This story is co-published with WNYC.
If you had to select a few objects to embody the Trump administration — especially, the ways in which its business intersected with the Trump family business — what would you pick? That’s the question posed by the final episode of “Trump, Inc.,” the podcast collaboration between ProPublica and WNYC.
Maybe you’d choose a receipt from Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Palm Beach, Florida, club, perhaps from April 6, 2017. That wasn’t just any night. As the president enjoyed chocolate cake with China’s visiting president, Xi Jinping, the U.S. launched a missile strike on Syria. Later that evening, a group of administration aides, including Steve Bannon and then Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, repaired to the library bar at Mar-a-Lago and told the bartender (identified as “Colin” on the receipt) to leave so they could “speak confidentially.” The Trump aides began pouring drinks. They had top-shelf taste — Don Julio and Patron tequila, Chopin vodka and Woodford Reserve bourbon — and a total of 54 drinks.
Trump’s club later presented the federal government with a bill for $1,005.60. That included a service charge of 20%, despite the fact that the bartender had been ejected. All in, it worked out to $18.62 per drink — and American taxpayers ultimately picked up the tab. It was one of numerous instances in which Trump’s companies profited from his position as president.
Another form of paper — this one torn — is a second object examined by “Trump, Inc.” The Presidential Records Act requires that papers that touch the president’s hand be preserved for posterity. As a businessman, Trump had long been in the habit of tearing up papers and tossing them in the garbage or on the floor after reading them. He maintained that habit as president, despite requests that he cease destroying documents. As a result, a team of government employees was assigned the painstaking task of re-assembling every document with Scotch tape (the clear variety, not cloudy). Politico was the first publication to reveal this. As with the bar tab, taxpayers footed the bill.
The manual shredding may have been benign in intent, but it was symbolic, a daily form of rule-breaking in the Trump White House. And none of this, as the “Trump, Inc.” episode points out, prevented Trump from accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of breaking the law after she publicly tore up his State of the Union address.
There are other documents that embody the administration featured in the podcast, all of which will be assembled as a time capsule so future generations can learn about the Trump era. They include checks that Trump wrote to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen to buy the silence of his onetime extramarital companion, porn actress Stormy Daniels. And there’s the birth certificate of Barack Obama. Trump’s multiyear campaign to raise false questions about Obama’s birthplace was crucial to raising the real estate developer’s political profile in the years before he ran for president.
There are four other Trump artifacts that “Trump, Inc.” will include in its time capsule, but we won’t spoil the surprise. You can listen to the full episode here.
After three years of exploring the collision of the president and his business interests, the podcast is winding down as the administration concludes. The mission was broad. “Trump, Inc.” reporters followed stories of corruption and shady business practices to Ukraine, India, Vietnam and Panama. “Trump, Inc.” revealed how a key billionaire influenced the administration and how payday lenders dispensed largesse at a Trump resort in the wake of favorable treatment by the administration. There were investigations that revealed questionable tax practices by Trump’s business and scrutinized those closest to Trump, including Jared Kushner and Cohen. There were portraits of Trump’s then campaign manager, his accountants and the financial machinations involving his inauguration. And if you wanted to follow the escapades of Donald Trump Jr., whether he was killing endangered sheep in Mongolia or investing in a hydroponic lettuce company, there were episodes on that, too. That body of work collectively captures much of what occurred during the administration.
As one “Trump, Inc.” reporter puts it in the final episode: “I keep thinking about how Trump never became a normal president. People kept saying he would, during the campaign, during his inauguration, during his presidency. But Trump himself never signed on to that. Instead, the government, and the political system, changed for him.”