'Times' Journalists Puncture Myth Of Trump As Self-Made Billionaire Investigative reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow say the president received today's equivalent of $413 million from his father's real estate empire, through what appears to be tax fraud.
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'Times' Journalists Puncture Myth Of Trump As Self-Made Billionaire

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'Times' Journalists Puncture Myth Of Trump As Self-Made Billionaire

'Times' Journalists Puncture Myth Of Trump As Self-Made Billionaire

'Times' Journalists Puncture Myth Of Trump As Self-Made Billionaire

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/658442355/658507560" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Investigative reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow say the president received today's equivalent of $413 million from his father's real estate empire, through what appears to be tax fraud.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump's book "The Art Of The Deal," his TV show "The Apprentice" and his successful presidential campaign were based on his image as a brilliant deal-maker and self-made billionaire. But recent New York Times reporting reveals a different narrative. It's based on a trove of more than a hundred thousand pages of documents, including confidential tax returns and financial records given to the Times by a secret source.

The documents reveal that by age 3, Trump was earning $200,000 a year as measured in today's dollars from his father Fred Trump's real estate empire. Fred Trump made Donald Trump a millionaire by the time Donald was 8. Over the years, Donald received today's equivalent of $413 million from his father's businesses.

Much of this money was transferred from father to son with the help of schemes designed to avoid paying taxes, some of which, according to my guests, were outright fraud. Susanne Craig and David Barstow are two of the reporters at The New York Times who wrote a long investigative article about the many tax maneuvers Fred Trump devised to pass his vast fortune onto his children. Susanne Craig writes about the intersection of politics, money and government for the Times. David Barstow has won three Pulitzer Prizes.

In response to their reporting, a lawyer for President Trump provided a written statement saying, quote, "there was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone. The facts upon which the Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate," unquote. But neither the president nor his lawyers disputed any of the specifics in the Times' financial reporting.

Susanne Craig, David Barstow, congratulations on this extraordinary piece of reporting, and welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you here. Give us a sense of Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father's, real estate empire when it was at its peak.

DAVID BARSTOW: Fred Trump was a remarkable builder in New York's history. He was a guy who had built and sold his first home before he reached the age of 20. By the time he was in his mid-30s, he was building hundreds of homes a year. And by the time he was in his mid-40s, he was really one of the biggest developers, actually, in that country. And what he specialized in was building middle-class housing. His homes, which he built, and his apartment buildings, which he built in almost entirely in Brooklyn and Queens, were kind of these no-frills homes that he was able to build very quickly using a lot of the techniques of mass production. He was described as the Henry Ford of building in Brooklyn and Queens.

And at his - and so he had enormous skill at building middle-class housing, and he also specialized in tapping into this wave of federal housing subsidies that began to build in the '30s and the '40s and especially with the return of the GIs from World War II. And he would become one of the nation's biggest recipients of cheap federal loans to build middle-class housing. And so at his peak, this is a guy who presided over a real estate empire of, you know, many, many, many thousands of units all across Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island, to a certain degree. His biggest apartment complexes are these - just these enormous mini cities - you know, 2,500 units or so. I mean, just, they're...

SUSANNE CRAIG: They're just monster complexes.

BARSTOW: ...Monster complexes. So we're not talking two-, three-unit buildings. We're talking about buildings with hundreds of units.

GROSS: So one of the paradoxes here is that Fred Trump built his fortune in part on taking advantage of cheap federal loans, especially after World War II, when GIs returning from the war really needed housing. And yet, he didn't pay the taxes that he owed, or he didn't pay nearly the amount of taxes that he owed. So he took in a lot of federal dollars and didn't give the federal government what he was supposed to give it at tax time.

BARSTOW: That's exactly right. He felt he was vehemently opposed to the idea that as he passed this fortune onto his family, that he should pay any kind of tax whatsoever on the transfer of that wealth to his children. And he took all kinds of measures that we described in the story to avoid paying either gift taxes or, later on, estate taxes because of this belief that he just felt that what he had made, he - you know, the government just didn't have a right to a single penny of it.

GROSS: Your investigation really, like, deconstructs the Donald Trump myth of the self-made man who got, like, a $1 million loan from his father and used that to build this enormous fortune and this real estate empire. The actual story, which you report, starts when he's, like, 3 years old and starts getting, like, $200,000 a year in today's dollars. So what was the process by which by age 3, he was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from his father?

CRAIG: That started in 1949. And it was one of the projects that had got - that Fred Trump had received government funding to build. It was a complex called Beach Haven. And what Fred Trump did - it was quite ingenious - is he bought the land underneath Beach Haven, the complex that he would go on to build, and he placed the land in a trust for the benefit of his five children. And then he started paying them rent. He makes them his landlord. And every year, they'd continue to get payments. So instead of paying some...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Could we just stop a second?

CRAIG: Yep.

GROSS: I don't really understand how 3-year-old Donald Trump can be his father's landlord. Can you explain that?

CRAIG: Sure. It was his land to do what he wanted with. And he put it in a trust, in this instance, when they were very young for their benefit and began paying them rent. It's completely legal. But that's sort of one of the ways in which he early on - you know, he's in - this point, it's in the 1940s. His children are young. And he's looking for ways, you would imagine at this point, to begin to take care of his children as they get older so that they - you know, when they grow up, they've got money. And it is a way to transfer what is - now he's becoming a very richer man - is one way to begin to transfer wealth to them. This is the first one. It happened in 1949.

GROSS: So what are some of the ways that by the time Donald Trump was a teenager, he was already wealthy? What are some of the other ways his father gave him money?

BARSTOW: He began doing a number of things. So he started buying or building apartment complexes in Brooklyn and Queens and then gradually transferring ownership of those apartment complexes to his children. So, for example, Donald, when he was 17 years old, became co-owner with his family members of a 52-unit apartment building in Brooklyn that his father had acquired for them. And so they would - over time, Fred Trump assembled roughly eight apartment complexes - over a thousand units in all - that he transferred through a variety of mechanisms to his children. So those thousand units start churning out profits that flowed effortlessly into the pockets of his children.

We actually documented in our reporting 295 different revenue streams that Fred Trump ultimately created for Donald Trump over a 50-year period. I mean, Fred Trump was so ingenious at finding different ways of putting money into Donald Trump's pockets. So he didn't just put him on his payroll as a salary employee. He also paid him separately to be a consultant to him. He paid him separately to be a property manager for him. He paid him separately to be a purchasing agent for him. On and on it would go.

CRAIG: He was getting laundry revenue at one point from Fred Trump.

BARSTOW: Yes. And...

CRAIG: ...From the buildings.

BARSTOW: You know, some of these revenue streams were relatively modest. Some of them were kind of one-hit wonders. But when you added it all up, it was this incredible stream of money that made Donald Trump - he was a millionaire, actually, by the time he was 8 or 9 years old. Before he ever entered and set foot into Manhattan, where he would make his name, Fred Trump had already transferred to him over $9 million in wealth.

GROSS: So you say by the time he was 29, in 1975, Donald Trump had collected nearly 9 million - the equivalent of $9 million in today's dollars from his father. When he was 30, in 1976, the myth of Donald Trump really starts to expand. There's a 1976 article in your newspaper, The New York Times, and you describe it as one of the first major Donald Trump profiles and a cornerstone of decades of mythmaking about his wealth. What did the article say? What were the main points of this 1976 article about Donald Trump?

BARSTOW: It was really one of the first big, big profiles that ran of Donald Trump. And Donald Trump did something in this particular profile that he would actually repeat and use to great effect in subsequent profiles, which was he took The New York Times reporter on a tour of what he called his jobs, his empire. And he starts driving around New York pointing out this building and that building and talking about how wonderful they were doing.

And effectively, what he was doing was he was appropriating his father's empire as if it were his own empire. So these buildings that he's pointing out as his jobs and part of his empire, they were, in fact, completely owned by his father. He had no ownership stake in any of those buildings. And so what he did, especially when it was critical to kind of the early mythmaking of Donald Trump, was he simply asserted that his father's empire was his empire.

And those claims, unfortunately, largely went unchallenged for many, many years by the reporters who were kind of swept up in the glamor of this young, swaggering, handsome guy who was so full of confidence and so full of big plans for the city of New York. And so that story was the thing that, I think, helped give birth to the myth of Donald Trump, self-made billionaire.

CRAIG: One of the things that's really remarkable about that story when you read it is, you know, he goes through job after job and says that things that are his father's are his own. And he tells the reporter that he's worth in excess of $200 million. And everything he pointed to in this story that would go to his net worth at that time was his father's. He had a tax return a few years later where we see he declared - I think he made $25,000 a couple years later.

BARSTOW: That year, actually - that exact - that year...

CRAIG: It was actually that year.

BARSTOW: ...1976.

CRAIG: Yeah.

BARSTOW: And yet, he was sitting there saying that he was worth $200 million. And that was a claim that he would - part of the claim that would put him on the very first list of wealthiest Americans published by Forbes magazine in 19 - I want to say - '81, '82 - '81, somewhere in there.

CRAIG: And it was a spectacular con.

GROSS: And I guess Donald Trump got used to people taking him at his word, even when his word wasn't true.

BARSTOW: Yeah. And these things build up. Right? They're like these layers. Right? And reporters come along, and they are assigned to do some story about Donald Trump. And they go look at the clips or they go look at what's been written about him before. And it all kind of accumulates into this sort of sediment of, in this case, a kind of mythology of a man who had, at least in his telling of his story - the famous line that he's always said is that he started with a million-dollar loan from his father, had to pay it back with interest. And then he parlayed that million-dollar loan into a $10 billion empire.

And that remained, for the most part, the dominant narrative that he sold, certainly, you know, to make himself a celebrity and to gain power. And ultimately, it's what he campaigned on very heavily to win the presidency. And so this story really dissects that narrative and, I think more than anything else, offers readers, now based on actual facts and based on actual documents, an entirely new financial narrative of the 45th president.

GROSS: Well, let me re-introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guests are Susanne Craig and David Barstow of The New York Times, who wrote a remarkable investigative piece on President Trump's inherited money from his father, the loans he got from his father, the tax evasion schemes the family had. And that was published a couple of weeks ago. You can find it online. We're going to talk more about how Donald Trump engaged in suspect tax schemes as he reaped riches from his father after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow, two of the three writers who reported just a couple of weeks ago on how Donald Trump engaged in suspect tax schemes as he reaped riches from his father. And it deconstructs the whole Donald Trump myth about how he's a self-made millionaire or billionaire. And it shows, like, how much money Fred Trump, Donald's father, funneled to him and his other siblings and how they came up with schemes to avoid paying taxes, making Donald Trump a very, very wealthy man by the time he was a teenager.

OK. So in addition to some of the tax schemes we talked about, Fred Trump made a lot of loans to Donald Trump. Donald Trump has always said that he got a million-dollar loan from his father and helped parlay that into his own empire. So how much money would you estimate Fred Trump gave Donald Trump in loans?

BARSTOW: We were able to document in real dollars $60 million in loans, not one million. In today's dollars, it equates to $140 million in loans, which is on top of the $413 million in direct wealth that we saw transferred to Donald. What we also saw - I think what is important also is that, in many cases, these were loans that were never repaid. You know, he would take out - we were looking at one particular year, and it was like every month. He's going back to Dad, and he's borrowing another couple hundred thousand bucks and then another 500,000 bucks and then a million dollars. It was just, like, a monthly run to Fred Trump to get more money.

And we saw especially that the flow of loans increased as Donald Trump took on big, new projects, or they increased when he was suddenly in trouble, he had run into another financial ditch. So it was a really steady stream that went well beyond, you know, the notion of a guy in his early 20s getting a million dollars from Dad and then being off to the races. These were loans that actually extended well into his 40s and 50s.

GROSS: So how did Donald Trump use the money that was loaned from his father?

CRAIG: Yeah. He used the money for many of his ventures. He had Trump Tower. Money that he got from Fred Trump was used to support that. It was used to support his ventures in Atlantic City and elsewhere. Many of them went under. I mean, especially, you look at Donald Trump's history in Atlantic City, he's got several bankruptcies. At one point, he was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. And this is a time he not only owed the banks hundreds of millions of dollars, he was in debt to his father and was going to his father at these very crucial times for more support.

GROSS: So he gets a lot of money from his father, tries to build his own empire and ends up in debt in a lot of instances, instead of making a fortune from his own investments.

BARSTOW: You also see that when he fell - you know, when he would fall down, the safety net was there. The Fred Trump safety net was there to catch him.

CRAIG: There was one just almost unbelievable moment in the story, and you see it in 1990. And this is a time in, you know, the back end of 1990. And Donald Trump is in incredible financial distress. A number of his companies are either in trouble or facing bankruptcy. And Fred Trump had been there for him at every turn, according to the documents. We can see he's assisting him with money in one case. Donald Trump's casinos, they're facing a debt payment. And Fred Trump has a lawyer go into the casino and buy casino chips and walk out without placing a bet. It was simply a way to give Donald Trump money. And this period...

GROSS: And this was, like, $3 1/2 million worth of chips. Right?

CRAIG: It was $3 1/2 millon worth of casino chips. And at this period, his father is there for him at every turn in every document that we can see. And Donald Trump, at this period, has a lawyer - one of his lawyers - draft a codicil to his father's will, essentially a new will. And this codicil to the will is taken to Fred Trump's house in December 1990. And Fred Trump immediately sees this codicil as an attempt by Donald to take control of his empire and to potentially put it at risk.

And Fred Trump immediately says no. He freaks out. And he makes a call to his daughter, who is a federal judge and a lawyer. And a new codicil, within months, is drafted that removes Donald as the sole executor of Fred Trump's will and puts Donald and Robert Trump and Maryanne Trump in charge of his affairs. And then ultimately, a new will is drafted.

But you see, in the depth of Donald Trump's financial life, after all his father has done for him, that he makes this move that's an incredibly dramatic move. And it's scarring to the family, what he did.

GROSS: So what you're saying, I think, is that at the end of Fred Trump's life - or toward the end of Fred Trump's life, Donald Trump tried to take advantage of him for Donald Trump's own good, to help Donald Trump bail himself out. And Fred Trump, Donald's father, became suspicious of the son that he had helped with so much money over so many years.

BARSTOW: What we know for sure is that Fred Trump perceived this as an attempt by his son to gain complete control over his estate and, potentially, to use the empire that Fred Trump had doggedly and patiently built over many decades - to use that empire, potentially, as collateral to help bail Donald Trump out of his own financial difficulties.

GROSS: My guests are New York Times reporters David Barstow and Susanne Craig. After a break, we'll talk about another scheme used to transfer wealth from Fred Trump's real estate empire to his children. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERNESTO CERVINI'S "WOEBEGONE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow who, along with Russ Buettner, spent a year and a half investigating how Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, used various tax schemes to transfer about 413 million in today's dollars from Fred's real estate empire to Donald. The reporters say one of the family's tax schemes involve fraud. This story offers a completely different narrative than the one Donald Trump has always presented of himself as a self-made billionaire.

One of the Trump family concerns when Fred Trump was old was that he might die owning an empire and having lots of money, meaning that he'd have to pay taxes on all of it. And I think the taxes would have been 55 percent. And so Donald Trump and his siblings came up with a plan that involved - and this is something that you discovered. They came up with a plan that involved starting a company they called All County Building Supply & Maintenance. This was in 1992.

Susanne, would you describe how this company functioned?

CRAIG: Sure. This was an interesting moment because, when you think of Fred Trump, you think of all the buildings that he owned. He owned numerous buildings in Queens and Brooklyn worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But Fred Trump was also somebody who hated debt. And so he had very little debt on these buildings. And the documents that we found - when we were sort of going through them, we saw he had just mountains of cash. Tens of millions of dollars of cash were flowing through his personal bank accounts and the bank accounts of the buildings. And this created a huge problem for the siblings because if he died, he would be facing that 55 percent estate tax.

So they created a company in the early 1990s called All County Building Supply & Maintenance. And it was a company - the shareholders were Donald Trump and his siblings and a nephew of Fred Trump. And what this company did was - for years, Fred Trump's buildings would go out, and they would buy supplies. You'd see everything from fridges and stoves to boilers to supplies if they needed a new roof to windows - all this stuff would be bought by the buildings. And they would go to, like, Long Island wholesalers or a Home Depot, and they would get what they needed. And Fred Trump's buildings would pay for that.

And then one day, All County, the company that Donald Trump and his siblings owned - they would go out, and All County would pay for the material. The difference is if they paid $500 for a fridge-stove combo, they would then send a separate invoice, a padded invoice, up to Fred Trump and the building that he owned. And they would mark it up to, say, $700. And the shareholders of All County, Donald Trump and his siblings, would pocket the difference. This went on for years on item after item after item. And they were successfully able to drain tens of millions of dollars from Fred Trump's buildings this way.

GROSS: So the sole purpose, as far as you can tell, of this company that the Trump children created was to inflate the prices of things like boilers and stove-refrigerators and other, like, things that buildings need. So they'd buy them, inflate the price, sell it to Fred Trump for his real estate empire, pocket the difference so that they'd make hundreds of dollars every time they'd sell something to Fred Trump. And that was a way of, like, transferring money from Fred Trump to the siblings.

CRAIG: Yeah. And as we started out on the reporting assignment, one of the questions - immediately, we knew Fred Trump drove a hard deal. He was very careful with his money. And every penny was, you know, you could see - he would account for it. He was a guy who would walk construction sites. And if he saw a nail on the ground, he would pick it up and make sure it was used somewhere. So we found it hard to believe that he wasn't already driving a pretty hard deal with the dealers and the sellers that he had to do business with every day from the buildings.

But we went out and we looked for possible employees that All County had. Maybe they had a purchasing department that was actually getting better deals. And we, through our interviews and the documents that we had, we couldn't find any even employees that All County had. It was simply a mechanism where it would mark up the material and then bill Fred. It was basically an invoice padding operation where they would just overcharge Fred on these items. It served no other purpose.

GROSS: When the Trump siblings set up All County, this company that just existed to siphon money from Fred Trump and give it to the children, did Fred Trump know about the company - about the purpose of the company? Was he a knowing part of its creation?

BARSTOW: We think that he absolutely was. He was in on the strategy meetings where they came up with these ideas. And it appealed to him because it was - he was someone who just hated the idea of paying any kind of gift or estate taxes. And we also see his signature on checks that were written to All County Building Supply. So he was a man who paid close attention to every penny. And so there's evidence, both in the reporting and in the documents, that he was absolutely - this was something that he was all on board with.

GROSS: And then, in a way, like, the collateral victims of these inflated costs were renters in a lot of Fred Trump properties because he used those inflated costs for boilers and refrigerators and stoves as a way to justify raising the rent on people living in government rent-controlled units.

CRAIG: That's right. When you're an owner of a building and you have rent-controlled apartments - you have people living in them, you have to apply to the city or the state to have the rent increased. And you have to send over proof when you do that that you've made various improvements. And in this case, they used the padded receipts in many instances, the false receipts, to say that we made repairs worth, you know, 100,000 or 120,000, when, in fact, those repairs may have only cost 80,000. They used these bogus receipts that they had created to justify higher than what should have been rent increases. And in the depositions that we have that we obtained during our reporting, Robert Trump, Donald Trump's brother, talks about this. And he says, the higher the markup, the higher the rent we could charge.

GROSS: After Fred, the parent, died in June 1999 at age 93, you say the vast bulk of his empire was nowhere to be found in his estate and that that was a testament to the success of the tax strategies to transfer money to the Trump children. But you write, the single-largest item included in Fred Trump's estate tax return was a $10.3 million IOU from Donald Trump, money Donald Trump appeared to have borrowed the year before Fred Trump died. We've heard stories about Donald Trump's debt to banks. But this is the first I'm hearing that he owed his father millions of dollars when his father died.

BARSTOW: Well, he owed his father money for most of his life. And there were repeated strategies through the years to do something about those unpaid debts that would accumulate. So for example, in the late 1980s - at this point, Donald Trump owed his father somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million bucks. And the problem is that if his father simply canceled the debt, well, in the eyes of the IRS, a canceled dollar of debt is the same as a dollar of income. So if Fred Trump had simply canceled the debt and said I forgive you; you don't have to pay me back, Donald Trump would have owed a chunk of tax for what's called cancellation of debt.

So Donald Trump and Fred Trump came up with this other way of making that debt completely disappear. And it involved trading that debt for a stake in one of Donald Trump's buildings - so $15 million or so of debt for a stake in a building called Trump Palace. And then a few years later, Fred Trump sold that $15 million stake back to his son for $10,000. Poof - there goes that huge debt.

GROSS: My guests are New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow. After a break, we'll talk more about the reporting into how Donald Trump became wealthy through money transferred from his father Fred Trump's real estate empire. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow who, along with Russ Buettner, published a long, investigative article this month about how Fred Trump used schemes to avoid paying taxes while transferring money from his real estate empire to Donald Trump. Measured in today's dollars, Donald received about 413 million.

Susanne, after Fred Trump died, Donald Trump took the lead and decided they should sell off everything...

CRAIG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That Fred Trump still owned at the time of his death. Why did Donald Trump make that decision?

CRAIG: So the interesting thing about that sale - and it's something that we noticed again and again when we were doing our reporting - was that Fred Trump very much wanted this empire to stay in the family. He had kept it together through his whole life. And he had hoped that after his death that they would keep it. And I think while we can never really get into Donald Trump's mind as to why he sold it, in 2003, there was a family meeting.

And they had regular family meetings after Fred Trump died. They would hand out checks. You know, Fred Trump's buildings were very profitable. And they would meet every few months to get an update on the status of the empire and to get a check. And then in 2003, at one of these meetings, Donald Trump announced that it was time to sell and quickly assembled a private sale to a developer in New York for almost all of it. And it was sold - you know, give or take a few buildings - in one sale for just under $800 million.

GROSS: So the buildings that were sold, were those buildings that Fred Trump had still owned at the time of his death? Or did it also include all the buildings that had been transferred from Fred Trump to the children?

CRAIG: They included both the buildings that had been transferred and the ones that he owned. It was pretty much his whole empire. And it sold - you know, the buildings that sold in 2004 were to a New York developer named Ruby Schron, and the price tag was just over $700 million. And what's interesting about that is we learned through the documents that we went through that that sale price was roughly just under $200 million than what the banks would value it at, you know, in the months after the sale. So it's incredible to see that that empire was sold for much less than they could've got for it very quietly and for much less.

GROSS: So it wasn't, like, the deal of the century that Donald Trump made?

CRAIG: It definitely wasn't.

GROSS: So if the Trump family was involved with tax fraud and tax evasion schemes, how did they get all of this past the IRS?

BARSTOW: You know, first of all, they actually didn't completely get away with it. So it's true that the IRS actually did perform some audits on some of the tax returns that we described in the story. And in fact, the IRS auditors did push back some, especially on the low valuations they placed on buildings, and made the Trumps pay a few million more bucks on this return and a few million more bucks on that return.

But the way it really works in this world is, you know, you've got an agency that is pretty overmatched, overworked and an auditor who can walk into a session and can extract a few million dollars. And that's a really good day's work for that auditor. But in the meantime, you know, wealthy families who hire the most expensive legal and accounting help and who engage in these very sophisticated maneuvers to avoid or evade taxes, they're playing a much bigger game. And they might be more than happy to pay a couple million dollars more at the request of an auditor. They're looking, though, at the fact that - for a couple million dollars more, meanwhile, they're walking away avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes because of, simply, the mismatch between the resources of the IRS, which has been hit very hard by budget cuts that especially hit the people who are looking at gift and estate tax returns.

GROSS: Susanne, I'm going to ask you to choose either "The Art Of The Deal," "The Art Of The Comeback" or "The Apprentice" and tell us what was actually going on in Donald Trump's financial life when these books or the show based on all his fabulous accomplishments and deals went public.

CRAIG: I'm thinking which one to choose.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAIG: What are you thinking, David?

BARSTOW: "Art Of The Comeback."

CRAIG: (Laughter) Go for it.

BARSTOW: Oh. Well, so he publishes "The Art Of The Comeback" in 1997. And it's this story of his sort of, you know, pulling himself up out of the muck of his casino collapse and, through his grit and determination and wily negotiating skills, getting himself back on his feet. Well, within - a few weeks of the publication of this book so happens to coincide with the time when he actually took possession of one-quarter of his father's real estate empire through one of these very elaborate tax schemes that we describe in the story. So at this moment when he's boasting about, you know, his derring-do of getting himself off the mat, it actually coincides perfectly with the moment when he's just taken possession of 25 percent of this enormous real estate empire. And somehow, someway, not a word of that made its way into the book "The Art Of The Comeback."

CRAIG: I'm also thinking of, immediately, "The Apprentice" and the opening scene of "The Apprentice" and the song - money, money, money, money - that happened in 2004 right as the sale had gone through, the hundreds of millions of dollars that they had gotten from Fred Trump. And yet when you watch that opening scene, it's all Donald Trump - Donald Trump's plane is there, the gold tower in Midtown Manhattan - when, in fact, it was all the opening scene that Fred Trump built and paid for.

GROSS: I'm wondering how you feel knowing that you have just totally punctured the myth of how Donald Trump made his money and what he did with his money and his great negotiating, deal-making abilities. And so many people still believe the myth, and Donald Trump is still putting forward the myth.

CRAIG: It's interesting. When I think about that, I think you have to sort of - I go back to that idea - you know, the lie repeated over and over and passed down into history becomes fact. And I think that we've reset that. I think it's going to take time for this to move into the bloodstream of America. But I think that we've taken, I think, a good first stop in resetting exactly the origins of Donald Trump's wealth. But I do think it's going to take time, and I think there's some people who are always going to believe what they want to believe.

But I think the the power of the story is, you know, I think, how careful we were and how documented it was and the Times' decision to put so many of those documents up. I think it's really hard to refute the story. It's hard to refute because it's absolutely true, and the documents are there. And a lot of them are the source documents of the Trump family themselves. But I think it will take time for this to sort of - you know, for people to digest it. And - but I think it's going to happen.

GROSS: So you spent a lot of time in the past year and a half in a separate room in The New York Times that was basically sealed off to everybody except the three reporters working on this story. And all the documents that you drew from, that you got access to were locked up in this room. Who cleaned it? Who was allowed in to clean it?

(LAUGHTER)

CRAIG: We did not have a cleaner. I admit - and I haven't told anybody this - I did come in one day with a little vacuum and (laughter) whirred around (ph). But yeah, it was just the three of us for a year with - yeah. It's pretty messy.

(LAUGHTER)

BARSTOW: It got a little ripe in there every now and again.

CRAIG: Yeah.

GROSS: A little claustrophobic too, I'd imagine.

BARSTOW: Yeah. Yeah, it was.

GROSS: Did other people know why you were locked up in this room?

CRAIG: A few people knew. Our editors knew, but I think there was a lot of sort of mystery surrounding it. We kind of kept to ourselves. And yeah, it was difficult. Everybody - you know, people keep asking you what you're up to. And - but yeah, we tried to keep a lid on it as best we could.

GROSS: Well, thank you for your reporting. And thank you for telling us about it.

Susanne Craig, David Barstow, thank you so much.

BARSTOW: You're welcome. Thank you.

CRAIG: Thank you.

GROSS: Susanne Craig and David Barstow are reporters for The New York Times. Their article, reported with Russ Buettner, about the suspect tax schemes used to transfer wealth from Fred Trump to his children was published earlier this month in The New York Times magazine. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Eric Church, who performed in Vegas at the concert where a shooter opened fire on the audience. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

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