Journalist who got Trump's tax return: 'All I cared was whether it was authentic'

Jon Swaine

Donald Trump once declared that he possessed “one of the best memories in the world”. But on Wednesday, the US president yet again purported to have trouble recalling awkward facts from his own recent past.

In his first public remarks about the leaking of part of his 2005 federal tax return, Trump claimed on Twitter that “nobody ever heard of” David Cay Johnston, the reporter who published the documents late on Tuesday. So why, Trump asked, would the pages show up in Johnston’s mailbox?

Less than a year ago, however, Trump himself called Johnston at his home in Rochester, New York, to berate the 68-year-old Pulitzer winner about a series of questions he had submitted for the property developer while working on an article about Trump’s troubling financial dealings.

“I just want you to know that if I don’t like the way you write it, I’m gonna sue you,” Trump said in the call on 27 April 2016, according to Johnston. When reminded that, as a public figure, Trump would need to prove Johnston had deliberately lied, he said: “I don’t care, I’ll sue you anyway,” before hanging up.

And this was only the latest in a series of conversations from a decades-old acquaintance between the two men that had taught Trump to take Johnston very seriously. In a 1992 book, Johnston became the first journalist to reveal that while living luxuriously, Trump paid no federal income tax in 1978 or 1979 – and probably for several more years – by legally claiming millions of dollars in write-downs.

Such a pedigree meant that, contrary to the president’s claim that Johnston was a nobody, few journalists were a likelier destination for a leak of Trump’s newer tax documents.

A political enemy of the president would have known Johnston would give the story credibility. At the same time, if the leak of this relatively favorable year’s summary was a deliberate act from a Trump associate seeking to distract from other White House problems, they too might have been wise to pass them to a proven muckraker such as Johnston for maximum deniability.

Speaking as he waited for takeoff on his flight home from New York City on Wednesday, Johnston said the authorized leak theory was feasible. “It’s a possibility, because Donald has this history of leaking things that make him look good,” said Johnston. “But given the angry statement from the White House last night, possibly not.”

That tirade released pre-emptively to reporters before Johnston went on air with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was, in fact, the first acknowledgment he got from the White House.

Johnston said he had emailed details of the document to Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, at about 5pm and offered to have a conversation on background to ensure that the document was authentic.

Spicer ignored him. Johnston emailed Spicer again shortly before broadcast, he said, and again received no reply. Then the Trump team briefed the nation’s White House correspondents on what was about to be reported elsewhere – a break from the typical rules of engagement, but not unheard of as a defensive PR tactic.

“He went and took what I gave him and gave it to other reporters,” said Johnston. “That’s as unethical as it gets. It tells me that the Trump White House lacks honor.”

The documents arrived at Johnston’s home in Rochester last week, he said, while he was in Palm Beach researching his next book about Trump.

As he used his iPhone to snap some photographs of Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club, he received a call from his daughter Amy, one of Johnston’s eight adult children.

“You won’t believe what came in the mail,” she told him, adding that he needed to check his email inbox immediately. Amy had scanned the documents and sent them to her father as a PDF.

Next, Johnston stood frozen, pinching the phone’s screen with his fingers to enlarge the tax filing’s tiny rows of text. “Holy mackerel,” he said to himself.

Curtailing his Florida trip, Johnston packed his bags and headed for the airport. During a layover at Atlanta, he said, he stationed himself in the Delta lounge and coordinated a plan over the telephone with his colleagues at DC Report, the nonprofit online news outlet that he founded. They agreed to propose a collaboration with Rachel Maddow, whose television show has a loyal liberal following, and who has recently attracted attention for her strident commentaries on Trump’s murky finances.

“I actually wanted to do Lawrence O’Donnell, because he’s more of a tax expert,” Johnston said. “But Rachel has the bigger audience, and she’s very hot right now. She’s been hitting these issues very hard.”

Johnston and Maddow brushed aside complaints from Trump sympathizers that publishing someone’s tax return without consent could amount to a felony, arguing that the first amendment of the US constitution gave them protection to release documents that were innocently obtained.

“I didn’t do anything to solicit this beyond having a tip line on our website,” said Johnston.

According to a scan provided to the Guardian, the documents were sent in an envelope that was postmarked on 9 March in Westchester, a commuter county just outside New York City, where Trump owns a golf course and country club.

Some have speculated that because the document dates from 2005, that indicates it may have originated from proceedings of a libel lawsuit Trump pursued against Tim O’Brien, a reporter who wrote a biography of Trump in 2005.

Some Trump tax documents were known to have been turned over for the case, but appear to have been placed under seal. O’Brien is forbidden from discussing them.

Johnston said that he knew O’Brien but the pair were not friends. In late January, he said, they ran into one another for the first time in years at the funeral of Wayne Barrett, another veteran Trump chronicler. Johnston doubts that O’Brien had anything to do with the leak.

“It could have come from someone at the firm that handled it, it could have come from someone at Trump Organization, it could have come because it was copied for a government regulatory proceeding, or litigation. I don’t know,” he said. “All I cared was whether it was authentic, and the White House confirmed it.”

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