We really should have seen this coming. On Monday, amid a whirlwind of shocking news about Russian interference with America’s election, Donald Trump had some news of his own—or rather, non-news. He canceled a press conference at which he was supposed to explain how he would disentangle the conflicts of interest posed by his far-flung business interests.
It wasn’t the first time Trump had bailed on answering questions: From the time he declared that “we’re working on” releasing his tax returns, to when he vowed to produce evidence that he hadn’t groped a woman on a plane, to the promised press conference to clear up his wife’s immigration history, this is a pattern we’re sure to see again.
But why is it only now, well past the election, that Trump is being pushed to address how he would deal with banks to which he is in debt, or foreign leaders who have a say over his company’s projects? Those questions were there for anyone to see, and investigate, the minute he announced he was running. And yet, they weren’t a focus for media, with a few notable exceptions, until far too late in the game.
Why? Simply put: Math. We’ve gone into the problems with the dominant media business model before—advertising pays fractions of a penny per click, which means that publishers have to pump out buckets of fast, cheap content to make ends meet, and that leaves little opportunity for serious investigation. Trump understands this well, and he plays that dynamic like a violin.
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Take that Trump conflict-of-interest issue. Back in June, MoJo reporter Russ Choma and our Washington bureau chief, David Corn, broke the story of Trump’s remarkable relationship with Deutsche Bank—a huge German financial institution that has lent Trump a lot of money. About $364 million, to be exact.
That’s some serious leverage over a man who is worth, by one of the more generous estimates, about $3.7 billion. And it gets worse: Deutsche Bank manipulated interest rates and peddled bad mortgage-backed securities before the financial crash. For the latter offense, the Justice Department has sought a $14 billion settlement. Deutsche Bank doesn’t like that. As president, Russ and David pointed out, Trump “would have a strong disincentive to apply pressure on Deutsche Bank.”
Just consider that for a second: The president’s personal business interests are in direct conflict with those of America’s taxpayers.
When we first published that piece, Trump wasn’t even the nominee yet. Hillary Clinton was still fighting off Bernie Sanders’ challenge. It was, at that point, just a warning sign—a check-engine light, you might say, for democracy.
But that’s not what the rest of the media universe was concerned with at the time. The headlines were dominated by horse race polls, and in the Hollywood Reporter, veteran media writer Michael Wolff recounted chatting with Trump over a pint of vanilla Häagen-Dazs as the candidate gushed about media moguls. On Rupert Murdoch: “Tremendous guy and I think we have a very good relationship.” On former CBS and Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone: “He’d give me anything. Loved me.” On current CBS Chairman Les Moonves (who famously noted that Trump’s bomb-throwing “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”): “Great guy. The greatest. We’re on the same page. We think alike.” And so on.
You’ve got to discount all that for the Trump factor—nothing he says can be assumed to be true. But what we do know is that, as Wolff notes, Trump “has a long, intimate relationship with nearly every significant player in the media…He may know few people in Washington, and care about them less, but he knows his moguls and where they rank on the modern suck-up-to list.”
The Moonveses and Redstones of the world don’t issue memos directing their newsrooms to ignore the GOP nominee’s scandalous conflicts of interest. But they don’t need to. The corporations they run are built to maximize advertising revenue, which comes from maximum eyeballs at minimum cost. There are people in all of their news divisions who push back against that gravitational force, but everyone knows what the bottom line is.
Russ, for his part, kept plugging away. On August 15, he published a story headlined, “Trump Has a Huge Conflict of Interest That No One’s Talking About.” The Trump International Hotel in Washington, Russ reported, is a $200 million venture, run by Ivanka Trump, for the hospitality branch of the president-elect’s company. Its building is federal property, and to lease it Trump agreed to pay way more than any other bidder. If the hotel doesn’t turn a profit, it will have to negotiate with the federal government—run by the hotel’s owner—to pay less. If it does turn a profit, it will have to charge rates way above any other Washington hotel.
Right now, the cheapest room in January—inauguration weekend is sold out—goes for about $625 a night, though you can snag the Ivanka Suite for $1,050 and the Postmaster Suite for $4,450. And already, corporate honchos and foreign diplomats are lining up to pay. (“Spending money at Trump’s hotel is an easy, friendly gesture to the new president” for foreign dignitaries, the Washington Post reported a week after Election Day. One diplomat told the paper, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!'”) As banana-republic palm-greasing goes, it’s an incredible bargain.
Some reporters would have called it a day after that initial story. But Russ, like all great journalists, is a bit of a pit bull. He worked for a newspaper in New Hampshire before joining the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics and then making the jump to MoJo. He’s always been drawn to money and influence reporting, he says, because “if you ask enough questions, that’s where you wind up. You talk about nearly any national policy issue, it almost always leads you to campaign donations and lobbyists. And with Trump, we have this new dimension—that his own personal wealth seems to be an even more consuming passion. There’s so much we don’t know, it’s mind-boggling.”
Russ kept documenting Trump’s conflicts, reporting on his massive debt and (in a story together with our reporter Hannah Levintova) his business in Russia, including his relationship with an oligarch close to Putin—so close that Trump tweeted, “Do you think [Putin] will become my new best friend?”). He was the first, after the election, to really drill into a term that quickly became part of everyone’s political vocabulary: the emoluments clause, in which the Constitution forbids the president from taking gifts from foreign governments. None other than George W. Bush’s former White House ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, told Russ that an emoluments clause violation would make “Hillary’s emails look like a walk in the park.”
The day Trump announced that he was canceling the press conference focused on his business, Russ tallied up all the debt Trump owes. Take a moment to absorb the enormity of what this chart represents:
Russ (along with a handful of others) had labored away at this issue for six months when it finally became headline material for the rest of the press. Today, outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio are digging in, and 17 members of Congress are demanding an investigation.
And here’s the key: Russ was able to keep going because of you. No advertiser or other source of revenue would have made that work possible. With news, you get what you pay for.
Investigative reporting doesn’t always have an immediate, visible impact. Sometimes you see a dramatic event—like when the US Department of Justice announced last summer that it was no longer going to do business with private prison companies shortly after we published a big investigation. Sometimes it’s more opaque and slow-building, as with the conflict-of-interest reporting that has finally broken through. But the results always come—and that, not a stock certificate or a tote bag, is the reward for our readers. (Though if you’re in the market for a tote bag, or a Hellraiser baby onesie, we have those too!)
In the next four years, we’re going to focus on one thing above all others: fighting creeping authoritarianism and the lies that advance it. We’ll fight them with truth, by digging deep and calling a spade a spade, whether anyone else is willing to or not. (Just a couple of weeks ago, CBS—”great guy” Les Moonves’ network—amplified Team Trump’s slur against democracy, that “millions” of people might have voted illegally, without so much as a qualifier.)
And we’re going to need you to join us in that fight. You can make a tax-deductible one-time or monthly donation to support our work.
Make no mistake: Democracy’s fabric is under threat. Not by a coup d’état or an invasion from outside, but because we have allowed its critical institutions—from access to the ballot to the vigor of the press—to fray.
At a time like this, it’s important to remember that trends don’t just go one way.
Here at Mother Jones, we’ve seen that there is an enormous appetite for vigorous, fearless reporting—now more than ever. In October and November, visits to our website were 50 percent higher than usual, approaching 15 million each month. And while we don’t force you to pay to read our stories—because it’s important for this journalism to be accessible as widely as possible—a growing number of you are choosing to subscribe or donate. That is incredibly heartening, because it means you feel the same urgency we do: Right now, none of us needs to be motivated by some arbitrary fundraising goal. Covering Trump, and what he represents, will take everything we’ve got.
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That might be something Trump would like to see. But you—and we—are not going to let it happen.