Q&A with New York Times Senior Writer David Barstow

“My first piece of advice [for young journalists] is not advice at all. It’s a plea: God, we need you, right?”


David Barstow is a senior investigative reporter for the New York Times. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Hannah Denham

Washington and Lee University’s journalism department brought David Barstow of the New York Times to campus this week. He’s scheduled to give a talk in Stackhouse at 5:00 pm on Wednesday called “Uncovering Fraud in Trump’s Empire.”

Recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes, Barstow had the lead byline for the special investigation, “Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as he Reaped Riches from his Father,” published in the New York Times on Oct. 2.

The Ring-tum Phi sat down with Barstow at Taps in downtown Lexington for a 20-minute interview on Tuesday evening. Here’s what he said.

Q: If you could give me a three-minute summary of key findings for someone who hadn’t read the story, what would you say?

A: First of all, it fundamentally rewrites the financial biography of President Trump. And it does so in two important ways. First, I think this story documents with tens of thousands of pages of tax and financial records that Donald Trump’s origin story of himself as a guy who started with a million dollar loan from his father and then parlayed that into a ten million dollar empire. This story shows that that is simply not true. We document this enormous amount of wealth that Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, passed to him over many, many decades. At least $413 million in today’s money was transferred from the father to the son. And those transfers were especially notable when Donald Trump got himself into financial problems and when Donald Trump was taking on new projects. So I think that’s the first important takeaway of this story. The second related important takeaway was that that flow of money, that massive river of money that flowed to Donald Trump, was increased significantly by and through a variety of tax schemes that allowed the Trump family to evade illegally or avoid, in some cases, legally, hundreds of millions of dollars in gift and estate taxes, the taxes that you have to pay when you transfer wealth one generation of a family to the next. What we were able to document was that Donald Trump was a participant in a number of these tax schemes, including instances of just outright fraudulent conduct. So that also is a brand-new piece of his financial biography that before this story was not known to the public.


Q: What’s happened since the story was published?

A: Immediately after the story was published, the state of New York, the tax authorities in New York and the tax authorities for the city of New York opened inquiries. A number of the leading Democrats in Congress said that if the Democrats win control of either the Senate or the House in the midterms, they clearly will pursue Donald Trump’s tax returns, in part based on what we showed in this story, to do their own inquiry into the events that we described in our story. The IRS itself has said nothing. The president has had statements issued on his behalf saying that basically that the story is false, but he has not actually yet taken issue with any of the specific allegations that are contained in the story.


Q: Was there a moment during the investigative process where you and your colleagues thought, “Oh, wow. This is big. This is a big deal”?

A: We had those moments every other day. We had so many moments where we would look at each other and say, “Wow, this is amazing.” I think one of our biggest lessons that we took away from our experience in reporting this story was that it was a huge reminder of how little the public actually knows about the story of Donald Trump and money. And the story of Donald Trump is fundamentally a story about money, right? That’s why we know the name Donald Trump. It’s about money. And yet what we kept discovering, really from day one until the very end of our reporting process, was that so much of what we think we know about Donald Trump and money is just simply wrong. It’s mythologizing. It’s propaganda. It’s nonsense that was spun up over many, many decades by Donald Trump and his father, Fred Trump.


Q: What’s next?

A: This story, I think, really helps people see the financial life of Donald Trump up until about 2004. It does not really lay bare the final fifteen years or so of his financial history. Obviously, that remains a huge focus of the work that we do going forward. We’ve told you an awful lot about the first 55 years or so of his life and how he got rich. But I think there’s so much more to be learned about the years that preceded his decision to run for president, so that would be a hugely important focus for us.


Q: In terms of the prevalence of the term “fake news” in today’s society and national and international attacks on the press, how do you stay vigilant?
A: I think we have to be aware that there is profound skepticism about the media in this country. I actually think about that a lot. I think about, how do we do journalism, how do we do our work in a way that people who are skeptical and doubtful can at least come away feeling like, “Whatever else I think about this story, I know this isn’t fake.” We went to enormous lengths in this particular story to make available actual source documents, to really show our math. There’s relatively little use of unnamed sources. All of that was on purpose. All of that was part of our effort to help even the most skeptical consumer of this story feel like at least, if nothing else, I know that this isn’t something that was made up, that this is real. I think this has become a bigger thought of my thought process in writing stories because this skepticism didn’t just begin with Donald Trump. It’s been building and building and building. It’s been with this country for forever, but it’s certainly been building over the last couple of decades as the country as a whole has become more polarized and as people have retreated into their own information bubbles.  


Q: How did you figure out that you wanted to be a journalist?
A: There were a couple of basic ingredients. One was I just loved to read as a kid. I was a total bookworm. My natural state of being is curiosity. I’m curious about everything. And then I suppose the first time I really became aware of the wider world was through Watergate. That was a powerful influence on me when I learned about Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post. It made me begin to think, “Well, huh, maybe there’s a way that my love of words and reading and curiosity can, somehow, I can put that to good use.”


Q: Do you have any advice for young, aspiring journalists?
A: My first piece of advice is not advice at all. It’s a plea: God, we need you, right? This country so desperately needs your guts and your passion and your impatience and your desire to be part of a really proud and important tradition in this country of free thought, free inquiry, not bowing down to authority but questioning authority. I know that it can look bleak if you’re young and you’re thinking about journalism and we’ve gone through such a difficult business cycle and there aren’t a lot of jobs. A lot of people have been laid off. But if you’re determined and you fight for it, there are places to make a difference, and it doesn’t have to be at the New York Times. It can be in all kinds of places. But if you go around and look at the world and look at where countries are broken, what almost all those countries have in common that people like me don’t exist, aren’t allowed to exist in those places. My one message to young journalists and people who are thinking about journalism is it’s such a profoundly important thing to do and a profoundly satisfying thing to do. And, man, does your country ever need you. Does your world ever need you.

In terms of advice, I would say recognize that there’s so many ways to be a journalist, there’s so many different types of journalists, so many different kinds of ways of being a storyteller, right? There’s my way, which is long, investigative journalism, but there’s so many other ways. My advice is to try to figure out what flavor of journalist you are, what suits you, what fits you, what fits the way you think and how you view the world and then focus relentlessly on becoming as good as you can on that particular thing. I know a lot of journalism programs are pushing their kids to be good at everything or to know how to do a bit of everything. And maybe that’s important because it helps you begin to experiment with, “Well, what kind of journalist am I?” But at the end of the day, if you realize that what you’re really great at is doing a podcast or what you’re really great at is doing documentaries or being a blogger or whatever the thing is, focus on becoming the best that you can be at that, as opposed to trying to make yourself sort of great at everything. It’s so hard. Every one of these different skills is so hard. To be really great at putting together multimedia, digital-first presentations is a completely different thing than making a documentary or doing what I did. It takes years and years and years of trial and error to really get great at telling important stories. I would just say figure out what suit of clothes fits you the best and then really pursue that relentlessly.


Q: What haven’t I asked that you want to add?

A: You asked me in the beginning what the story was about, what were the main things, the most important thing about the story I wrote. So I described to you the substance of the story. But I actually think the most important thing about the story is not what’s in the story. It’s that that story exists in the first place. It’s that the New York Times, the most important newspaper in the country, wrote 14,000 very tough words about the most powerful person in the world on the front page of the newspaper. And I’m sitting here today, able to talk to you about that. I didn’t get thrown in jail. I’m not in hiding. I’m planning on how to dig even deeper. The most important thing to me about journalism is what it means to the structure and health of a functioning democracy. It’s not something that Americans should ever take for granted. It’s something that we actually have to give life to over and over and over again. I think that’s at the core of why I do what I do.