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The fact that President Trump also owns a vast business empire is a first for the U.S. A new investigative effort called "Trump Inc." explores his dual roles as commander in chief and chief executive. William Brangham talks with Andrea Bernstein of WNYC and Eric Umansky of ProPublica about their reporting and how they invite listeners to help fill in the blanks.
Next, William Brangham examines a reporting project delving into the intersection of business, politics and influence in President Trump's Washington.
This is a first for the United States, a president who also owns a vast business empire.
Exploring this duality, commander in chief and chief executive, is the premise behind a new investigative effort called Trump, Inc. It's a collaboration involving the online investigative site ProPublica and New York Public Radio's WNYC.
And they want your help as well.
Two of the journalists heading this effort are WNYC's Andrea Bernstein, who is also one of the hosts of Trump, Inc., the podcast, and Eric Umansky. He helps steer ProPublica's Trump, Inc. coverage online.
Welcome to you both.
Most of our viewers are going to remember, when the president became the president, he said, I'm going to back away. If there are any profits, I'm going to put them into the treasury.
Your entire effort seems to sort of try to be untangling the idea of whether or not that's actually what has happened. Tell us about that.
The message was he wasn't going to be involved, but that he wasn't going to separate himself.
And I think that that's sort of the essence of what the problem is here, because his message was so confusing. He said, I could run my company and run the country at the same time. I have a no-conflict situation.
And his attorney created the impression there was going to be a wall between the two. But, in fact, as we have reporting in the podcast, there are so many ways in which there are interchanges between the presidency and the Trump Organization, and there is a massive sense of confusion. And what we're trying to do is sort of sort out what is happening in the relationship.
And another thing we're trying to do is looking at how many unanswered questions there are, how many things we simply don't know the answer to because the Trump Organization and the White House hasn't disclosed them.
So, who is the Trump Organization borrowing money from? Who is the Trump Organization making money from? You can go on and on to list, who are their partners? And these are fundamental questions about who quite literally has an interest in the Trump Organization or vice versa.
Just to give an example why this is so confusing, we have campaign finance laws. People know about that and people understand you should look to see who is contributing to a campaign to find out who is trying to influence somebody.
Well, right now, the president has, for example, five active projects in India. And people are buying condos in India, and because of Indian laws, we don't know who those people are. They, many of them paid $40,000. The advertising was if they put down that deposit, they could have dinner with the president's son, who is also named Donald Trump.
Many people did that. But we don't know who they are. That's why the situation is so confusing, because people literally around the world are giving sizable amounts of sums to the president's company at the same time he's making foreign policy and other decisions that not only affect the world, but also could affect his businesses around the world.
Let's talk one of the specific features that you did, and this one was about the mega-casino in Atlantic City, the former Trump Taj Mahal.
It is not shuttered, it's not operating anymore, so why was that of interest to you?
We always are hearing these questions about money laundering and the Mueller investigation and so forth.
Well, the Trump Taj Mahal is a case where there wasn't just allegations. There were — there was a record fine given by the federal government for lack of controls about money laundering, not once, but twice, in fact, at the Trump Taj Mahal. They were warned and they were warned and they were warned. And they eventually got hit with a $10 million fine.
That tells you something not just about the Trump Taj Mahal itself, but really about the Trump businesses and how they have worked, and how they, you know, when they have been scrutinized often have been able to, yes, they got a record fine, and then they kept on operating.
Another one of the episodes that you deal with touches on this question that a lot of people have had, which is, why does the president seem so reluctant to criticize Russia for his entire year in office thus far?
And as you drill into this, you explore something known as alternative financing as one possible answer. Can you explain what that is?
So this is the theory that was articulated by Glenn Simpson, who is the founder of Fusion GPS. They investigated Trump's businesses, first for a Republican rival and then for the Democratic rival of Trump during the campaign.
This is the genesis of the famous dossier.
The dossier, yes.
Exactly. So, we decided, OK, we're not going to look at the dossier. We're going to look at the fact-finding that led up to it.
And the theory that is articulated is that what the president was doing with Russia was necessarily building a tower in Moscow, because we know that never happened, but he was being financed by Russians in other ways that helped his business. So, for example, in Panama, there were a number of Russian buyers who bought condos early on, and that enabled the Trump Organization to get a bond so that they could build it.
If you looked at a number of his projects around the world in New York and elsewhere, this was a big way that he got financing. And so it's sort of a clue as to what Mueller might be looking for and a clue to the kinds of business dealings that President Trump may have had with the Russians when he was licensing his name to build real estate around the world.
We also know that the Trump Organization began to spend a lot of money on things where it's actually far from clear where the money came from. It doesn't mean it came from nefarious places. We just don't know.
So, for example, they spent an enormous amount of money, had an enormous infusion of cash around their golf courses, right, golf courses in Scotland and elsewhere. Where did that money come from? We don't know.
Lastly, one of your more recent episodes, you gave some homework to your audience out there. You're asking them to help you unpack I believe it's 2,700 records you have about the political appointees who are now within the Trump administration.
What are you looking for? What are you interested in?
So, ProPublica for the past year has been putting together and gathering and requesting records about all of the appointees that Trump has made.
And, by the way, some of it is as basic as, who are the appointees? Right? These are many more than Senate-confirmed appointees. Do they own companies? What companies are they involved in? Have they previously been lobbyists? Are there disclosures around that?
It's an enormous amount of information. And we want are people to help us. We have actually put what we call a reporting recipe online, so how you can — any viewer or listener can go, dig into the documents themselves. It's not magic. It's not that hard. And it could be enormously helpful.
We can find all of that on Trump, Inc., on ProPublica, and WNYC.
Eric Umansky, Andrea Bernstein, thank you both very much.
Thank you so much for having us.
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