President Donald Trump has badmouthed his hometown newspaper’s reporting as “sick,” “weak,” and “nasty.” He even tells its reporters they work for the “failing New York Times.” But in moments of reflection, he’s allowed that it’s a “great, great American jewel.”
The Grey Lady has long occupied space in Trump’s head — and, in happier times, his heart.
“A paper I once loved,” Trump wistfully recalled at a news conference last week.
So, when the Times published its latest Trump exposé Tuesday evening detailing how the president’s mythology of becoming a self-made businessman appears to be the product of elaborate Trump family tax evasion schemes — and even outright fraud — it hit the White House like a thunderclap.
One administration official said the president viewed the report as not only part of the newspaper’s animus toward him, but the start of a broader media scheme to smoke out confidential information about his finances. On Fox News, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said the paper might be provoking Trump into a lawsuit that could require access to his long-withheld tax returns.
Trump lashed out at the report himself in a Wednesday tweet: “The Failing New York Times did something I have never seen done before,” he wrote. “They used the concept of ‘time value of money’ in doing a very old, boring and often told hit piece on me.”
Presidential aides and allies say they expect he will continue blasting the paper in coming days, while arguing that he hasn’t been dishonest, only a savvy businessman. Or, as he said during a 2016 campaign debate of the charge that he had not paid federal income tax for years: “That makes me smart,” adding that his money “would be squandered” by the federal government.
“That will be the line,” one Trump adviser familiar with his thinking said after The Times piece hit. “You’re going to start hearing that at his rallies.”
Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Trump’s campaign and business, added that he suspects the president “would be much more upset if this was a whole article about him not being worth a lot of money.” The article did not question Trump’s much-disputed net worth, instead suggesting that he had inherited far more from his father — more than $400 million — than the roughly $1 million loan he has long claimed.
The epic story dropped with particular force because of its location: Trump typically reads the print edition of The Times, including the Metro Section, flipping through several other papers each morning, a former aide said. (The tax expose took up eight inside pages in Wednesday’s print edition.) He also reads Times stories as they post online throughout the day, at least when they’re printed out and shown to him.
Aides have long understood the paper’s importance to the Manhattan real estate mogul, which Trump has read, manipulated and fought with since before some of its best-known reporters were born.
He made his first prominent appearance in The Times’ pages in a glowing 1976 profile that began: “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” The story, which ran under the headline, “Donald Trump, Real Estate Promoter, Builds Image as He Buys Buildings,” is often considered to be instrumental to the launch of his celebrity.
After he took office, White House officials said they soon learned the esteem in which Trump held the paper, through his tirades generated by its stories, his scores of tweets reacting to the reporting, and the unsanctioned interviews he granted to its reporters. One official said they view Trump as having a keen appreciation for the way the paper drives the news cycle.
“He reads the ink off The New York Times,” a former White House official told POLITICO, noting the product of Queens has always considered the Grey Lady “the big leagues of American journalism.” Before Trump came to dominate The Times’ news and opinion pages, he kept count of the number of times he appeared on its front page. He was known to clip out and mark up its articles in felt pen, scrawling messages of approbation, or abhorrence, before sending them back to their Times authors.
Trump’s devotion also has made the paper a favorite for White House and campaign hands who want to get information to the public — or settle a score. “Everybody knows, if you want to get dirt, get it into the Times,” the former official said.
Administration officials still flag Times journalists to Trump when they are around him, particularly when he travels. He’s singled out its reporters for interviews, sometimes walking to the back of Air Force One to gaggle when he knows a Times reporter is aboard. Trump and aides were especially delighted by a June 1 Times headline that read, “We ran out of words to describe how good the jobs numbers are.”
In a written statement to the Times, Charles J. Harder, a lawyer for the president, said the reporting in the tax article was incorrect. “The New York Times’ allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 percent false, and highly defamatory,” Harder said. “There was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone. The facts upon which The Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate.”
After the piece went up online Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement saying the IRS decades ago reviewed and signed off on the transactions.
“The New York Times’ and other media outlets’ credibility with the American people is at an all-time low because they are consumed with attacking the president and his family 24/7 instead of reporting the news,” Sanders said. She added: “Perhaps another apology from the New York Times, like the one they had to issue after they got the 2016 election so embarrassingly wrong, is in order.”
But Sanders did not point to any specific inaccuracies in the Times report, and it is unclear what she would expect the Times to apologize for.
For Trump, the timing was especially fraught. Democrats have signaled plans to launch probes into his finances — including unreleased tax returns — if they win control of Congress next month. New York tax officials quickly said they were examining the report’s allegations of fraud. Some Trump allies have discussed whether the New York state attorney general’s office might get involved. The Times report said that the criminal statute of limitations has passed for the activities in question, but it is not too late for civil action against Trump or his family members.
The new story comes less than a month after another Times piece that particularly infuriated the president — an op-ed by an anonymous senior administration official suggesting that senior members of his own administration are working to thwart his agenda. “Does the so-called ‘Senior Administration Official‘ really exist, or is it just the Failing New York Times with another phony source?” Trump tweeted afterward.
And when the Times ran an August story detailing how the White House counsel Don McGahn cooperated extensively in the special counsel investigation, Trump said on Twitter that unnamed members of the media were “very Angry at the Fake Story. They actually called to complain and apologize,” he said, without evidence. The Times issued a statement standing behind its report.
The Times regularly has been under the president’s skin. He’s dismissed it as a “joke” that trades in “total fiction,” calling for potential buyers who might “run it correctly, or let it fold with dignity.” (The Times is not for sale.) Trump on several occasions has called out White House reporter Maggie Haberman, attacking her on Twitter and at public events — including at his Tuesday rally in Mississippi.
He has even tussled with the paper’s new publisher: In January, he congratulated A.G. Sulzberger for assuming that job. After the two men met privately at the White House in July, Trump broke the meeting’s off-the-record agreement when he tweeted that they spent “much time” discussing “Fake News.” Sulzberger responded with a statement insisting that he had raised concerns about the president’s anti-press rhetoric.
Trump’s assessment of the paper as an “American jewel” and “a world jewel” came at a meeting with Times editors and reporters soon after the 2016 election. The president-elect complained that the paper had treated him unfairly during the campaign — but expressed a desire to improve the relationship as president. “I think it would make the job I am doing much easier,” Trump said.
“To me,” he added, “it would be a great achievement if I could come back here in a year or two and have a lot of folks here say, ‘You’ve done a great job.’”