrainian conspiracy theory. Ken Starr on Fox News was trying to come up with ways to explain all this away: "Well, this looks serious, but…" Willful blindness is a serious problem with the Republicans. I believe that if the Republicans do not open their eyes and face the reality in front of them, then the voters are going to do real damage to them. This will be the type of political damage the likes of which they've never seen before — or we're going to discover that the United States is fully headed toward fascism.

I think the latter is unlikely, given that most people are fundamentally decent and are not interested in playing games to benefit one man in Donald Trump.

When investigative journalists start to follow the money with Trump, Ukraine, Russia and related matters, what do you think they will discover?

Bribing the Republican jury is what Trump is doing now. There are promises of campaign money and the implicit message that if you don't play ball with me and take my money, I will find somebody to run against you in a primary and destroy you. You don't see it reported that way in the mainstream press or on TV. Because of that Trump benefits. Trump is also masterful in communicating in a way that reaches the average person who does not follow politics closely or make politics or being a responsible citizen central to their life.

Trump is masterful in communicating on a basic level with simple thoughts. "Lock them up. They are murderers and rapists, but I'm sure there's some fine people." And focusing on the language of “quid pro quo” is very masterful too. That is just Latin for bribery and extortion. But instead the news media uses what is for many people just vague language.

The language of “quid pro quo” is too vague. The Democrats need to clearly describe Donald Trump as a wannabe Mafia boss and a shakedown artist. The Democrats should also speak directly about “extortion” and “bribery” and avoid saying “quid pro quo.” The news media should be doing the latter as well.

The Democrats have finally started saying that. Remember that most journalism is focused on the accurate recounting of what sources said. That's part of the problem with how you cover Trump. Trump is not a regular politician with extreme views. He's not George Wallace, for example.

He is a con artist. Donald Trump is the third-generation head of a white-collar crime family, and to cover him like he's a politician is absurd. Consider the Ukraine situation. There's something very important that gets very little attention in the news. The Republicans keep saying there was a 55-day delay in giving military aid to the Ukrainians because Trump was concerned about corruption. Well first of all, it was a six-month delay. There was no provision in the law providing for that. The second problem is it was clear that Trump had no interest in corruption. What he wanted, according to Ambassador Sondland, was an announcement by the new president of Ukraine that he would be investigating the Biden.

Sondland himself makes the point: Trump didn't care about corruption. He cared about the announcement of an investigation. That is, Trump wanted to dirty up the Bidens. That's an abuse of power. The Republicans keep saying that the Ukrainian president has never once said that he was being extorted, or bribed, or held up by Trump. That's true. But if you ever walk into a bank where the bandits have guns at people's heads and you ask them, "Are you OK?" They're not going to say, "Oh my God, get this man with a gun to my head." It's absurd. I was in the Ukraine a year ago. The Russians are poised to take over Ukraine and put the Ukrainians under the boot of the Kremlin. The president of Ukraine has to put up with any humiliation necessary from the Trump Administration to keep his country from being completely invaded.

Donald Trump is the nucleus of a much larger criminal enterprise. What do the congressional hearings reveal about the people in Trump’s orbit?

Trump's key technique is to get people around him who don't have a strong moral character. These are people who, in the case of his business, couldn't make it anywhere else, or who have some flaw. Trump would find people who wanted to be identified with him because they think he's glamorous and wonderful. These people would just as happily go to work for the Kardashians. Then what he demands of these people is, "You have to do whatever I say without question." When I was covering Trump in the casino business there were executives who were highly competent and who went on to fantastic, very lucrative careers with other Who did Trump promote to replace them? In one case someone who was literally, and I observed this, a falling-down drunk, but who did everything and anything for Trump. He was, "Yes, Mr. Trump. Of course, Mr. Trump. We'll do that right away, Mr. Trump." That is the type of person who Donald surrounds himself with. It's a not-unusual human tendency, if you are inherently someone with no soul such as Donald Trump. Moreover, if you are someone who really believes that you are a superior human being — the result of what the Trumps call the "Horse Race Theory of Breeding" — and that you're better than everybody else, then it is even easier to operate in such a manner. Someone with that temperament thinks that everything they think or say is right and everybody else better believe it. When you put that kind of thinking in the White House it is a  prescription for disaster.

Is Rudy Giuliani a true believer or is he just working for Trump in the shadows because it is a way to make money?

I believe that Rudy Giuliani is one of the great frauds of all time. Giuliani's father was a bandit who served time in Sing Sing prison. Giuliani surrounded himself with mobbed up people like Bernard Kerik, who he made first corrections commissioner, and then Police Commissioner. Of note: Giuliani did not try any of the mob cases ][during his time as U.S. attorney in New York.] He just took credit for them. The convictions were won by career prosecutors who did an excellent job.

When he worked for the Reagan administration, Giuliani made it clear that he is a horrible racist as shown during the Haitian refugee crisis. Giuliani is an opportunist. He's certainly looking out for his own pocket and his own welfare. Giuliani now has this lucrative gig with Donald Trump. And Giuliani has made this claim that he's not being paid by Donald Trump. In fact, lawyers know lots of ways to get paid. It will not surprise to me one bit if Giuliani’s alleged associates in the Ukraine scandal, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, eventually reveal that Giuliani had some side extortion scheme to make money.

What stood out to you about the impeachment hearings?  

Gordon Sondland is very important. In a statement, he basically completely destroyed all the defenses the Republicans have put up. Now, why is he doing this? Sondland is likely going to prison for lying to Congress. Roger Stone was just convicted on all seven counts of lying to Congress. Sondland, clearly on the advice of his lawyer, tried to mitigate the damage that he faces, to minimize how many felony charges he's going to be hit with, and how long he's going to go to jail. Sondland is almost certainly going to be prosecuted.

If Donald Trump has not done anything wrong — as he keeps telling us in his tweets — then produce the documents that are being asked for. If they exonerate him, why won’t Trump produce them? The IRS comes to audit you and says, "You took a deduction for this gift to a charity," are you going to say to them, "Well, I'm not going to show you the canceled check." This makes no sense. The reason Trump is not coming forward is he knows perfectly well that the evidence doesn't help him.

What I worry about is this: Will the Democrats limit these public and future hearings to the Ukrainian matters? Is that really going to be their strategy, because I think it's possible that millions of Americans will say, "I don't care about Ukraine." Ukraine is terribly important to the national security of the United States and Europe and to containing Putin. Is that enough? Mitch McConnell is going to do everything he can to protect Donald Trump unless it becomes so untenable that all 100 U.S. senators to vote to remove him.

Should the Democrats go big or go small in the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump? What do you think the articles of impeachment should be?

I think the articles of Impeachment should include the whole bribery extortion matter. Withholding of all this information is also obstruction of Congress. There's the emoluments clause issues about the Trump Hotel  in Washington, and other Trump properties. There are a host of other charges. One of the ways that prosecutors think — and I'm sure this is what Adam Schiff is thinking — is that you do not bring the kitchen-sink case, you bring the case you can win. I don't believe that Nancy Pelosi, who is a five-star general of strategy, would have approved beginning the impeachment process if she did not know, given her cautious demeanor, that there was not more coming out about Trump.

One of the challenges with all this is going to be, of course, that the Trump people thumb their nose at the records laws. Trump has held meetings with Putin with no one in the room but Russians. He tears up notes. He yells at people if they take notes in meetings. Except in this case, it's so sprawling with Ukraine that there are lots of other people and lots of records involved. As soon as some of those people realize that they are probably going to be indicted and go to prison, then they're going to talk.

Part of Trumpism is an assault on the rule of law. In terms of Trump’s efforts to hide his tax records, how do you think the Supreme Court will eventually rule?

Trump has consistently been losing in the courts. He's had a few successes, but overall, about nine to one are against him. Trump is seeking here to avoid his accountants turning over records from before he was president. It has been the law in this country since Thomas Jefferson was president, that a president enjoys no privileges or immunities for any conduct prior to taking the oath of office. So, the Supreme Court, I expect, either will not hear the case, or if they do take the case, Chief Justice Roberts is going to use it as an opportunity to slap down this idea that Trump isn't responsible for his actions before becoming president.

Trump was taken to Walter Reed hospital several weeks ago, supposedly for a physical exam. The story on its face is absurd. It seems more likely than not that Trump had a health emergency, and of course will not admit it. What do you think really happened?

With Trump’s recent medical episode, if you pay attention closely, you will see that the video shows Donald Trump clutching a yellow folder tightly to his body. When is the last time you ever saw Donald Trump carrying anything? I've thought all the way back to 1988. I have never seen the man carry anything, nothing. In fact, I've never actually seen Donald open a door. Only other people opening doors for him.

What probably happened is this. There is a complete medical suite, a very sophisticated one, in the White House. The one thing it does not have is an MRI. If you had a stroke, or were suspected of having one — what physicians call an "ischemic event" — you'd want an MRI.

Trump goes to Walter Reed. There's a protocol. When the president's coming, everybody knows that they do various things to ensure his security. Trump appeared with no notice. By the way, Trump didn't get into “the Beast,” which is the presidential limousine that's parked in a secure underground location and has to be brought around outside. Trump got into the back of a big black SUV. Something happened that his physician, who got in the other side and sat next to him, said, "We have to go to the hospital right now." The Trump administration is never going to admit the truth about what happened.

But Trump did not go for a physical. Nobody goes for a “half physical.” This is absurd. It's a good example of how Trump and the people around him believe if they lie, it's OK. The people they care about, their base, will believe it. The real goal now should be to chip away at that base, to get people who like Trump for various reasons to open their eyes and recognize that here you have a man who is a criminal, a man who is deeply, deeply mentally ill. Even if Trump were too ill to remain president he would not resign. Donald really believes that he is a superior person and that we should all bow down to his greatness. It doesn't matter that it's obvious nonsense. Trump believes it. And it motivates him.

I actually feel sorry for Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a man who has never known, and will never know, joy and contentment.

He has no sense of love. Donald doesn't love anyone. He doesn't even really love himself. I feel sorry for him, but he also has no business holding any kind of public office. What we need to focus on I think at this point is ending his presidency, whether it's through impeachment or voting him out overwhelmingly.

But what do we do about the tyrant next time? We need to start thinking about what happens when somebody comes along who has Donald's charisma and his marketing savvy, his con artist savvy, but who also has a deep philosophy and the serious management skills that Donald doesn't have. Donald Trump is an incompetent manager. We should also be very afraid of someone who is an aspiring tyrant and a hard worker by comparison. Because Donald is lazy and look at the harm is causing.

Even the White House acknowledges that Trump comes down around 10 a.m. and goes back up around 4 p.m. What do we do when we get someone who works hard?

That is someone who will be able to take over the United States. Trump can't take over because the military is not backing him. A successor to Trump who has the backing of the military could take our freedoms away. All our liberty and freedom in the United States depend, at the end of the day, on respect for a piece of paper. It also depends on respect for the principles and the idea of the United States of America, imperfect as it is. Donald Trump has no respect for that. What do we do when someone who's everything Trump isn't comes along and beguiles enough people to get into the White House?

The American people are on an emotional roller coaster. It is almost a manic state of being. It feels as though Donald Trump will never be derailed. He will be impeached. The Senate will not convict him regardless of his crimes against democracy and the law. What advice would you give about managing these hopes and disappointments?

More than a million people died for this country, and many more, like my father in World War II, became disabled standing up for this country. All we're being asked to do as citizens is to pay attention and vote, contribute money and act. If the American people want to keep our democracy and our liberties and not go down the path that will inevitably lead to firing squads and a dictator, they must get and stay involved politically. If the American people want to maintain, they have got to be vigilant and they must endure.

Nov. 3 is coming. We have the power, it's our country, we own it. We own our government. We should act like owners. What we're seeing in Donald Trump, who is just the symptom of deeper problems, is the wages of 40 years of people renting out their interest in the government, saying, "Let somebody else take care of it. We're going to behave like renters." We can't do that if we want to be a free people. The American people must be civically engaged.

Having to go vote and volunteer some time is nothing compared to all of those gravesites in the Philippines, in France and in Germany, of American soldiers who died for this country. All those Americans in the Union who died in the Civil War. To not be a citizen is to disrespect what they gave up their lives for. We need to take  the responsibility of being a citizen seriously. Not just talk. Not just griping on the internet. Act like an owner. It's important.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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