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Like many big Daily Beast yarns, the Mary Trump story started with a tip. A call from a source in late May 2019 hinted, “you need to look at what has played out at The New York Times in their investigative unit with their Trump tax team”—the same team that had won the Pulitzer Prize for their groundbreaking reporting into the president’s finances.
Like many tips you receive as a reporter, this one was vague in nature. I was told that the group had split up over a disagreement when one of the reporters had gone “rogue” and tried to ghostwrite a book with one of the paper’s key sources.
That group consisted of four-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Barstow; Susanne Craig, another accomplished journalist; and Russ Buettner, a longtime investigative reporter.
The trio had spent 18 months in a secure room in The New York Times building, separated from the rest of the newsroom, poring over hundreds of thousands of confidential documents, including Fred Trump Sr.’s tax returns, to reveal how the president was involved in “fraudulent” tax schemes and had received more than $400 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire.
Like with any tip, I started to map out who may have knowledge of what had led up to the team’s split and hit the phones calling sources.
After a few days’ work I had established that the person who was trying to ghostwrite the book was Barstow. I was told he had aggressively pursued the key source for the Times’ tax investigation to the extent he was sending them a barrage of text messages, saying things like, “It is your ghost calling… ring me when you can”—and that after getting back from a vacation to Jamaica he texted, “rested…tanned… ready to get going… can we meet tomorrow?”
The key source—whose identity I would only work out months later—didn’t want a ghostwriter at that point and most certainly didn’t want Barstow to ghostwrite their book, which would have been in breach of The New York Times’ ethical guidelines.
Barstow had also involved his agent, Andrew Wylie—known as “The Jackal” in the publishing world—in the situation and the two men had consulted with publishers, having realized the book could land a seven-figure advance. But “the source,” as I only knew them at that point, was most definitely not on board.
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As I was reporting the story out and establishing the facts behind what had caused the rift in the team, I was also thinking, “Who is this source? Who is this person that has played such a pivotal role in their reporting? And why is this book so valuable?”
I reported this out over a number of weeks and The Daily Beast published a story on June 25 headlined, “New York Times’ Trump Tax Team Imploded When Star Reporter David Barstow Went Rogue.”
Within a month, Barstow had left the paper to head up the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism’s investigative reporting program, and the story then became what would happen to this pivotal source and their book project.
I definitely didn’t want to out anyone’s source, but it was clear to me that the person involved was determined to write their book and had quite the story to tell. I spent the last year checking in with different people familiar with the book project and trying to get The Daily Beast to a position where we could publish a story about the book and who was behind it and what would be in it.
At this point I still didn’t know the source’s identity—but I was questioning how The New York Times was able to obtain all of Fred Trump Sr.’s tax returns. Was it a government leak, say, someone from the IRS? But through the course of my reporting it became clear it was someone much closer to President Trump—a female family member, which led me to believe it was one of Trump’s sisters, Maryanne or Elizabeth.
But that didn’t add up, so around Christmas, I started to look at the Trump family tree and stumbled across a New York Daily News article from 2000 that revealed how Fred Trump Sr.’s grandchildren, Fred Trump Jr.’s children, had taken Donald and his siblings Robert, Maryanne, and Elizabeth to court to challenge the will. It was at this point my instincts kicked in and told me it was one of those children, Donald’s niece Mary, who was the source.
It would be some months yet before I could confirm that fact—and only after hearing a competitor was also working on the story about her book and getting close to publishing, we were able to break the news that a Trump family member had turned on Donald.
The ensuing legal battle between both parties, with Trump calling on celebrity attorney Charles Harder in an attempt to muzzle his niece, turned the affair into a saga akin to Days of Our Lives—but Mary was finally freed of her gag order and the book was published, and has now sold more than a million copies.
I was humbled and taken aback when she told me on The Daily Beast’s The New Abnormal podcast, “It was really just heartening that you were so on that story because no one else cared.“
This job involves knackering hours, at times unwarranted social media attacks, and legal threats—but to know that staying with someone’s story means everything to the person at the center of it makes the job all the more worthwhile.
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