Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Connecting Voters with Their Government: After Releasing Trump's Tax Returns, What's Next for David Cay Johnston and His News Site, DCReport?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Connecting Voters with Their Government: After Releasing Trump's Tax Returns, What's Next for David Cay Johnston and His News Site, DCReport?

Article excerpt


Back in March, an angry President Trump jumped onto Twitter to attack a journalist, something he's done with dependable frequency during his brief tenure as commander-in-chief.

Trump was upset that award-winning journalist and author David Cay Johnston, who the president labeled as a reporter "nobody ever heard of," shared a copy of his previously unreleased 2005 tax return on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."

Johnston hasn't exactly spent his nearly 50-year career as a journalist toiling in obscurity. He won a Pulitzer Prize back in 2001 for the New York Times for stories exposing loopholes in the U.S. tax code. He also covered Trump's rise in Atlantic City during the 1980s and 1990s for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In fact, Trump actually met and sat down for an interview with Johnston in June 1988. Back then, Johnston had heard rumors around Atlantic City that Trump didn't know anything about the casino business. So using "Columbo" as inspiration, Johnston asked Trump a question about craps that was intentionally and obviously false as a test to see if the casino owner would correct him, or take the bait.

"Trump immediately embraced my falsehood in his answer, very much how a physic would," Johnston said. "That sort-of thing works on normal people, but it doesn't work with cops or journalists."

During the interview, Johnston peppered in three additional questions that were deliberately false, and in each case, Trump embraced the falsehoods in the questions and shot them right back in attempt to make it seem like the casino mogul knew what he was talking about.

"I left that first interview saying, 'He's a con artist,"' Johnston said.

Johnston broke many big stories about Trump during his tenure reporting on Atlantic City, including a scoop that Trump wasn't actually a billionaire, as he often claimed. Even after moving on to other outlets and covering news beats, Johnston kept tabs on Trump.

In June 2015, when Johnston was home watching Trump announce his presidential candidacy, he knew what many pundits and experts at the time only joked about--that this time, the reality TV star was serious.

"I wrote a piece for the National Memo titled '21 Questions For Donald Trump,'" Johnston said. But to his growing frustration, he couldn't get any of his many friends working at major news outlets to seriously ask Trump any important questions, even as it become clear Trump had a legitimate chance to win the Republican primary, not to mention the presidency.

So Johnston, with the help of several friends, launched DCReport (, a small non-profit news site which actually crashed the night he revealed Trump's tax returns.

Despite the crash, the much-talked about scoop helped raised the profile of his start-up, which aims to take a step back from the "he said, she said" style of political coverage and focus on a deep dive into the intersection of politics and policy.

"We cover what Trump and Congress do, not what they say," Johnston said. One story reported on a surprise move by the Department of Agriculture to remove information about inhumane "puppy mills" it usually publishes every year. Another exposed a quiet move by the House "they buried on page 35" to allow public land to be given away to private industries. …

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