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 psychic 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.
“The reason I started the site was to report stories like this, that no one else out there is covering,” Johnston said. “And it matters. It really matters.”
One of the core features of DCReport is an “Action Box” that provides links to official proceedings and contact information, so readers can contact relevant politicians and public servants directly to let their opinions be known. In the case of the public land story, Johnston published it before the bill was taken up by the Senate so people could read it and contact relevant parties before it became law and offer their input.
“My theory is if people begin to learn that they can speak directly to their government, the government can learn they are being watched,” Johnston said. “This influences their behavior and forces them to act in the public good.”
For now, the stories are written by reporters who are paid a nominal fee for articles. Johnston currently employs four full-timers on a shoestring budget of less than $8,000 a month, mostly from donations made by readers giving small amounts. But Johnston hopes to raise $3 million from a combination of individual donors and foundation grants, which would allow him to grow the staff to about 30.
But one thing Johnston won’t do is run advertising.
“I view this thing as a way to help create a connection between voters and their own government, and if that means I don’t take a salary from this, so be it,” Johnston said, who is currently working for free.
For now, the site is focusing its reporting on a couple of key areas the Trump Administration have eyed major policy changes, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the country’s access to healthcare. Immigration, civil rights and government regulation are also key areas of focus for Johnston’s in-depth but limited reporting team.
Despite the constraints, DCReport has been able to break some big stories in its brief tenure. In addition to Trump’s 2005 tax return, the site was among the first to report that a Russian oligarch, who had previous bought a Florida mansion from Trump, shadowed Trump’s campaign plane to at least three U.S. cities during the presidential campaign.
DCReport also broke the news that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has deep financial ties with close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We were ahead of everyone, including the New Yorker,” Johnston said of the 10,000 word report (with 105 footnotes), which was written for a nominal fee by James Henry, a lawyer and an Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Johnston is optimistic he can raise enough money to make DCReport a sustainable outpost for in-depth public policy journalism, but the site has a larger mission in mind.
“Every other big paper and news site always refers to the government and the Constitution,” Johnston said. “I’m sorry, but we own it. It’s our Constitution, and it’s our government. If my site can help people remember that, than I’ll consider it a success.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]