The man who saw Trump coming: Wayne Barrett warned us decades ago

Legendary investigative reporter Wayne Barrett didn't live to see Trump's downfall — but he knew it was coming

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published April 10, 2023 12:28PM (EDT)

Businessman Donald Trump and his wife Ivana appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, Illinois, April 25, 1988. (Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Businessman Donald Trump and his wife Ivana appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, Illinois, April 25, 1988. (Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

As the first former U.S. president in history has now been arrested (on, oh, 34 felony charges of falsifying business records as part of a scheme to hide damaging information from voters before the 2016 election), it's the perfect time to remember Wayne Barrett, the investigative journalist whose keen eye on public corruption naturally led him to scrutinize Donald Trump.

For all he did to expose corruption, largely in the pages of the Village Voice, Barrett deserves much more recognition in New York than he has gotten. Over some 40 years, he energetically and meticulously covered misdoings by politicians and public figures, so a nod to his work could go nearly anywhere. For his early warnings to the public about a certain young, brash real estate player, it would be especially fitting to see it on Fifth Avenue, perhaps on the west side of the street, directly across from the architectural monstrosity of Trump Tower.

One can learn much about political dealmaking in New York in the late 20th century in "Without Compromise: The Brave Journalism That First Exposed Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the American Epidemic of Corruption," a collection of Barrett's investigative article published after his death in 2017, prefaced with essays by people who knew and worked with him.

Now that the twice-impeached, disgraced former president has been indicted (or "INDICATED," as he proclaimed on Truth Social), we are reading again about Trump's history of terrible behavior, from his merely boorish and gauche default mode to the pathetically self-serving (using a fake voice to try to get press coverage); to the relentlessly racist (being sued for racial discrimination, "birtherism," "very fine people") to the misogynistic ("face of a dog," "horse face," and many other sexist insults) to his pathological inability to tell the truth (30,000-plus lies as president) to the flat-out criminal (falsifying business records, conspiring to overturn election results and dozens of specific claims of sexual assault or harassment).

With an unhinged person like Trump, it's good to get such a recap because it is all truly difficult to keep up with, which we now understand to be the point. But more stories that describe Trump's historical assault on our aesthetic sensibilities, our civic life and our democracy should at least offer a hat-tip to Barrett's early warnings about the future sociopath in chief.

A must-read in the collection is Barrett's "Like Father, Like Son: Anatomy of a Young Power Broker," the first of a two-part series published by the Voice in January 1979, which takes a close look at Trump's political dealings in securing a West Side site for a new convention center and in replacing the old Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Station.

Somehow, Trump hears that Barrett is researching him and calls him to let him know that he knows. He then agrees to interviews, during which he alternately tries to seduce the journalist with offers of a nicer place to live and threatens him with a lawsuit. Barrett notes that, for Trump, "every relationship is a transaction."

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It's also in that article that Barrett describes how Trump inherited his father's political connections (Fred was tight with Mayor Abe Beame's political machine) and used public money to make a fortune without putting up a dollar of his own: "Like his father," Barrett writes, "Donald Trump has pushed each deal to the limit, taking from it whatever he can get, turning political connections into private profits at public expense."

Describing Trump's willingness to say, at any given moment, whatever suits him best, Barrett writes:

In his interviews with me, Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that the firm was an awesome force in the industry. He also claimed that his convention center and hotel would be the largest in the country. They will not be. Real estate entrepreneurs do their own advertising, and Trump has a way of doubling or shaving every number when it suits him.

From wildly misstating the size of the crowd at his inauguration to the 17 charges of tax fraud charges on which two Trump companies were recently convicted, we all now know more than we want to about Trump's reflexive pattern of avoiding the truth whenever that strikes him as beneficial.

"Real estate entrepreneurs do their own advertising, and Trump has a way of doubling or shaving every number when it suits him."

Barrett didn't limit himself to the go-go Trump of the 1980s and beyond (he published an unauthorized biography, "Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth," in 1991). He also cast his observant eye on the doings of one Rudy Giuliani, a longtime adversary, friend and ultimately groveling servant of Trump's

Everyone who, for whatever reason, still feels some admiration "America's Mayor" should read "The Yankees Cleanup Man," Barrett's 2007 look at how Giuliani, then a leading candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, had a longtime hands-out relationship with the New York Yankees. As noted in the book when reminded more than a decade later of this article documenting how he had helped himself to Yankee freebies and memorabilia, including World Series rings, Giuliani reportedly grew irate all over again about "fucking Wayne Barrett." (That quote came in handy as a blurb for "Without Compromise.")

Barrett would no doubt have been gratified to see the indictment of Trump for falsifying business records, with more charges almost certain to follow. But it's not as if the courts and juries have not already found a number of Trump's organizations and associates guilty of a veritable slew of misdeeds: from his fined and dissolved charity to his bogus university, his fraud-happy real estate organization and the various convictions of a number of his enablers and hatchet men.

Were he still with us, Barrett would well recognize the man who ran a "Lock Her Up" campaign and micromanaged the Department of Justice while in office, and who now whines about justice being "weaponized." He would also recognize the man who attempted on multiple fronts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and now complains of "Election Interference at the highest level in history."

Barrett would no doubt be especially gratified  that Trump is first facing the music in New York, the city they shared. (Another New York case, a civil suit against Trump on the battery and defamation charges brought by E. Jean Carroll, is likely to go to trial soon.)

"Without Compromise," stands as a fitting tribute to the work Barrett did to inform the public in the city he loved. To be fair to his work the monument could perhaps be placed outside City Hall, since Barrett exposed corruption on both sides of the political spectrum, which in the New York of the '70s and '80s was dominated by Democrats. (Including Donald J. Trump, at that time.) 

But if anyone wishes to honor Wayne Barrett while sticking it to the guy who has spent his life enriching himself at the public's expense while calling the free press "the enemy of the people," that spot on Fifth Avenue would be perfect.

After all, Trump once suggested to Barrett that he could get him a place there. Maybe that day has come.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Commentary Donald Trump Indictment Journalism Media Trump Crimes Wayne Barrett