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From Tammany to Trumpery

Andrea Bernstein, interviewed by Matt Seaton
The WNYC journalist and host of the Trump, Inc. podcast on how a corrupt oligarchy has taken hold in America.

On October 5, 2020, we published Andrea Bernstein’s commentary “Pattern of Deception: From Trump Family Business to Grifter in Chief.” In case “grifter” in relation to the president of the United States sounds like gratuitous snark, the word is taken from the document that formed the basis for Bernstein’s article: in a lawsuit recently lodged with the New York State Supreme Court against Donald Trump and his siblings, their niece, Mary Trump, alleges that she and her brother were victims of “The Grift.”

Matthew Septimus

Andrea Bernstein

Family disputes over inheritances are unfortunately ordinary, but in this case, Bernstein argues, the lawsuit converges precisely with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s effort to obtain the president’s long-withheld tax returns, recently revealed by New York Times reporting, as well as with testimony from former Trump consigliere Michael Cohen about how Donald Trump operates—all of which suggest systematic swindling.

This all belongs to the beat of Andrea Bernstein, a longtime journalist for New York City public radio, co-host of the podcast Trump, Inc., and author of American Oligarchs (2020). Her main focus lately has been on the ways Donald Trump has used the presidency to enrich himself—demonstrating, among other things, that the emoluments clause of the US Constitution is an empty letter against an executive with a flagrant disregard for all norms of integrity.

Yet Trump’s efforts to turn the presidency into profit often gets lost amid the churn of headlines and disinformation. Did Bernstein feel the news media had sufficiently prosecuted this case? “Given a president with a bully pulpit, with the resources to sue perceived opponents, and who has enforced secrecy in all his ventures through non-disclosure agreements and threats, plus a byzantine and confusing tangle of nesting limited liability companies that cross the globe, which by design are confusing,” she told me via email this week, “I am remarkably proud of our profession.

“A team at The New York Times obtained Trump’s tax returns, a feat that has eluded the Manhattan DA, Congress, and Robert Mueller, among others,” she went on. “Reporters at Forbes, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, and elsewhere have been dogged in constructing a fuller picture of Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s businesses.”

Brought up mainly in Philadelphia, she has been a journalist for some twenty-five years, following a few years “fumfering around” after college (at Yale, she studied biophysics and biochemistry before belatedly majoring in literature). Then she did a stint working in New York government and politics—a disillusioning experience, but one that set her up for reporting on Albany and City Hall after she got established at The New York Observer. “At one point, a memo went out from the governor’s press secretary saying no one in state government was allowed to talk to me,” she said, “because of a story I’d written about a huge MTA contract going to a company that had hired the lobbyist boyfriend of the governor’s top aide. But I persisted. It was excellent training for reporting in the era of Trump.”

She’s also written for just about every other title with “New York” in it, but made a switch from print to radio when she moved to WNYC. There, she’s covered the waterfront, so to speak—when I first arrived in New York, during the Bloomberg administration, her transportation reporting was a lodestar for me, a city cyclist. Does she miss those quaint days, I wondered, when the most polarizing controversy we faced was over a bike path?

“Ooh, it was hard to cover the controversy over the Prospect Park bike lane: neighbors would literally shout at me or cyber-bully me over the fate of 1.1 miles of pavement,” she said. “But I loved covering transportation—this was years before the crisis of our transit and infrastructure became apparent to almost everyone, and it was this invisible-to-most-people place of connection and human stories, as well as a way for us to reframe how we envisioned our collective future.”

The podcasting boom has been perfect for Bernstein, transforming the opportunities to do investigative journalism—like the reporting she and WNYC’s Matt Katz and others did on Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal that won a Peabody Award—from a minutes-long segment in a radio news roundup to entire, multipart series (Trump, Inc. is a collaboration between WNYC and the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica). “I adore audio,” she said. “The pauses, the breaths, the catches, the little inflections that can say so much more than hundreds of words on a page. Finding a perfect piece of tape is like summiting a mountain, the whole world just opens up before you.”

The 2016 election was also part of this transition for her. Initially unsure where to direct her energies and experience, she eventually realized that what she had was “a decades-long history of covering the very people—real estate moguls, lobbyists, and politicians in New York and New Jersey—who had shaped Trump and were still shaping Trump.  I knew this world. I couldn’t turn away.”

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That knowledge has informed not just Trump, Inc., but also her book. American Oligarchs is a potent title, but there are many possible perspectives on the Trump phenomenon—real estate mogul, mob boss, reality TV host—so why, I wanted to know, did she choose this particular, Russian-inflected lens.

“None of these depictions are mutually exclusive,” she agreed. And citing Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “superfluous” as the expendable people outside the charmed circle of the ruler’s court, she went on: “An oligarchic government relies both on the wheel-and-spoke model of a mob boss where all power flows to the boss, and you’re in ‘the family’ or you’re not, and also on the kind of mythmaking that was central to The Apprentice…This explains everything about Trump: his ‘I win, you lose’ business and governing model, his desire to maintain good relations with the very wealthy who can pay him and keep his campaign afloat, even his blithe touting of the good, free, government-funded medical treatment he’s received for Covid-19 while working simultaneously to deprive tens of millions of American of the same kind of health care he got.”

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