Washington Post reporter talks corruption and President Trump’s legacy

Pulitzer-prize winning reporter David Farenthold detailed his experiences with investigative journalism

Annaliese Schneider

Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold shows off his Pulitzer Prize hat during a virtual talk mod-erated by professors Swasy and Finch. Photo by Grace Mamon, ‘22.

In a virtual talk to W&L students, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold discussed his investigations into Trump’s charities and businesses and what Trump’s future holds. 

Fahrenthold began his coverage of Trump by looking into the finances of his charities. His investigations were made more difficult by the scarcity of public information. 

“The recurring theme of it was always that Trump wanted to make everything about him a black box,” said Fahrenthold. 

 “He didn’t want to tell you anything about what he did, other than the things he wanted to tell you. And he had this confidence that you could never find a source about him other than him. And so all that reporting was finding ways into the black box to see what he was hiding.” 

After finding significant financial wrongdoing in Trump’s charities, Fahrenthold began to turn his attention to the former president’s business interests, where finding information was even more difficult. 

“What was [Trump] doing before when nobody was watching to use his own travel to put government money in his pocket? So how do you figure that out?”

For Fahrenthold, the answer was partially to use social media. Between looking through geotagged Instagram photos to see what businesses were partnering with Trump’s properties to putting out calls to the public on twitter, crowdsourced information helped in the investigation. 

“We’d tried the front door, tried the side door, we sued them, so finally in that moment I thought the chances of this succeeding are low but my only choice is to try social media.”

Even Fahrenthold was surprised at the response. 

“We got hundreds of pages of records that showed things that no one had ever seen before,” he said. “Twitter was able to get me something that even FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] and a lawsuit couldn’t get.”

 Another angle of Fahrenthold’s investigations was looking into reports of undocumented works at Trump’s hotels and resorts. 

 “That was an eye-opening line of reporting for me,” he said. 

 Although many were afraid to come forward at first, public pressure on the issue resulted in many undocumented workers being fired. 

 “I would have been happy with two employees that were brave enough to talk,” Fahrenthold recalled. “Instead we open the door and the apartment is full. There’s like 30 people in there. Every couch, every seat, every space is taken up. There’s a room full of people who want to tell this story, they’ve all been fired. 

“It was incredible to see that its wasn’t here and there that Trump was relying on undocumented workers, they were the backbone of his operation at so many different clubs.”

 Fahrenthold’s coverage of Trump earned him the Pulitzer prize in 2017. 

 The Pulitzer committee recognized Fahrenthold’s “Persistent reporting that created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities.”

 As for Trump’s future as a private citizen, Fahrenthold is unwilling to make predictions. 

 “Something I’ve learned in covering this Presidency is not to make predictions, positive or negative.” 

 He hopes to eventually transition away from focusing on Trump to focus on government corruption more generally. 

 “There’s still a lot going on, but I know this will eventually end. People will stop caring about this eventually. My hope is that by the end of this year I’m able to transition to a beat where it’s mostly covering corruption. I’m really interested in seeing whether Trump’s example…has affected the way politicians steal in America.”