Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston suggested Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” that President Donald Trump himself may have been the unknown source who sent two pages of his 2005 tax return to the journalist.
“It came in the mail over the transom,” Johnston told Maddow, following the host’s roughly 25-minute build-up before discussing the documents in detail. “There is absolutely nothing improper about journalists — if you haven’t solicited something — getting it over the transom. Let me point out, it’s entirely possible that Donald sent this to me. Donald Trump has, over the years, leaked all sorts of things.”
Johnston didn’t indicate he has any actual evidence Trump was the source, but he does know Trump’s tendencies well after decades of covering him. Johnston was the Atlantic City, New Jersey, bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988 to 1991, charting Trump’s rise and fall in the city, and he wrote about the casino mogul in his 1992 book, Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. To Win Control of the Casino Business. Johnston joined The New York Times in 1995 and later won a Pulitzer at the paper for his reporting on loopholes in the U.S. tax system.
Just weeks into Trump’s candidacy, Johnston posed 21 questions in The National Memo about the Republican’s business dealings and philanthropic claims, some of which remain unanswered given Trump’s decision to break with four decades of precedent by not disclosing his tax returns. The veteran investigative journalist reported on candidate Trump for outlets such as The Daily Beast, wrote a critical biography of him and continued to dig into his past for information relevant to his race for the White House.
When The Huffington Post interviewed the legendary reporter Wayne Barrett in March 2016 for an article on the media’s failure to vet Trump’s business record, Johnston was in the late journalist’s basement poring through old boxes of files on Trump from Barrett’s decades at The Village Voice.
“If Donald Trump were to become president, he is the first person I know of who would be in the White House in modern times with deep, continuing associations with mobsters, con artists, drug traffickers, convicted felons — gratuitously involved with these folks,” Johnston told The Huffington Post at the time. “That deserves enormous inquiry.”
Johnston also started a site last year, DCReport.org, where he posted the two pages of the document Tuesday that he discussed on Maddow’s show. The portion of Trump’s 2005 federal tax return indicates he made $150 million that year and paid $38 million in taxes.
A White House spokesman acknowledged the authenticity of the tax document before the show aired and noted that Trump “paid $38 million even after taking into account large-scale depreciation for construction.”
The White House spokesman also claimed “it is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns.”
But, as Johnston noted, he didn’t solicit the source to send the pages. And Maddow mentioned that “the First Amendment gives us the right to publish this return” and disputed the White House claim that it was being “illegally published.”
In October, The New York Times published pages from Trump’s 1995 tax records, which reporter Susanne Craig said she received in her mailbox at the paper. The Daily News also received a copy but couldn’t verify it before being scooped by the Times.
Johnston also suggested Tuesday night that Trump could’ve been the source for the Times and New York Daily News, or for the New York Post when it published racy pictures of his wife, Melania, from her modeling days. “Donald has a long history of leaking material about himself when he thinks it’s in his interest,” Johnston said.
Indeed, the disclosure of two pages from the 2005 return isn’t such a bad story for Trump. And Johnston’s musing about Trump-as-source prompted chatter among journalists on Twitter, some of whom pointed out that the documents in question are marked “client copy.” Still, other journalists threw water on the theory, noting that the source could have been any number of people.
Maddow’s report added some more details to Trump’s opaque tax history, even if it wasn’t the blockbuster that journalists awaiting her much-hyped broadcast expected. But the disclosure may be of great benefit to the public is if it leads to more pages surfacing from tax returns that the president has continued to keep hidden.
As Maddow said Tuesday night, the fact that this document was provided to a reporter “may be the most important part of this story.”
UPDATE: 7:30 a.m. ― President Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that “nobody ever heard of” Johnston and claimed the story based on documents the White House verified the previous night was “FAKE NEWS!”
But Johnston suggested in an interview on “Democracy Now!” in September that the president knows who he is.
“Donald’s had my home number for years,” he said. “He’s called me at home in the past.”