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Aug 26, 2017

Follow the money: Citizen sleuths investigate

Co-produced with PRX Logo

How much is President Donald Trump worth? And is he or anyone in his administration profiting from their positions? Reveal is teaming up with the Center for Public Integrity to investigate those questions.

We’ve created a database listing all the assets that members of his administration have disclosed. Now we’re digging through those documents to see whether there are any conflicts of interest. We’ve posted the information online, and we’re asking the public to take part in our investigation. Citizen sleuths already have uncovered some leads. By crowdsourcing this project, we will be able to monitor whether any policy changes end up benefiting members of the president’s team.

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Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

 

A Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
President Donald Trump keeps telling us he's a multi-billionaire.
D Trump: When I say about the 10 billion, I'm not doing that to brag.
A Letson: But what's the real number?
C Zubak-Skees: You asked me to figure out how much money Donald Trump was worth?
A Letson: We dig into the president's finances and look at the assets of his staff.
C Zubak-Skees: Jared Kushner admitted up to, at least, 70 assets.
A Letson: We publish what we know online and, now, members of the public are combing through the documents.
W Shaub: These forms are made publicly available, so that members of the public can conduct some oversight.
A Letson: Next, on Reveal.
H Young: Hey, Reveal listeners, Hannah Young here, Reveal's director of audience. We know you all have great taste in podcasts, so we want to know more about what you like. Can you take a quick five minutes to head over to surveynerds.com/reveal and take our listener survey? Your participation will help us build a more inclusive and innovative show, that's surveynerds.com/reveal. We're excited to hear from you.
A Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Julia Selwyn's a public librarian in San Antonio, Texas.
J Selwyn: I've been researching for quite a while, I used to work a little bit in politics and political surveys and also, as a temporary for the Texas Ethics Commission.
A Letson: When we caught up with her recently, she had the day off; but rather than lounging poolside ...
J Selwyn: Just give me a moment to navigate to the spreadsheet here.
A Letson: She was spending time at a computer.
J Selwyn: Let's see.
A Letson: Closely examining this spreadsheet. She heard about it on Reveal and, now, she's hooked.
J Selwyn: I started to look into it, I think I was one of the earlier adopters of it, and it was quite intriguing. I really liked the dataset that y'all compiled. It was really, really fun to do research.
A Letson: The datasets she's talking about are the financial disclosures of more than 400 Trump administration appointees and the president himself. It's a spreadsheet of all their businesses, their investments, and their outstanding loans. Our partners at the Center for Public Integrity, CPI, put it together and they've posted it online in a project we're calling, "Citizen Sleuth", because we're asking citizens, like you, to check it out and see if everything adds up.
J Selwyn: Well, I did a little bit of a survey of Jared Kushner's and Ivanka Trump's financial records.
A Letson: She wants to make sure that high level members of the government, like Jared Kushner, aren't shaping policy to benefit themselves.
J Selwyn: I don't necessarily want somebody with that kind of influence, especially in a situation where it's not transparent, being able to make decisions at the highest levels of government. It's a concern to me.
A Letson: It was also a concern to Walter Shaub. In July, he resigned as the head of the Office of Government Ethics after clashes with the president. He said the president is creating the appearance of profiting off his position.
W Shaub: These forms are made publicly available, so that members of the public can conduct some oversight; but that system only works if people put in the time to actually take a look at these forms. I like the work that you folks are doing to educate people in how to do that and giving them the tools to do it.
A Letson: These forms list all the holdings Trump disclosed.
W Shaub: People can look at that and try to see what they can find out there in the world to learn more about those companies and assess from there whether they think it's a conflict of interest.
A Letson: We'll tackle another big question. How much is Donald Trump actually worth?
D Trump: What I say about the 10 billion--much more than that, but that's okay, I want it to be conservative--I'm not doing that to brag.
A Letson: How much is it and are the president and members of his administration being transparent? Reveal's Amy Walters has been working with CPI on this project and she takes it from here.
A Walters: Let me start by telling you a little bit about how big data projects like this one are done. There's this one guy who's pretty important to know. He's tall and he's got bright red hair. You'd think he'd be hard to miss.
C Zubak-Skees: PRX, yeah.
A Walters: But actually he's kind of hard to spot. He's usually hidden behind his computer screen.
C Zubak-Skees: It's just the glamorous work of the data journalist.
A Walters: The job may not be super glamorous, but Chris Zubak-Skees prefers accuracy.
C Zubak-Skees: Well, here is actually the error
A Walters: Accuracy is critical when working with this kind of stuff. When Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, submitted his original forms, there were some assets he forgot.
C Zubak-Skees: Jared Kushner admitted up to, at least, 70 assets.
A Walters: Kushner later reported those assets, but you might be wondering why he or anyone else in the administration is required to submit these forms.
C Zubak-Skees: Most of the ones we're talking about right now are filed by government employees when they enter a government service. The disclosures list who they previously worked for, what kinds of investments they have, what sources of income they've had.
A Walters: What money they owe.
C Zubak-Skees: The reason for all this is so that the public can understand what, if any, conflicts of interest these folks might have.
A Walters: Trump's own money is tied up in more than 500 investments and that's just Trump. There's also his billionaire education secretary.
C Zubak-Skees: Betsy Devos has a huge list of assets. Jared Kushner has a very long list of assets. I don't know if it's quite as long as Trump.

 

A Walters: Plus, lots of other folks you haven't heard of, senior advisors, deputy assistants, liaisons, they all have to file these forms.

 

C Zubak-Skees: I'm scrolling here through page after page of these and let me see what the full ...

 

A Walters: Still, it was too much for one guy.

 

C Levine: What we've decided to do is construct a team of people in the newsroom.

 

A Walters: That's Carrie Levine, one of CPI's political reporters.

 

C Levine: That way, we can have a perfectly accurate set of sortable disclosures and a usable format that we can mine for stories, that we can mine for patterns, that we can mine for trends.

 

J Dunbar: There's an all-in history with the senator on large products where if something really needs to get done and everybody pitches in.

 

A Walters: Even the boss.

 

J Dunbar: Hi, I'm John Dunbar. I'm the CEO with the Center for Public Integrity.

 

A Walters: John says getting these disclosures in front of the public is important because these people are part of the wealthiest administration in modern history. There's a lot to keep track of.

 

J Dunbar: People who are not just a little bit rich, but stunningly rich and have so many assets. The president himself who has not divested from his stunning array of assets, it's absolutely possible, and I would dare to say, probably likely, that they're gonna be influenced by their own holdings, in terms of their behavior in the public sector. If we can find people who have detailed knowledge of assets that members of the Trump cabinet, as well as appointees, as well as Trump himself, have, it'll really help us to find out whether there are real conflicts out there.

 

A Walters: But to get people to help, we had to get this spreadsheet in front of a lot of people, so veteran White House reporter, Christina Wilkie, jumped into the project at our editorial meeting via conference call.

 

C Wilkie: Hi, I'm Christina.

 

A Walters: Her DC journalism chops have gained her more than 60,000 Twitter followers and those followers can help us spread the word by sharing this spreadsheet that Chris designed with the public.

 

C Wilkie: We're basically gonna try to set this up with the feeling of a scavenger hunt.

 

A Walters: Each cell of the spreadsheet is a clue to the administration.

 

C Wilkie: The way we've set is up is that you will type in a comment and that comment will be pasted in the spreadsheet right away. Everyone will be able to see what everyone else is doing, is finding, working on.

 

A Walters: As these officials develop policies ...

 

C Wilkie: It becomes an immediate database and resource for potential conflicts for policies that we haven't even thought about yet. It's really for the benefit of everybody.

 

A Walters: If the Trump administration enacts a policy, all we have to do is look at the spreadsheet to see if that policy is making money for people in his administration. We can investigate whether there's a real conflict.

 

On July 6th, a Thursday night, everything was finally ready to go. We just had one worry. Would anyone see it?

 

C Wilkie: Yeah, we besiege the public. Give us work to do.

 

A Walters: At 5 AM, Friday, Citizen Sleuth went live, just around that same time, Chris Zubak-Skees was waking up.

 

C Zubak-Skees: It's 5:21 and there are about seven people on this story and four of them are in the spreadsheet, so that's something.

 

A Walters: Things picked up from there.

 

C Wilkie: It's 3:06 on Saturday afternoon and my two-year-old son might be waking up, but we were at the park this morning. I had to turn off my phone because it was blowing up with notifications that people had added things to the spreadsheet. When I sat down about a half an hour ago, we had 57 new comments. Oh, I think I have to go.

 

A Walters: Within a few days, Christina had big news for our next editorial call.

 

C Wilkie: Our first is that Steve Bannon failed to list the creditors on four of his mortgages worth more than two million dollars.

 

A Walters: This, of course, was while Bannon was still working for the White House, which is no longer the case, that's a two million dollar mistake. Christina followed up.

 

C Wilkie: Hi, Lane. My name is Christina Wilkie.

 

A Walters: By calling the Office of Government Ethics and they confirmed there is a requirement to disclose creditors. I guess he would say, "Big deal." He didn't list something about his mortgages, so why does it matter? We asked Walter Shaub. He ran the Office of Government Ethics, he's the guy who resigned after bumping heads with the president.

 

W Shaub: The concept of disclosing the source of a loan or any other sort of liability is very important on a financial disclosure report because it enables the agency ethics officials to evaluate potential conflicts of interest with the lender.

 

A Walters: With the help of our Citizen Sleuths, we were able to find the properties and the lender, JPMorgan Chase; but when Christina contacted the White House for comment, something strange happened.

 

C Wilkie: We heard back from the private public relations person who had represented Bannon in the past and had also represented his former employer, Breitbart News.

 

A Walters: The name of the PR person who contacted us is Alexander Preate, what wasn't clear was how she was being paid. Christina gave Alexandra a call.

 

C Wilkie: Hey, a question has come up since this story ran and that is, who paid for you to call me about Steve's finances?

 

A Walters: Neither Alexandra nor Bannon would answer. Her firm did respond saying Bannon is not paying Alexandra directly. If she's doing the work for free, Bannon could be breaking the law because it's seen as accepting a gift.

 

C Wilkie: You can't accept hotels, free hotels. You can't accept a fancy car and you can't accept the services of a plumber or a professional communications person, that's how the rules are. They're very well-known and they're very strict.

 

A Walters: Christina called the White House for comment.

 

C Wilkie: They refused our calls.

 

A Walters: Bannon's ousting was caused, in part, by his reputation for acting outside the chain of command. Since the Center for Public Integrity ran that story about Bannon, the Campaign Legal Center, where Walter Shaub now works, called on the White House, the Department of Justice, and the Office of Government Ethics to investigate. Project Citizen Sleuth also uncovered Trump appointees with thousands of dollars in student loan and credit card debt and officials taking in government salary who still owe money to the IRS. There's still one big question out there, how much is President Trump worth?

 

C Zubak-Skees: You asked me to figure out how much money Donald Trump was worth?

 

A Walters: That's CPI's data guy, Chris Zubak-Skees again.

 

C Zubak-Skees: The answer is I can't really do that.

 

A Walters: But Chris was able to come up with the number, a minimum value for his assets.

 

C Zubak-Skees: I can look at his public financial disclosure and tell you what's on that, which lists a minimum of $1,428,481,153.

 

A Walters: A minimum of 1.4 billion dollars. We don't know the actual value because these financial disclosures aren't as specific as that sounds. We'd have a much better idea of Trump's net worth if he released his tax returns, but he hasn't done that. These forms aren't designed for the Trump administration. They're not designed for the super rich. Take Trump's hotels, for example, the president listed a lot of them as being worth more than $50 million because that's the highest amount you can list on the forms; but the hotels could be worth hundreds of millions. We just don't know yet, but we're gonna keep digging and we'll be updating that number as we get more information. Christina says the president has a history of keeping his finances a secret.

 

C Wilkie: Everything about Trump's experience in business is private. He ran a private company, he inherited a private company, he doesn't report to shareholders. He has a very deep sense, as a person, that he has a right to keep this secret and go to hell if you'd like to get it from him.

 

A Walters: But, now, as the President of the United States, his obligations are to the American people and according to Walter Shaub, who put together these forms, you have a right to find out what his assets are.

 

W Shaub: We're talking about people making decisions in government that are gonna affect real life human beings. If I'm the government official deciding whether your water should be clean enough to drink, I shouldn't have a financial interest in your water staying dirty and unsafe to drink.

 

A Walters: That's why we still need your help. Here's CPI's John Dunbar again.

 

J Dunbar: If you're a teacher, maybe you want to take a close look at what Betsy Devos is reporting. If you're an accountant, maybe you want to look at the treasury secretary's disclosure. Absolutely anybody on Wall Street, anybody in the banking industry, anybody who's a lawyer, anybody who has any kind of expertise in foreign investment, and ask yourself, "Is this somebody who's gonna be working to further their own best interests or are they gonna be working to further the interests of the people who are out there who voted for them, who are working their ends of paying taxes?"

 

A Letson: If you want to try your hand at being a Citizen Sleuth for Reveal, here's what you can do. Go to the website publicintegrity.org/citizensleuth. If you turn up any leads, we'll follow up on them. Again, that's publicintegrity.org/citizensleuth.

 

Thanks to John Dunbar and the whole team at Center for Public Integrity, including Dave Levinthal, Chris Zubak-Skees, Christina Wilkie, and Carrie Levine. Reveal's Amy Walters produced that story for us. We want to thank our friends at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio for supporting our show. On the Milk Street Radio podcast, each episode travels the world to find bolder, easier ways to cook from a warm bowl of hummus in Tel Aviv to grilled chicken in Thailand.

 

The show also goes into the Milk Street Kitchen with host, Christopher Kimball, for tips, techniques, and recipes. Subscribe to Milk Street Radio on Apple podcast, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts, plus on your local public radio station. Today's show was edited by Suzanne Weaver, Cheryl Devall, and Deb George. This week's production team includes Fernanda Camarena and Melinda Halsey.

 

Special thanks to the Center for Public Integrity who partnered with us on today's show. CPI receives support for the school pollutions stories from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Fellowship, both programs of the University of Southern California's Center for Health Journalism. Our sound design team is the Wonder Joints, my man, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Bates and Claire C. Mullen, with help from Catherine Raymondo.

 

Our head of studios, Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle, our editor-in-chief, Suzanne Weaver is our executive editor and our executive producer's Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, "Lighting". Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and, remember, there is always more to the story.