Robert Gibson Tilton (born June 7, 1946) is an American televangelist and the former pastor of the Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. At his ministry’s peak in 1991, Tilton’s infomercial-style program, Success-N-Life, aired in all 235 American television markets (on a daily basis in the majority of them) and brought in nearly $80 million per year; it was described as “the fastest growing television ministry in America.”
When ABC‘s Primetime Live raised questions about Tilton’s fundraising practices, a series of investigations into the ministry were initiated, and Success-N-Life was taken off the air. Tilton later returned to television on a new version of the program airing on BET and The Word Network.
Life and career
Robert Tilton was born in McKinney, Texas, on June 7, 1946. He attended Cooke County Junior College and Texas Technological University. He married his first wife, Martha “Marte” Phillips, in 1968. According to his autobiographical materials, Tilton had a conversion experience to evangelical Christianity the following year and began his ministry in 1974, taking his family on the road to, in his words, “preach this gospel of Jesus.” Tilton preached to small congregations and revivals throughout Texas and Oklahoma. His family settled in Dallas and built the Word of Faith Family Church, a small nondenominational charismatic church in Farmers Branch, in 1976. The church started a local television program then known as Daystar.
Tilton’s young church was growing steadily, but Daystar failed to expand beyond the Dallas area until Tilton traveled to Hawaii – his self-described version of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness – and came upon an increasingly popular new form of television programming: the late-night infomercial. Tilton was particularly influenced by Dave Del Dotto, a real estate promoter who hosted hour-long infomercials showing his glamorous life in Hawaii, as well as on-camera testimonials lauding his “get rich quick” books. Upon his return from Hawaii in 1981, Tilton, with the help of a US$1.3 million loan from Dallas banker Herman Beebe, revamped Daystar into an hour-long “religious infomercial” with the title Success-N-Life.
On Success-N-Life, Tilton regularly taught that all of life’s trials, especially poverty, were a result of sin. His message consisted mainly of impressing upon viewers the importance of making “vows”—financial commitments to Tilton’s ministry. His preferred vow, stressed frequently on his broadcasts, was $1,000. Occasionally, Tilton would claim to have received a word of knowledge for someone to give a vow of $5,000 or even $10,000. When a person made a vow to Tilton, he preached that God would recognize the vow and reward the donor with vast material riches. The show also ran “testimonials” of viewers who gave to Tilton’s ministry and reportedly received miracles in return, a practice that would be used as the basis for a later lawsuit from donors charging Tilton’s ministry with fraud.
A Dallas Morning News story published in 1992 observed that Tilton spent more than 84% of his show’s airtime for fundraising and promotions, a total higher than the 22% for an average commercial television show; other sources put the total fundraising time during episodes of Success-N-Life closer to 68%. Some of Tilton’s fundraising letters were written by Gene Ewing, the head of a multimillion-dollar marketing empire writing donation letters for other televangelists like W. V. Grant and Don Stewart.
As a result of Tilton’s television success, Word of Faith Family Church grew to become a megachurch, with 8,000 members at its height. Tilton also wrote several self help books about financial success, including The Power to Create Wealth, God’s Laws of Success, How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally, and How to be Rich and Have Everything You Ever Wanted. Most of his books were published in the 1980s and distributed via promotion on Success-N-Life and through the many mailings Tilton’s ministry sent his followers. The books were republished in the late 1990s to be used as centerpieces of his 1997 infomercial series and are now promoted on his current (as of 2010) daily live internet broadcast.
Ministry and fundraising scandal
In 1991, ABC News conducted an investigation of Tilton (as well as two other Dallas-area televangelists, Grant and Larry Lea). The investigation, assisted by Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony and broadcast on ABC‘s Primetime Live on November 21, 1991, alleged that Tilton’s ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only the accompanying money or valuables sent to the ministry by viewers, garnering his ministry an estimated US$80 million a year.
Allegations of exploitation of vulnerable people
Anthony, a Christian minister whose organization works with the homeless and the poor on the east side of Dallas, first took an interest in Tilton’s ministry in the late 1980s after encountering needy people who told him they had lost all of their money making donations to high-profile televangelists, especially Tilton. Curious about the pervasiveness of the problem, the Trinity Foundation got on the mailing lists of several televangelists, including Tilton, and started keeping records of the many types of solicitations they received almost daily from various ministries.
Former Coca-Cola executive Harry Guetzlaff came to Trinity after he had been turned away from Tilton’s church when he found himself on hard times following a divorce. He had been a longtime donor and gave up his last $5,000 as a “vow of faith” just weeks earlier. Guetzlaff’s experience, combined with the sheer magnitude of mailings from Tilton’s ministry, spurred Anthony, a former Air Force intelligence officer and licensed private investigator, to start a full investigation of Tilton’s ministry. Guetzlaff joined Anthony in the task of gathering details on Tilton’s operation and later did much of the legwork in uncovering the paper trail for the ABC News investigation.
In a November 21, 1991, promotional appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Diane Sawyer said that she had incidentally watched several televangelist programs, including Success-N-Life, and was both “fascinated” and “disturbed” by them. Stressing the public’s sensitivity to reporters questioning religion, Sawyer said that she spoke with other journalists, and then eventually to ABC producers, who then decided to conduct their own investigation into Grant, Lea, and Tilton. ABC producers learned about possible resources available from Anthony and Trinity, and contacted them for information. After comparing their accumulated notes, data and details, the two groups decided to pool their efforts and began planning the undercover portion of the story. Anthony agreed to portray himself as a Dallas-based minister with a small church looking into the ways TV ministries could grow so quickly, and the ABC producers would pose as Anthony’s “media consultants.”
Meeting with Response Media
The team, armed with hidden cameras and microphones, arrived for a meeting at Response Media, the Tulsa-based marketing firm handling Tilton’s mass mailings, to discuss a proposal sent by Anthony to Response Media about fundraising for a religious-based TV talk show. The director of Response Media, Jim Moore, described for Anthony and the hidden cameras (concealed in the undercover Primetime Live producers’ glasses and handbags) many techniques used by Tilton to raise funds for his ministry. Moore also said that Tilton was doing “far better than anyone knows” and described the main strategy Tilton employed for such a high return rate on his mailings—that is, send the recipient a “gimmick” that compelled the recipient to mail something back in return, and most recipients would include some money along with it. Moore declined to disclose how much Response Media was paid for its services or how much money the mailings were generating for the Tilton ministry.
However, as part of his sales pitch to Anthony, Moore disclosed that the response letters generated by the fundraising mailings Response Media sends out for its clients were never delivered to the client; instead, they were sent unopened to the client’s financial institution or other institutions of choice. “You never have to touch it”, Moore added in response to a clarification question from Anthony about dealing with the gimmick objects sent to the potential donors in the mails. One of the ABC producers asked whether this was a standard practice—”So the mail goes straight to the bank?”—and Moore asserted that it was: “The mail goes to the bank, and they put the money in your account. We just get the paper with the person’s name and how much they gave.”
1991 Primetime Live documentary (“The Apple of God’s Eye”)
Trinity members, acting on this information, started digging through dumpsters outside Tilton’s many banks in the Tulsa area as well as dumpsters outside the office of Tilton’s lawyer, J. C. Joyce (also based in Tulsa). Over the next thirty days, Trinity’s “garbologists”, as Anthony dubbed them, found tens of thousands of discarded prayer requests, bank statements, computer printouts containing the coding for how Tilton’s “personalized” letters were generated, and more, all of which were shown in detail on the Tilton segment within the Primetime Live broadcast, titled “The Apple of God’s Eye”. In a follow-up broadcast on November 28, 1991, Sawyer said that Trinity and Primetime Live assistants found prayer requests in bank dumpsters on fourteen separate occasions in a thirty day period.
Tilton vehemently denied the allegations and took to the airwaves on November 22, on a special episode of Success-N-Life entitled “Primetime Lies”, to air his side of the story. He asserted that the prayer requests found in garbage bags shown on Primetime Live were stolen from the ministry and planted in the dumpster for a sensational camera shot, and that he prayed over every prayer request received, to the point that he “laid on top of those prayer requests so much that ‘the chemicals actually got into [his] bloodstream, and… [he] had two small strokes in [his] brain.” Tilton remained defiant on claims regarding his use of donations to his ministry to fund various purchases, asking, “Ain’t I allowed to have nothing?” with regards to his ownership of multiple multimillion-dollar estates. Tilton also claimed that he needed plastic surgery to repair capillary damage to his lower eyelids from ink that seeped into his skin from the prayer requests.
After Trinity members spent weeks poring over the details of the documents they and ABC had uncovered, sorting and scrutinizing each prayer request, bank statement, and computer printout dealing with the codes Tilton’s banks and legal staff used when categorizing the returned items, Anthony called a press conference in December 1991 to present what he described as Tilton’s “Wheel of Fortune”, using a large display covered in actual prayer requests, copies of receipts for document disposition, and other information which demonstrated what happened to money and prayer requests which the average viewer of Tilton’s television program sent him. When both Tilton and his lawyer J. C. Joyce reacted to the news by claiming the items Anthony was displaying had somehow been stolen by “an insider”, Anthony responded in a subsequent interview that “Joyce was our mole—a lot of this stuff came from the dumpster outside his office.”
Primetime Live‘s original investigation and subsequent updates included interviews with several former Tilton employees and acquaintances. In the original investigation, one of Tilton’s former prayer hotline operators claimed the ministry cared little for desperate followers who called for prayer, saying Tilton had a computer installed in July 1989 to make sure the operators talked to no caller for longer than seven minutes. The former employee also revealed very specific instructions were given to them in terms of how to talk with callers and they were told to always ask for a $100 “vow” at a minimum. Also in the original report, a former friend of Tilton’s from college (who remained anonymous and was shown in silhouette) claimed both he and Tilton would attend tent revival meetings as a “sport” and would claim to be anointed and healed at the meetings. He added the two had often discussed the notion that after graduation they would set up their own roving revival ministry “and drive around the country and get rich.” In a July 1992 update to the investigation, Primetime Live interviewed Tilton’s former maid, who claimed prayer requests which were sent to Tilton’s house by the ministry were routinely ignored until he told her to move them out of the house and into the garage; according to the maid, “they stacked up and stacked up” in the garage until Tilton had them thrown away. In the same interview, Tilton’s former secretary came forward and claimed Tilton lifted excerpts from “get rich quick” books and used them in his sermons, and she never saw him perform normal pastoral duties such as visiting with the sick and praying with members.
Despite Tilton’s repeated denials of misconduct, the State of Texas and the federal government became involved in subsequent investigations, finding more causes for concern about Tilton’s financial status with each new revelation. After nearly 10,000 pounds of prayer requests and letters to the Tilton ministry were found in a disposal bin at a Tulsa area recycling firm in February 1992, along with itemized receipts of their delivery from Tilton’s main mail-handling service in Tulsa rather than from the church offices in Farmers Branch, Tilton admitted in a deposition given to the Texas Attorney General‘s office that he often prayed over computerized lists of prayer requests instead of the actual prayer requests themselves, and that prayer requests were in fact routinely thrown away after categorization.
As each revelation became increasingly more damaging, viewership and donations declined dramatically. The last episode of Success-N-Life aired nationally on October 30, 1993. By that time, viewership had fallen 85 percent and monthly donations went from $8 million to $2 million.
Failed libel action
In 1992, Tilton sued ABC for libel because of its investigation and report, but the case was dismissed in 1993. Federal Judge Thomas Rutherford Brett, in his July 16, 1993, dismissal of the case, stated that information in Trinity’s logs on prayer requests reportedly found in dumpsters on September 11, 1991, “could not have been found then because the postmark date was after September 11, 1991”, but also noted that Anthony had recanted the erroneous entries in a subsequent affidavit. Tilton appealed the decision in 1993; although the findings of the original court were upheld in 1995, federal Judge Michael Burrage‘s opinion criticized ABC and the Primetime Live producers for their editing of the story and noted that ABC had been warned by their own religion editor, Peggy Wehmeyer (who knew Anthony from her work as a religion reporter at ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas), that, “Mr. Anthony could not be trusted and was obsessed with his crusade against [Tilton].” Tilton once more appealed the decision, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996, but the court refused to hear the case.
Tilton sued for fraud
Several donors to Tilton’s television ministry sued Tilton in 1992–1993, charging various forms of fraud. One plaintiff, Vivian Elliott, won $1.5 million in 1994 when it was discovered that a family crisis center for which she had made a donation (and recorded an endorsement testimonial) was never built or even intended to be built. The judgment was later reversed on appeal.
As part of the defense strategy to the fraud cases, Tilton sued Anthony, Guetzlaff and four plaintiff’s lawyers who had filed the fraud cases against him in federal court in Tulsa. The tactic is known to critics as a “SLAPP” (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit. Tilton claimed that the individuals conspired to violate his First Amendment rights under a federal statute designed to protect black citizens from the Ku Klux Klan. (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1985.) Defense attorneys Martin Merritt of Dallas and ACLU lawyer Michael Linz, also of Dallas, with others, won dismissal for the six defendants in federal district court. On appeal, in Tilton v. Richardson, 6 F.3d 683 (10th Cir.1993), the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal on the grounds that 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1985 did not protect a nonminority individual against a purely private conspiracy, if one existed. The fraud cases continued until the Texas Supreme Court eventually ruled that the plaintiffs could not prove damages because they could not show that, if Tilton had actually prayed over the prayer requests, the prayers would have been answered.
The decline of Success-N-Life also led to the end of Tilton’s 25-year marriage to his wife Marte, who had been administrative head of the Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, in 1993. Dallas lawyer Gary Richardson, who represented many of the parties suing Tilton for fraud, attempted to intervene in the Tiltons’ divorce, citing the potential for the divorce settlement to be used to hide financial assets that were currently part of the many fraud cases; Richardson’s petition to have the divorce action put on hold until after the fraud cases were settled was denied. Marte intervened in Tilton’s second divorce from Leigh Valentine, who had asked the court to include the church and all its assets as community property in the proceedings. Under Texas law, property accumulated during a marriage is considered community property and thus subject to division between the parties in a divorce. The jury eventually ruled against the request.
Lexington Academy was a small private Christian school in Farmers Branch that was founded in the early 1980s by Robert and Marte Tilton. The name “Lexington” was chosen in honor of the Battle of Lexington; the school mascot was the Patriots. The school was a member of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), and won dozens of State Championships in Athletics, Academics, and Fine Arts during the less than twenty years of its existence, including five overall TAPPS State Championships. The school was dissolved in 1998 as a result of debts incurred from lawsuits against Tilton and his ministry.
Tilton returned to television in 1994 with a new program called Pastor Tilton, a show with an emphasis on “demon blasting” exorcism practices, usually involving Tilton shouting as loudly as possible at demons supposedly possessing people suffering from pain and illness. However, this program was far less successful than its predecessor, and was cancelled by the end of the year.
After moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1996, Tilton returned to the airwaves in 1997 with a new version of Success-N-Life, buying airtime on independent television stations primarily serving inner city areas. The new version of Success-N-Life returned to Tilton’s previous message of asking for “vows of faith” from viewers instead of exorcisms. In 1998, the program began airing on Black Entertainment Television (BET) as part of its two-hour late night umbrella rotation block of religious programming entitled BET Inspiration. In 2008, Success-N-Life usually occupied the first hour of the BET programming block and also ran on The Word Network. Most of the shown on BET Inspiration were taped in the late 1990s—with testimonials from 1980s-era episodes interspersed throughout the episodes—but Tilton also recorded infomercials for his books at least once a year from 2003 to 2007, often appearing with his third wife, Maria Rodriguez, and their four French poodles.
The Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center was finally formally dissolved by Tilton in 1996. Though Tilton was still listed as the church’s senior pastor, he had not preached at the church since March 16, 1996, when he named Chattanooga, Tennessee, minister Bob Wright as senior associate pastor, and its membership had declined to less than 300. The church building was purchased by the city of Farmers Branch in 1999 for use as a future civic center; however, the economy suffered a downturn and the plans were scrapped, and the building was finally demolished in 2003 to make room for a new Dallas Stars-sponsored youth hockey center.
In March 2005, Tilton started a new church in Hallandale, Florida, not far from his home in Miami Beach. The church had already existed for some time under the pastorship of former televangelist David Epley. Tilton’s new church, now called “Christ the Good Shepherd Worldwide Church”, had approximately 200 members in 2007. On May 13, 2007, the church moved into a new location in Miami and was officially renamed “Word of Faith Church”, much like the original church in Dallas. Tilton also established a church in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2005, also originally named Christ the Good Shepherd Worldwide Church. It has also been officially renamed “Word of Faith Church”. The Las Vegas church’s resident pastor is Natalie Vafai.
When Tilton returned to television in 1997, he established his ministry’s headquarters in Tulsa, where his lawyer J. C. Joyce’s offices were located, and set up a post office box as its mailing address. A woman employed by Mail Services, Inc., a Tulsa-area clearinghouse that handled mail sent to Tilton’s ministry, said that when she worked for Mail Services, Inc. in 2001, prayer requests were still routinely thrown away after donations and pledges were removed. However, Tilton dropped the Tulsa address in late 2007 and used a Miami post office box to receive responses to his fundraising mailings. In January 2014, he was holding services at the Courtyard Marriott in Culver City, California, while having donations again sent to a post office box in Tulsa.
In 1998, The Washington Post reported that Tilton’s following disappeared after the investigations but he had “joined dozens of other preachers to become fixtures on BET”. Consequently, Tilton, along with Stewart and Peter Popoff, received “criticism from those who say that preachers with a long trail of disillusioned followers have no place on a network that holds itself out as a model of entrepreneurship for the black community.”
Steve Lumbley, who worked for Tilton’s ministry in 1991 when the original Primetime Live investigation took place, told a reporter for the Dallas Observer in 2006 that reports of prayer request disposal that were the centerpiece of the ABC exposé were highly exaggerated. In an article for the Observer blog “Unfair Park”, Lumbley asserted that “[t]he mailings all had some kind of gimmick. They weren’t godly at all. But the primary allegation that came out of that—that prayer requests were thrown away—was categorically untrue, and I can guarantee you that was not a normal practice.” However, Lumbley, who now runs a Christian watchdog website called ApostasyWatch.com, does credit ABC and the Trinity Foundation for exposing Tilton’s unethical fundraising tactics, noting that, “God was using Ole and ABC to chastise Tilton and bring him down.”
Trinity still monitors Tilton’s television ministry as part of its ongoing televangelist watchdog efforts. In a 2003 interview published in the Tulsa World, Anthony estimated that with none of the Word of Faith Family Church overhead and with television production costs at a fraction of the original Success-N-Life program, Tilton’s current organization was likely grossing more than $24 million per year tax-free.
In 1985, two men began distributing a video they compiled lampooning Tilton and his ostensible conversations with God. The video exploits Tilton’s facial expressions and preaching style. The original video contained no title screen and was roughly edited. The video featured a medley of footage from Success-N-Life overdubbed with well-timed sound effects of flatulence. Unofficial VHS copies of the video circulated in the U.S. through the late 1980s under such titles as Tooting Tilton, Heaven Only Knows (the first title by the original distributors), Pastor Gas, The Joyful Noise, and The Farting Preacher. After the hosts of The Mark & Brian Show, a radio program in Los Angeles, mentioned the video on the air, the video’s authors saw the market potential and began selling official copies of their creation. Similar videos have since been made with more recent footage of Tilton and are distributed throughout the Internet, all under the Farting Preacher name. The video distribution (including digital bootlegs distributed online) expanded public awareness of Tilton and his controversial television ministry.
followed by a sample of Tilton saying “and you have faith! You just need to use it, saith the Lord.”
The musician Pogo created the song “Hoo Ba Ba Kanda” using the sounds and words of Tilton from his program.
The comedy material of Ron White also includes mention of Tilton. In the opening to White’s act in the first Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie, White says that “while sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos”, he finds Tilton on TV and believes Tilton is talking specifically to him: “Are you lonely?” “Yeah.” “Have you wasted half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?” “This guy’s good …” “Are you sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos?” White gapes in horror before squeaking “Yes sir!” “Do you feel the urge to get up and send me a thousand dollars?” (pause for effect) “Close! I thought he was talking about me there for a second. Apparently, I ain’t the only cat on the block (who) digs Cheetos!”
In the early 2000s, the Trinity Foundation put together a number of news broadcasts, including the initial Primetime Live piece, from the years surrounding the investigations into Tilton’s ministry on a DVD entitled The Prophet of Prosperity: Robert Tilton and the Gospel of Greed. The DVD also includes segments from The Daily Show‘s “God Stuff” (hosted by Trinity member John Bloom, a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs), excerpts from the Pastor Gas videos, and a number of mocking music videos, as well as moments from Success-N-Life showing Tilton’s more outrageous claims of “visions from God.”
The cash cow! The golden cash cow had a body like the great cows of ancient Egypt, and a face like the face of Robert Tilton—without the horns. And through the centuries, it has roamed the Earth like a ravenous bovine, seeking whom it may—lick! [between about 1:11 and 1:36 on the CD version]
Tilton’s antics are also lampooned in the area of software technology by Douglas Crockford. Crockford created “The Tilton Macro Preprocessor”, which he describes as “one of the ugliest programming languages ever conceived”.
The comedian and satirist John Oliver criticized Tilton’s televangelism ministry as fraudulent on his nationwide television program Last Week Tonight on August 17, 2015. Oliver and his team had corresponded with Tilton’s Faith Worldwide Church for seven months; it began when a $20 donation was sent to the organization. Oliver explained what happened during those months: the organization sent a letter back with a $1 bill asking Oliver to “send it back” with more offerings, leading to a slew of appeals for further donations with nothing substantive in return, according to an account in the Christian Post:
That’s right … I had to send the $1 back with an additional recommended offering of $37, which I did. So at this point, we’re just two letters in and it’s like having a pen pal who’s in deep with some loan sharks.
So let’s think about this seriously for a minute.
What could Trump get out of a new party?
Trump loves attention, chaos and suckers giving him money he doesn’t have to return or do anything for.
If he forms a party, a lot of his current followers will at minimum pay a lot of attention to him and show up at his rallies to get their infusion of emotional gratification by being with people who hate the same things and people that they hate. All the news networks will continue to report about him. Fox News, OANN and Breitbart won’t take the spotlight off of him. He’ll get the attention he needs like normal people need oxygen and water.
If he forms a party, he’ll take perhaps 10–15% of the electorate with him. His final job approval rating was 29%, but a lot of those people are tribal Republicans who loved Trump, not random people off the street. 10–15%, however, is enough to screw up political calculus in enormous numbers of states, which is of course sufficient to get lots of news and analyst attention (like this question and these answers, but writ large and glowing). Massive disruptions in electoral balance are chaos. He’ll have Republican families split down the middle and feuding. He’ll have Republicans fighting Republicans, with some joining him and some attacking him. He’ll revel in it. All that chaos, all his doing.
If he forms a party, he’ll be able to continue to spread his messages of chaos, disunity, hatred and white grievance. He’ll say that the Republican deep state kept him from meeting the needs of his flock, and while he’ll be pretty generic, the most extreme elements of the right such as the Proud Boys and the militias will think he’s talking directly to them. They’ll be even more emboldened, and buy into the notion that he’s their leader. There will be more right-wing extremism and insurrectionist acts inflamed by his rhetoric. More chaos.
And he’ll create a secular prosperity gospel movement, with him as the megachurch owner. He’ll invoke god, but it will mostly be the god of bling, the literal golden calf. He’ll undoubtedly continue to have all the evangelical leaders show up along with the pillow guy at his events and in his media drops, to give the illusion that he cares about Christians. And he’ll have all of those people send him money. He’ll get churches donating to him. He’ll get white Christian business owners donating to him. He’ll get a bunch of lottery-ticket scratching poor white people sending him their money. And he won’t have to give them a thing in return except feeding the howling void of biased ignorance inside them with things that make them feel good about themselves by pointing at all of the people they hate and supporting their loathing of them.
It will be a reality-tv political party, World Wrestling Entertainment-quality mental pablum, with all the histrionics and flamboyance, but none of the athletics. A lot of Americans will latch onto that and suck mightily at the teat of bile and disinformation. The Republicans have spent over 60 years creating and feeding those ignorant wedges, and Trump exploited them to take their party away from them in 2015. Now that he’s free of the inconvenience of actually having to do the job of President — however fitfully, poorly and incompetently — he’s free to exploit those wedges for the remainder of his life.
And he’ll have lots of help. Trump has no problem attracting venal, amoral people, leeches in human form, to his efforts. They arrogantly think that they’ll be able to get in, make their millions off the drippings from the table, and escape with their mostly non-existent souls and reputations intact.
As I said, arrogant, but not wrong in many cases about making millions. There are innumerable people who will line up to carve off as much of the proceedings of the long con into their coffers as possible. There’s been a steady conveyor line of them coming and going over the past 6 years, in and out of the Trump camp, in and out of Trump’s favor. Many of them will end up bankrupt because they’ll foolishly think that they can make deals and contracts with Trump and have them honored, greed blinding them to Trump’s entire history. He’ll con them too.
So how will this be different than the Republican Party?
Well, the RNC completely caved to Trump. Prior to the primaries last summer, they voted to be Trump’s lapdogs and support whatever he wanted, while continuing to block anything from the Democratic Party because partisan nonsense.
WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;
RESOVLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention;
Yeah, covfefe-level typo and all. Truly an inspiring document, laying out their positive vision for America. (Sarcasm mode off). It’s remarkable how sycophantic it is, which is probably why the RNC no longer allows people to see it on their site, and people like me have to cite it from Ballotpedia and other independent sources now.
So what are their options?
The first choice is to out-Trump Trump.
That would be to have Tom Cotton or Matt Gaetz or Tucker Carlson be the new Donald Trump, attacking him, attempting to be even more Trump-like than Trump. More brazen, more ignorant, more crude, more jingoistic, more nationalistic, more fact-free, more hating. That’s an entirely possible and probable path for the GOP. They aren’t winning Red states with reasonable and thoughtful policies, after all.
The second choice is to pivot to being a 21st Century center-right party.
The GOP has an amazing history, which they started unravelling in 1956 with In God We Trust. They were the party that freed the slaves, voted 76% to give women the vote, supported a strong Fourth Estate, were strongly for separation of church and state, were good fiscal managers of government, started the EPA, fought polio to the ground and established the national parks.
They could return to their roots, but in a 21st Century context. They could rebuild themselves as a credible alternative to the Democratic Party. They could accept climate change and offer center-right policies that were seriously thought through and communicated. They could reject the anti-vaxxers, leaving them to Trump. They could maintain an ecumenical council to gain the thoughts of religious groups, but stop pandering 24/7 to evangelicals. They could reject educational policies which intentionally made things horrible for the bottom 40% of the socioeconomic classes. They could embrace universal health care, something every western democracy has successfully done, something which has better outcomes at much lower costs. They could embrace police reform and demilitarization, but with differentiation.
They could embrace the better angels of their nature, returning to Lincoln for inspiration and guidance. They could look to the Angela Merkels of the world, right-wing leaders who are fully present in this century, not pining for a mythically glorious 1950s. They could reject the identity politics of being the party of white, Christian male grievance and embrace the vast diversity of America.
If they did that, they could carve off some of the Democratic Party’s more conservative members such as Klobuchar, Manchin and Edwards. They could make inroads into the cities. They could turn some purple states Red again, reversing the tide of history that’s seen them losing ground for decades.
The clearest sign that they would actually do this is if they vote to both impeach Trump in the Senate, and further invoke the option of disqualifying him for ever running for office again. This wouldn’t prevent Trump from pretending he was running, but it would divorce him utterly from the Republicans and limit the damage he could do politically to them in the future. I’m sure that at least three Republicans are advocating for this path out of the hundreds in Washington. It should be hundreds of the hundreds.
I think the Republicans becoming a 21st Century center right party is as likely as Trump fading quietly and humbly into the background, but they could do it.
Their last choice is to re-embrace Trump.
Instead of leaving him to kill their party, they reach out and negotiate to keep him in the fold. They promise him riches and adulation. They surround him with their organization and they stick their probing noses even further up the deep, deep divide between his buttocks.
This is basically the first choice, but with Trump as the even more Trumpy leader, leaving Gaetz, Cotton and Carlson frustrated from coupus interruptus. And then the spectacle continues, with even more craven and abject sycophancy from Republican leaders.
They preserve their electoral chances. All they give up is everything.
And Mitt Romney, while he talks a good game, would undoubtedly stay in the party, continue to be a gadfly with no power or influence and continue to get elected in Utah. A few more Republican congress members and Senators would elect to not run again over the next six years, and be replaced by even more craven Trump acolytes.
The only good choice for the Republicans is option 2. But the history of the past 70 years tells us that when presented with choices, they’ve inevitably taken the worst one for the long-term, but the one that gives them another shot for the next election cycle.
It’s been seven decades of craven weakness and unwise choices, not moral strength and foresight. There’s no reason to believe that they will change now.
President Trump came into office promising some fabulous yet unspecified health-care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. No plan existed; every plan Republicans came up with managed to reduce the number of insured. Trump promised never to cut entitlements; his fiscal 2020 budget proposal would have done just that.
Trump said he’d bring back manufacturing. In fact, it slowed and now has slumped. (“Manufacturing has slowed amid global uncertainty,” NPR reported earlier this month. “That’s one of the reasons the Federal Reserve gave for cutting interest rates this week.”)
Trump said he’d
- get tough on drug companies. He hasn’t. He said his
- tax cut would be aimed at the middle class,
- deliver $4,000 a year to the average American family and
- permanently boost business investment, pushing growth above 3 percent. Nope, nope and nope.
Investigative reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow say the president received today’s equivalent of $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, through what appears to be tax fraud.
CRAIG: That started in 1949. And it was one of the projects that had got – that Fred Trump had received government funding to build. It was a complex called Beach Haven. And what Fred Trump did – it was quite ingenious – is he bought the land underneath Beach Haven, the complex that he would go on to build, and he placed the land in a trust for the benefit of his five children. And then he started paying them rent. He makes them his landlord. And every year, they’d continue to get payments. So instead of paying some…
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Could we just stop a second?
GROSS: I don’t really understand how 3-year-old Donald Trump can be his father’s landlord. Can you explain that?
CRAIG: Sure. It was his land to do what he wanted with. And he put it in a trust, in this instance, when they were very young for their benefit and began paying them rent. It’s completely legal. But that’s sort of one of the ways in which he early on – you know, he’s in – this point, it’s in the 1940s. His children are young. And he’s looking for ways, you would imagine at this point, to begin to take care of his children as they get older so that they – you know, when they grow up, they’ve got money. And it is a way to transfer what is – now he’s becoming a very richer man – is one way to begin to transfer wealth to them. This is the first one. It happened in 1949.
GROSS: So what are some of the ways that by the time Donald Trump was a teenager, he was already wealthy? What are some of the other ways his father gave him money?
BARSTOW: He began doing a number of things. So he started buying or building apartment complexes in Brooklyn and Queens and then gradually transferring ownership of those apartment complexes to his children. So, for example, Donald, when he was 17 years old, became co-owner with his family members of a 52-unit apartment building in Brooklyn that his father had acquired for them. And so they would – over time, Fred Trump assembled roughly eight apartment complexes – over a thousand units in all – that he transferred through a variety of mechanisms to his children. So those thousand units start churning out profits that flowed effortlessly into the pockets of his children.
We actually documented in our reporting 295 different revenue streams that Fred Trump ultimately created for Donald Trump over a 50-year period. I mean, Fred Trump was so ingenious at finding different ways of putting money into Donald Trump’s pockets. So he didn’t just put him on his payroll as a salary employee. He also paid him separately to be a consultant to him. He paid him separately to be a property manager for him. He paid him separately to be a purchasing agent for him. On and on it would go.
CRAIG: He was getting laundry revenue at one point from Fred Trump.
BARSTOW: Yes. And…
CRAIG: …From the buildings.
BARSTOW: You know, some of these revenue streams were relatively modest. Some of them were kind of one-hit wonders. But when you added it all up, it was this incredible stream of money that made Donald Trump – he was a millionaire, actually, by the time he was 8 or 9 years old. Before he ever entered and set foot into Manhattan, where he would make his name, Fred Trump had already transferred to him over $9 million in wealth.
GROSS: So you say by the time he was 29, in 1975, Donald Trump had collected nearly 9 million – the equivalent of $9 million in today’s dollars from his father. When he was 30, in 1976, the myth of Donald Trump really starts to expand. There’s a 1976 article in your newspaper, The New York Times, and you describe it as one of the first major Donald Trump profiles and a cornerstone of decades of mythmaking about his wealth. What did the article say? What were the main points of this 1976 article about Donald Trump?
BARSTOW: It was really one of the first big, big profiles that ran of Donald Trump. And Donald Trump did something in this particular profile that he would actually repeat and use to great effect in subsequent profiles, which was he took The New York Times reporter on a tour of what he called his jobs, his empire. And he starts driving around New York pointing out this building and that building and talking about how wonderful they were doing.
And effectively, what he was doing was he was appropriating his father’s empire as if it were his own empire. So these buildings that he’s pointing out as his jobs and part of his empire, they were, in fact, completely owned by his father. He had no ownership stake in any of those buildings. And so what he did, especially when it was critical to kind of the early mythmaking of Donald Trump, was he simply asserted that his father’s empire was his empire.
And those claims, unfortunately, largely went unchallenged for many, many years by the reporters who were kind of swept up in the glamor of this young, swaggering, handsome guy who was so full of confidence and so full of big plans for the city of New York. And so that story was the thing that, I think, helped give birth to the myth of Donald Trump, self-made billionaire.
CRAIG: One of the things that’s really remarkable about that story when you read it is, you know, he goes through job after job and says that things that are his father’s are his own. And he tells the reporter that he’s worth in excess of $200 million. And everything he pointed to in this story that would go to his net worth at that time was his father’s. He had a tax return a few years later where we see he declared – I think he made $25,000 a couple years later.
BARSTOW: That year, actually – that exact – that year…
CRAIG: It was actually that year.
BARSTOW: And yet, he was sitting there saying that he was worth $200 million. And that was a claim that he would – part of the claim that would put him on the very first list of wealthiest Americans published by Forbes magazine in 19 – I want to say – ’81, ’82 – ’81, somewhere in there.
CRAIG: And it was a spectacular con.
GROSS: And I guess Donald Trump got used to people taking him at his word, even when his word wasn’t true.
.. GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guests are New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow, two of the three writers who reported just a couple of weeks ago on how Donald Trump engaged in suspect tax schemes as he reaped riches from his father. And it deconstructs the whole Donald Trump myth about how he’s a self-made millionaire or billionaire. And it shows, like, how much money Fred Trump, Donald’s father, funneled to him and his other siblings and how they came up with schemes to avoid paying taxes, making Donald Trump a very, very wealthy man by the time he was a teenager.
OK. So in addition to some of the tax schemes we talked about, Fred Trump made a lot of loans to Donald Trump. Donald Trump has always said that he got a million-dollar loan from his father and helped parlay that into his own empire. So how much money would you estimate Fred Trump gave Donald Trump in loans?
BARSTOW: We were able to document in real dollars $60 million in loans, not one million. In today’s dollars, it equates to $140 million in loans, which is on top of the $413 million in direct wealth that we saw transferred to Donald. What we also saw – I think what is important also is that, in many cases, these were loans that were never repaid. You know, he would take out – we were looking at one particular year, and it was like every month. He’s going back to Dad, and he’s borrowing another couple hundred thousand bucks and then another 500,000 bucks and then a million dollars. It was just, like, a monthly run to Fred Trump to get more money.
And we saw especially that the flow of loans increased as Donald Trump took on big, new projects, or they increased when he was suddenly in trouble, he had run into another financial ditch. So it was a really steady stream that went well beyond, you know, the notion of a guy in his early 20s getting a million dollars from Dad and then being off to the races. These were loans that actually extended well into his 40s and 50s.
GROSS: So how did Donald Trump use the money that was loaned from his father?
CRAIG: Yeah. He used the money for many of his ventures. He had Trump Tower. Money that he got from Fred Trump was used to support that. It was used to support his ventures in Atlantic City and elsewhere. Many of them went under. I mean, especially, you look at Donald Trump’s history in Atlantic City, he’s got several bankruptcies. At one point, he was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. And this is a time he not only owed the banks hundreds of millions of dollars, he was in debt to his father and was going to his father at these very crucial times for more support.
GROSS: So he gets a lot of money from his father, tries to build his own empire and ends up in debt in a lot of instances, instead of making a fortune from his own investments.
BARSTOW: You also see that when he fell – you know, when he would fall down, the safety net was there. The Fred Trump safety net was there to catch him.
CRAIG: There was one just almost unbelievable moment in the story, and you see it in 1990. And this is a time in, you know, the back end of 1990. And Donald Trump is in incredible financial distress. A number of his companies are either in trouble or facing bankruptcy. And Fred Trump had been there for him at every turn, according to the documents. We can see he’s assisting him with money in one case. Donald Trump’s casinos, they’re facing a debt payment. And Fred Trump has a lawyer go into the casino and buy casino chips and walk out without placing a bet. It was simply a way to give Donald Trump money. And this period…
GROSS: And this was, like, $3 1/2 million worth of chips. Right?
CRAIG: It was $3 1/2 millon worth of casino chips. And at this period, his father is there for him at every turn in every document that we can see. And Donald Trump, at this period, has a lawyer – one of his lawyers – draft a codicil to his father’s will, essentially a new will. And this codicil to the will is taken to Fred Trump’s house in December 1990. And Fred Trump immediately sees this codicil as an attempt by Donald to take control of his empire and to potentially put it at risk.
And Fred Trump immediately says no. He freaks out. And he makes a call to his daughter, who is a federal judge and a lawyer. And a new codicil, within months, is drafted that removes Donald as the sole executor of Fred Trump’s will and puts Donald and Robert Trump and Maryanne Trump in charge of his affairs. And then ultimately, a new will is drafted.
But you see, in the depth of Donald Trump’s financial life, after all his father has done for him, that he makes this move that’s an incredibly dramatic move. And it’s scarring to the family, what he did.
GROSS: So what you’re saying, I think, is that at the end of Fred Trump’s life – or toward the end of Fred Trump’s life, Donald Trump tried to take advantage of him for Donald Trump’s own good, to help Donald Trump bail himself out. And Fred Trump, Donald’s father, became suspicious of the son that he had helped with so much money over so many years.
BARSTOW: What we know for sure is that Fred Trump perceived this as an attempt by his son to gain complete control over his estate and, potentially, to use the empire that Fred Trump had doggedly and patiently built over many decades – to use that empire, potentially, as collateral to help bail Donald Trump out of his own financial difficulties.
GROSS: My guests are New York Times reporters David Barstow and Susanne Craig. After a break, we’ll talk about another scheme used to transfer wealth from Fred Trump’s real estate empire to his children. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERNESTO CERVINI’S “WOEBEGONE”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with New York Times reporters Susanne Craig and David Barstow who, along with Russ Buettner, spent a year and a half investigating how Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, used various tax schemes to transfer about 413 million in today’s dollars from Fred’s real estate empire to Donald. The reporters say one of the family’s tax schemes involve fraud. This story offers a completely different narrative than the one Donald Trump has always presented of himself as a self-made billionaire.
.. And they had regular family meetings after Fred Trump died. They would hand out checks. You know, Fred Trump’s buildings were very profitable. And they would meet every few months to get an update on the status of the empire and to get a check. And then in 2003, at one of these meetings, Donald Trump announced that it was time to sell and quickly assembled a private sale to a developer in New York for almost all of it. And it was sold – you know, give or take a few buildings – in one sale for just under $800 million.
GROSS: So the buildings that were sold, were those buildings that Fred Trump had still owned at the time of his death? Or did it also include all the buildings that had been transferred from Fred Trump to the children?
CRAIG: They included both the buildings that had been transferred and the ones that he owned. It was pretty much his whole empire. And it sold – you know, the buildings that sold in 2004 were to a New York developer named Ruby Schron, and the price tag was just over $700 million. And what’s interesting about that is we learned through the documents that we went through that that sale price was roughly just under $200 million than what the banks would value it at, you know, in the months after the sale. So it’s incredible to see that that empire was sold for much less than they could’ve got for it very quietly and for much less.
GROSS: So it wasn’t, like, the deal of the century that Donald Trump made?
CRAIG: It definitely wasn’t.
.. GROSS: Susanne, I’m going to ask you to choose either “The Art Of The Deal,” “The Art Of The Comeback” or “The Apprentice” and tell us what was actually going on in Donald Trump’s financial life when these books or the show based on all his fabulous accomplishments and deals went public.
CRAIG: I’m thinking which one to choose.
CRAIG: What are you thinking, David?
BARSTOW: “Art Of The Comeback.”
CRAIG: (Laughter) Go for it.
BARSTOW: Oh. Well, so he publishes “The Art Of The Comeback” in 1997. And it’s this story of his sort of, you know, pulling himself up out of the muck of his casino collapse and, through his grit and determination and wily negotiating skills, getting himself back on his feet. Well, within – a few weeks of the publication of this book so happens to coincide with the time when he actually took possession of one-quarter of his father’s real estate empire through one of these very elaborate tax schemes that we describe in the story. So at this moment when he’s boasting about, you know, his derring-do of getting himself off the mat, it actually coincides perfectly with the moment when he’s just taken possession of 25 percent of this enormous real estate empire. And somehow, someway, not a word of that made its way into the book “The Art Of The Comeback.”
CRAIG: I’m also thinking of, immediately, “The Apprentice” and the opening scene of “The Apprentice” and the song – money, money, money, money – that happened in 2004 right as the sale had gone through, the hundreds of millions of dollars that they had gotten from Fred Trump. And yet when you watch that opening scene, it’s all Donald Trump – Donald Trump’s plane is there, the gold tower in Midtown Manhattan – when, in fact, it was all the opening scene that Fred Trump built and paid for.
.. GROSS: I’m wondering how you feel knowing that you have just totally punctured the myth of how Donald Trump made his money and what he did with his money and his great negotiating, deal-making abilities. And so many people still believe the myth, and Donald Trump is still putting forward the myth.
CRAIG: It’s interesting. When I think about that, I think you have to sort of – I go back to that idea – you know, the lie repeated over and over and passed down into history becomes fact. And I think that we’ve reset that. I think it’s going to take time for this to move into the bloodstream of America. But I think that we’ve taken, I think, a good first stop in resetting exactly the origins of Donald Trump’s wealth. But I do think it’s going to take time, and I think there’s some people who are always going to believe what they want to believe.
But I think the the power of the story is, you know, I think, how careful we were and how documented it was and the Times’ decision to put so many of those documents up. I think it’s really hard to refute the story. It’s hard to refute because it’s absolutely true, and the documents are there. And a lot of them are the source documents of the Trump family themselves. But I think it will take time for this to sort of – you know, for people to digest it. And – but I think it’s going to happen.
There are several kinds of success stories. We emphasize the ones starring brilliant inventors and earnest toilers. We celebrate sweat and stamina. We downplay the schemers, the short cuts and the subterfuge. But for every ambitious person who has the goods and is prepared to pay his or her dues, there’s another who doesn’t and is content to play the con. In the Trump era and the Trump orbit, these ambassadors of a darker side of the American dream have come to the fore.
.. What a con Holmes played with Theranos. For those unfamiliar with the tale, which the journalist John Carreyrou told brilliantly in “Bad Blood,” she dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her Silicon Valley dream, intent on becoming a billionaire and on claiming the same perch in our culture and popular imagination that Steve Jobs did. She modeled her work habits and management style after his. She dressed as he did, in black turtlenecks. She honed a phony voice, deeper than her real one.
She spoke, with immaculate assurance, of a day when it might be on everyone’s bathroom counter: a time saver, a money saver and quite possibly a lifesaver. She sent early, imperfect versions of it to Walgreens pharmacies, which used it and thus doled out erroneous diagnoses to patients. She blocked peer reviews of it and buried evidence of its failures.
This went on not for months but for years, as Holmes attracted more than $900 million of investment money and lured a breathtakingly distinguished board of directors including two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and a future secretary of defense, James Mattis. What they had before them wasn’t proof or even the sturdy promise of revolutionary technology. It was a self-appointed wunderkind who struck a persuasive pose and talked an amazing game.
She was eventually found out, and faces criminal charges that could put her in prison. But there’s no guarantee of that. Meantime she lives in luxury. God bless America.
Theranos was perhaps an outlier in the scope of its deceptions, but not in the deceptions themselves. In an article titled “The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley” in Fortune magazine in December 2016, Erin Griffith tallied a list of aborted ventures with more shimmer and swagger than substance, asserting: “As the list of start-up scandals grows, it’s time to ask whether entrepreneurs are taking ‘fake it till you make it’ too far.”
Donald Trump specializes in spectacular breakups.
First there was Ivana. Then there was Marla. Now comes trouble in paradise with Kim.
.. This time, it wasn’t just lust, betrayal and secrets splayed across Page Six. This time, it was in Congress, part of an investigation that could lead to legal jeopardy for the Trumps or impeachment for the president.
.. In his testimony, Michael Cohen called himself a “fool” when it came to Trump. “I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have,” Cohen said. A fool for love, held in thrall by Trump. How could anyone be held in thrall by such a sleazy goofball, much less offer to take a bullet for him or make 500 threats on his behalf?
.. “It seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong,” said Cohen in his “Goodfellas” accent, adding that being around the “icon” was “intoxicating.”
“Mr. Trump is an enigma,” Cohen said. “He is complicated, as am I.”
Actually, Trump is simple, grasping for money, attention and fame. The enigma about Trump is why he cut off his lap dog so brutally that Cohen fell into the embrace of Robert Mueller and New York federal prosecutors. Trump is often compared to a mob boss, but Michael Corleone would never turn on a loyal capo, only on one who had crossed him.
The portrait Cohen drew of Trump was not surprising. It has been apparent for some time that the president is a con man, racist, cheat and liar. (See: Jared Kushner security clearance.)
What was most compelling about the congressional hearing was the portrait of the sadistic relationship between the sycophant and the sociopath.