UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
The New York Times has published a huge investigative piece about President Donald Trump's tax returns. They've been the subject of curiosity and secrecy for years now. And some of the revelations are pretty splashy, including that President Trump's businesses have claimed billions of dollars in losses over the years and that President Trump has basically not paid corporate taxes in more than a decade. Business success has long been a source of pride for President Trump. There's speculation these revelations will damage Trump's reputation as a successful businessman, a reputation he has been cultivating since the publication of his bestselling 1987 book, "The Art Of The Deal." The book was co-written by Tony Schwartz, who was not a corporate tycoon but a journalist who did a profile of Trump for Playboy magazine. Trump told Tony he couldn't give him much material for the article because he had to save his best stories for this book he was about to write.
TONY SCHWARTZ: And I said, well, what's the book? And he said, well, it's my autobiography. And I said, well, you don't have an autobiography yet. You're only 37 years old. And if I were you and you're determined to write a book, I'd call it "The Art Of The Deal" because people are interested in deals right now. And he said, I like that. You want to write it? And therein, Stacey, the fateful decision of my life.
VANEK SMITH: The die was cast.
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show - a conversation with Tony Schwartz about "The Art Of The Deal," taxes and Donald Trump the businessman.
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VANEK SMITH: Tony Schwartz, co-author of "The Art Of The Deal," thank you so much for joining me. So from what I understand, in order to write this book, you spent a lot of time with President Trump kind of watching him do business.
SCHWARTZ: The way Trump worked and lived his life was on the phone. And if since I was writing about deals and since he was talking about those deals on all his phone calls, that was a way I could do the book.
VANEK SMITH: So you basically spent how many months just, like, listening to Trump do business?
SCHWARTZ: I spent almost a year, maybe nine months.
VANEK SMITH: What kinds of calls would you be on - property owners, like...
SCHWARTZ: Everything, everything - bankers, lawyers, the media.
VANEK SMITH: What did you observe over this year of being on all these phone calls with him?
SCHWARTZ: One of the things I observed is that his primary style was to huff and puff till he blew you down. He would say anything if it advanced his cause. And then he would keep saying it and saying it and saying it. You know, that's the way he is now. He's exactly the same.
VANEK SMITH: Was there, like, a deal that sort of stands out in your mind as kind of like a classic Trump deal?
SCHWARTZ: Well, yeah, I think it was the deal to build Trump Tower.
VANEK SMITH: That's one of his most profitable - I mean, remains one of his most profitable.
VANEK SMITH: That was a big, successful deal for him.
SCHWARTZ: Yes. And I would say that - I never say this, but here I go. There were flashes of brilliance, of intuitive brilliance, in the making of that deal. Now, there were some very awful things he did in the making of that deal, but he really did do a remarkable job of gathering together a very - on a fantastic location, the rights that made it possible to build a building of that size.
VANEK SMITH: Like the permits and the loans and all that stuff.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, to get the air rights from Tiffany, the labyrinthine process you go through with the planning commission and with the city to be able to do it. You know, he put together the pieces of that deal, and then he did something in the lobby that I think won tremendous attention. You know, it was - there weren't many indoor malls at the time, certainly not filled with gold and the kind of marble he used. And it did become a massive tourist attraction.
VANEK SMITH: One of the things that surprised me when I was learning about your journey with him was how very open he was with you. Were you surprised at how secretive he was about his tax returns?
SCHWARTZ: Look; he knows that not paying taxes is not going to be impressive or appealing to other people, particularly, you know, among people who make far less than he does, which is virtually everyone. When they have to pay tax and then it's reported that he pays none, that's something that's worth keeping secret.
VANEK SMITH: The thing that strikes me about the taxes, though, is - you know, on his tax returns, it's, like, the reason he's not paying taxes is because he's losing all this money. And, I mean, companies, people do this all the time. They write stuff off against their taxes. Why would he hide it? Is it the idea of showing that his businesses are losing money?
SCHWARTZ: Well, that would be awful. That's awful to him. In many ways, that's worse than all the rest.
VANEK SMITH: Really?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. To have it be seen that he is not the businessman he has claimed to be is - it would be to him a sign of failure, weakness, vulnerability that would be or is almost intolerable to him.
VANEK SMITH: What about his relationship with money? Like, money is different things to different people. You know, for some people, it's freedom. For some people, it's security. What is money for President Trump?
SCHWARTZ: A direct expression of his value. He defines his personal worth by his net worth. But just to go back to the taxes, I mean, if you just take something as simple as the deduction of $70,000 for haircuts over a period of years...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Yes.
SCHWARTZ: ...This is so obviously among many, many other deductions he takes. He did it because he thought he could get away with it.
VANEK SMITH: What was his approach to taxes back then? Did you see any, like, deals that stick out in your head that involved taxes of some kind?
SCHWARTZ: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He looked at it, you know, as a transaction, of course. He looked at it as if I can avoid taxes, then I'm going to do it, which, by the way, to some degree or another, all real estate developers do.
VANEK SMITH: Did you enjoy spending time with President Trump?
SCHWARTZ: Nobody ever asks me that. That's a - that's great. In a certain way, I did. I would sort of - I would say being around Trump in that era - because that was probably a high point in his career. You know, Trump Tower had just opened.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah, he was - he had an international brand. He was known everywhere.
SCHWARTZ: There were times when the sheer adrenaline of being around this guy, the fact that he was in some way sort of larger than life had a certain kind of intoxicating pull.
VANEK SMITH: I mean, I do have to ask, like, how much money did you make off the book?
SCHWARTZ: I think probably a million and a half dollars or...
VANEK SMITH: Whoa.
SCHWARTZ: ...Maybe more.
VANEK SMITH: That's a lot, though.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I do want to say the book has earned somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars since Trump became president. I have earned a quarter of a million dollars and so has he. And I have given all of that money away and given it away specifically to causes that defend the kinds of people who Trump ignores - immigrants and poor people and environmental causes - because I did come to see that money as blood money.
VANEK SMITH: Do you think that President Trump would be President Trump if it hadn't been for "The Art Of The Deal?"
SCHWARTZ: If I'm being brutally honest, my guess is no. If I hadn't helped to set the frame, the fictional frame, that "The Art Of The Deal" does about who Donald Trump is, it's much less likely that he would have been able to work his way up the ladder in the way that he did. I mean, like, all three of the casinos that I wrote about in "The Art Of The Deal" went bankrupt. So, you know, most of the deals in "The Art Of The Deal" that we wrote about as if they were great successes were actually failures.
VANEK SMITH: Tony Schwartz is the author of the new book "Dealing With The Devil: My Mother, Trump, And Me." This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR's edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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