“When a man becomes president,” said Rudy Giuliani not long ago, “he shouldn’t be subject to a review of his entire life.” Putting aside for the moment whether such a review should or should not take place, Giuliani has correctly identified what is happening. The new Democratic House that will conduct oversight into the presidency and obtain his tax returns, the multiple state-level investigations into Trump’s transparent business fraud, and the Mueller probe will all pry open a massive trove of secrets held tight over decades.
Giuliani’s position is that, having been elected president, Trump should be granted immunity for his past crimes. (Of course, Giuliani also opposes holding Trump accountable for his misdeeds since taking office, like obstruction of justice, but never mind.) Giuliani’s complaint may intuitively seem fair — why should Trump, or any president, face another review of his entire life? That, after all, is what presidential campaigns are for, so presumably Trump’s election settled that matter. But the answer to this query is that, in truth, Trump was never really vetted in the first place.
This may seem like a strange thing to say about such an apparently familiar persona. Trump has been a ubiquitous character in American culture for decades. He first contemplated running for president more than 30 years ago, and 18 years ago “President Trump” was already a comedy punchline. Trump’s career has produced a body of coverage so massive that no single person could possibly hope to absorb it all. Yet we are even now discovering the extent to which Trump is a secretive, mysterious figure who has escaped basic scrutiny. And this oversight has occurred not despite his media overexposure but, in some ways, because of it.
It was only three months ago that the New York Times published a dramatic exposé upending the entire Trump financial mythos. Trump had always insisted he had received “just” a $1 million loan from his father as a young man, which he repaid. Before the Times’ story came out, his critics used to express doubt that Trump had actually ever paid back the million dollars. In fact, the Times established that Trump has received $413 million from his father, all in gifts rather than loans, and the vast bulk of it transferred illegally, to avoid estate and gift tax.
What’s more, the story reconstructs how Fred Trump carefully manufactured his son’s image. The family presented its young heir to the media as an already-accomplished young millionaire of his own. The key vehicle for the publicity campaign was the Times itself. In 1976, a reporter toured Trump’s properties alongside him in a chauffeured Cadillac and dutifully fawned over the “tall, lean and blond” developer, who had amassed more than $200 million at the tender age of 30. The Times now debunks its own story. It reports that all the properties depicted in the story as Donald’s burgeoning empire — even the Cadillac they rode around in — were actually purchased by Fred Trump.
But the lie was reproduced 10,000 times over, and the man who won the 2016 election was the fictional character established in stories like that one. The truth, meanwhile, has only begun to scratch the surface. Basic facts about Trump’s life, which would have been thoroughly plumbed were he any other presidential candidate, are only starting to be investigated. A recent Patrick Radden Keefe profile of Mark Burnett reveals how the reality television producer turned Trump into a commanding business tycoon. “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture,” one Apprentice producer recalls in the piece. “We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
The Apprentice depicted Trump not as a bankrupt crook but as a wealthy genius, for whose favor a cast of supplicants would compete. The show revolved around competing business ideas that Trump would oversee. The problem was that Trump — just as he does in the White House — made irrational and bizarre choices. He “was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump.” Keefe reports that in such instances, the producers would edit the footage to make Trump’s foolish decisions appear wise. Tens of millions of Americans voted for a television character they took to be some reasonable approximation of a real person.
The day after Christmas, the Times broke another exclusive story. The podiatrist who diagnosed Trump with bone spurs, thus protecting him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam, was a tenant of his father’s. The doctor’s daughter told the Times the diagnosis was made as a favor to the senior Trump.
Military service histories, or lack thereof, are a customary subject for journalists to scrutinize during presidential campaigns. The steps taken by candidates like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to avoid going to Vietnam were documented in excruciating and sometimes damaging detail. It’s amazing that the background of how Trump obtained a highly suspicious diagnosis is only being ascertained now, two years into his presidency.
One reason Trump has escaped scrutiny, of course, is that he has withheld his tax returns. The more information about his finances that dribbles out, of course, the more explicable that decision appears. Trump has an obvious motive to conceal his decades of dependency on his father’s largesse, as well as the apparent role played by Russian money laundering in replacing those cash infusions after his father’s money ran out. Those tax returns, a basic object of examination in vetting any presidential candidate — and all the more crucial for a candidate whose qualification is asserted based solely on his business credentials — will finally be exposed now that Democrats have the power to subpoena them.
Another reason is that the sheer volume of news Trump has created has had a distorting effect that the media could never quite account for. Trump spent decades courting the news media, and was covered like a member of the British royal family. The sheer mass of the coverage blotted out any damning details. And the pace of the coverage accelerated during the campaign. On a daily basis, Trump committed astonishing offenses of the sort that would have destroyed an ordinary campaign. But there was hardly any bandwidth to exercise the normal due diligence in vetting presidential nominees. And when such reporting was conducted, its impact could hardly register against the constant blaring of outrages.
Measured in absolute terms, or against other candidates, Trump was subject to harsh, unrelenting scrutiny. But measured against the scale of his own dark past, he skated into office with barely any vetting at all, abetted by decades of friendly propaganda.
The review of Trump’s life is only beginning now. It will probably tell us that Trump is not merely a politician who has abused his power, or a businessman who has cut corners. He is a criminal who happened to be elected president.