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'American Oligarchs' Reveals How Trump, Kushner Families Learned To Work The System

How the Trump and Kushner families immigrated to the U.S. and built their fortunes, a talk with Andrea Bernstein, author of American Oligarchs.

42:46

Other segments from the episode on January 8, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 8, 2020: Interview with Andrea Bernstein: Review of 'Jean Stafford Complete Novels.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Andrea Bernstein is the author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She describes it as the story of two dynasties that have both benefited from and fueled a system of widening inequality and greater influence of money in politics, a tale of specific choices - theirs and the country's about taxation, regulation, corruption and campaign finance laws that brought us to where we are today. Bernstein also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." - as in Trump, Incorporated - which investigates who's profiting from the Trump administration and at what cost. It's a co-production of public radio station WNYC in New York and ProPublica. She's covered politics, money, power and influence for the past 25 years.

Andrea Bernstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The Trump administration has been very anti-immigration, especially if the immigrants are Muslim or Mexican. One of his campaign promises was build the wall. Jared Kushner is now responsible for overseeing construction over the border wall. So let's talk about their immigrant roots and how their immigrant families got to America and built their fortune here. So let's start with Trump. So his grandfather - is it pronounced Friedrich?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Friedrich Trump.

GROSS: Arrived in New York in 1885. This was only months after the Statue of Liberty arrived. Why did he leave Germany?

BERNSTEIN: So he left Germany because of inheritance laws. He was not the oldest son. And he was only going to be able to inherit a small plot of land. And also, Germany was at war. And he didn't want to enter the army. So he came to America and got work immediately as a barber. He lived in New York City and decided he wanted to make more money, so he went west.

GROSS: So he stops in Seattle first, opens a restaurant there. But he made his money in the Yukon, which is far north on the eastern border of Alaska. It's part of Canada. Why did he go to the Yukon?

BERNSTEIN: So while he was living in Seattle, there was a boatload of gold that arrived in Seattle. And it caused this frenzy. It caused three extra editions of the Seattle newspaper. There was a sense that anybody could make their riches digging for gold.

GROSS: This was during the gold rush era.

BERNSTEIN: It was the gold rush era. It was actually sort of the end of the gold rush era. And so people streamed northward. And it was an incredibly arduous passage to this territory in the sort of - was really Alaska then or, I guess, northwest Canada. And there was this dream of people going there. And they had to carry a thousand pounds of goods with them to make sure that they would make the trip. So it was a really hard trip. And they had to eat horse meat along the way. And there were driving (ph) mosquitoes. But when they got there, they were looking for gold.

Now, Friedrich Trump was not doing that. He was in the hospitality business. He ran a series of restaurants known as the Arctic Restaurant. And they sold all kinds of food and liquor and also, the evidence suggests, sex, that they were actually places where the men doing the mining could find female company.

GROSS: And that was, in part, one of the Trump businesses?

BERNSTEIN: That was one of the earliest Trump businesses. And the interesting thing about Friedrich Trump is that he always made his money by situating his businesses where other people were doing something else. So when he was in Washington state, he also was in the hospitality business, also making money by being well-situated next to the depot where workers were coming in and out. Same thing in Alaska, he always situated his restaurants in places where he would get a heavy foot traffic.

So location, location, location was the way he made his business. But it was also a sort of an insurance policy because the other people were losing money from the gold rush. Not very many people made money from the gold rush. But Friedrich Trump managed to escape the gold rush with a lot of money and bring it back east, which is how they started the Trump family real estate business.

GROSS: So he goes from the Yukon to New York.

BERNSTEIN: He goes - right, he goes back from the Yukon to New York. And I often think, what an incredibly slow and dirty train journey that must have been in those days with the coal dust blowing back at you. But he made that journey on more than one occasion. He goes back to New York. And he has this nest egg of money.

And what is really interesting is when he arrives in the United States, it's the Gilded Age. And it is a situation of income inequality similar to our own. There are very, very, very rich people. There are very poor people. And the gap is widening. But the interesting thing about this era is that in America at that time, there was still so much land and so much immigration that people could change their social class. And that's what Friedrich Trump was able to do.

GROSS: So he brings his money to New York and gets into the real estate business. Why did he get into real estate?

BERNSTEIN: Well, it was another situation of looking at what was happening with the local infrastructure. And he decided to set up business in Queens, N.Y., which at that time did not have a direct route from Manhattan. If you wanted to come by land, you had to come over the Brooklyn Bridge and then upward into Queens. Or there were ferry boats. But they were building a bridge at that time. And right before that is when he started to buy land.

And, of course, government infrastructure projects always boost real estate. And it's one of the constant themes that you see with the Trump family and the Kushner family, that these big government-funded infrastructure projects create the customer base for their business. So that's what happened. That is how the Trump real estate business began to be successful in those early days.

GROSS: So Friedrich Trump, Donald Trump's grandfather, dies in 1918 a victim of the influenza epidemic. And then his son gets into real estate. How old was Frederick - which is Donald Trump's father - how old was he when his father Friedrich died?

BERNSTEIN: So Frederick - or Fred...

GROSS: So let's just stop here and say we'll call Trump's grandfather Friedrich and we'll call Trump's father Fred.

BERNSTEIN: Fred Trump is how he is known in New York City. And, of course, there's a lot of people here who still remember Fred Trump. But at the time his father died, he was still a teenager. And his mother was very business minded. And she set up a business called E. Trump & Son. And they started to build houses but sort of one by one. So they would build a house and sell it and take the money and build another house.

He also at one point got into the grocery business. And he was doing this for a while. And then, of course, along comes the Great Depression. And it's a terrible time for real estate in New York and everywhere. People are losing money all over the place because of foreclosures. So Fred Trump goes into the grocery business, and he might have stayed there, but he figured something out.

GROSS: What did he figure out?

BERNSTEIN: He figured out how to work political connections to get court assignments that would enable him to make money. So in the mid-1930s, he goes into a Brooklyn courtroom with very little real estate experience, just what I talked about - building houses and selling them one by one until he actually got out of the business because of the depression. And he goes and he says, I've been in real estate for 10 years, and makes an argument for why he should get an assignment from a judge to take over a piece of a bankrupt company.

But he realizes along the way that to get the judge's attention - the judges are controlled by the Brooklyn political machine. And to get the judge's attention, he needs to become close to the Brooklyn political machine. And this is what he does. And it is a lifelong practice for Fred Trump - and then later for Donald Trump - that they cultivate their connections with the Brooklyn political machine, which at that time was almost exclusively controlled by the Democratic Party.

So Fred Trump becomes one of the largest donors to the Democratic Party. He becomes very, very close to a Democratic political club called the Madison Club. And the way these clubs worked at the time was that they would get people out to the polls. And they would sort of offer jobs to the people that were loyal.

And they controlled everything. They controlled the local politicians, the judges and the district attorneys. And that was one way that Fred Trump learned early on to wield his political power so there would always be government favor for his business in whatever way he needed.

GROSS: So you're suggesting that the Trump family became political donors and Democratic donors not because of political views that they held, but because those were the people in power and they were trying to buy into the power.

BERNSTEIN: They realized that it was a necessity for their business. And Fred Trump really got two big breaks that launched the Trump real estate empire. One was in the Brooklyn courtroom, where he got the assignment for a piece of a company being distributed in bankruptcy court. And the second was because he made friends with the local federal housing administrator also through political connections. And this local housing administrator threw him lots and lots and lots of federal money.

And, in fact, at one point, he was called before the Senate Banking Committee and required to answer for how much business he'd been given, what a huge percentage of business he'd been given and the numbers that were underlying his loan applications. And the senators were very suspicious. And they said to him, you are valuing things highly when you want money from us and valuing them lowly when you want to avoid taxes.

This was a lifelong business pattern for Fred Trump and later Donald Trump. We still see it. But even though the Senate Banking Committee investigated Fred Trump for this, they sort of rapped (ph) him on the wrist and sent him on his way. And there were no consequences. And we know now that he kept doing exactly that.

GROSS: So we can see from the roots of the Trump family business that the Trump family business profited greatly from government help.

BERNSTEIN: They could not have been what they are without the help of the taxpayers in a whole variety of ways - through infrastructure programs, through tax abatement programs which allowed them to avoid paying taxes in certain instances. And they also benefited by what The New York Times called outright fraud.

They just simply didn't pay the taxes they were supposed to. So they were in this position of getting help from the government and getting help from government programs, at the same time, actively trying not to pay money back to the taxpayers.

GROSS: Why don't we take a break right here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Bernstein. Her new book is called "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." - that's Inc. as in incorporated.

We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY PREVITE'S "SHE HAS INFORMATION")

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Bernstein. She's the author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." And she also does a podcast about Trump, money and power. It's called "Trump, Inc." - Inc. as in incorporated.

I've heard that - you know, you hear, like, Trump's family is German, but occasionally you hear something about Sweden. So you explain that...

BERNSTEIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...You explain that in your book (laughter). I want you to explain where Sweden figures into the Trump family roots - or does not figure into it, as the case may be.

BERNSTEIN: There are a lot of outright falsehoods in the Trump family biography and in what Trump says about himself and in what his father said about himself. Fred Trump's father came from Germany, and his mother came from Germany. And they actually spoke German at home. And he, during the war, was building in Virginia - federally-subsidized housing. And he didn't want people to know of his German roots, so he said he was Swedish.

And this became a theme constantly that Fred Trump and then later Donald Trump said their roots were Swedish. And they said it constantly. The most interesting time they said it was at Fred Trump's funeral. The New York Post reported Fred Trump was from Sweden. So that lie traveled with him until the end of his life.

And in many of the early profiles of Donald Trump - for example, in The New York Times - they kept saying his ancestors are Swedish. And it was repeated over and over again. But Donald Trump's grandfather and grandmother were definitely from Germany.

GROSS: Did Donald ever say that his heritage was Swedish?

BERNSTEIN: Constantly, all the time. He told reporters that. He told people in New York. People really thought he was from Sweden or that his ancestors were from Sweden, but they were not in any way.

GROSS: So I'm curious - and I don't know if you can answer this. Do you think that Donald Trump believed that his grandfather was from Sweden? Or do you...

BERNSTEIN: (Laugher) No.

GROSS: No?

BERNSTEIN: No. It was clear where his grandparents were from, but it became a family myth because it was better business to be Swedish than it was to be German during the war. And Donald Trump seems to have attached to the glamour of Swedish. He refers in his own book on several occasions to Swedish models. So it's something that he seems to view as aspirational, as a good place to be from.

You might remember when he made his comments about (expletive)-hole countries giving us immigrants, he said, why can't we get people from Norway? So he seems to have a fixation on Scandinavia as being a desirable place to be from.

GROSS: So, I don't know, we're spending a little bit of time talking about Trump, you know, lying or being deceptive about his family roots. And it sounds like, well, why - that's not such a big deal. Or is it? Like, if you're lying about your whole family, and then you're later lying about things political and in business, what does that say?

BERNSTEIN: Well, there is a throughline with the Trump family business that goes back to Fred Trump, which is - and maybe even back to Frederick Trump - which is they can say whatever they want to anybody so long as it helps the business. So Fred Trump would overvalue his business when he wanted to get a bank loan and undervalue it when he had to pay taxes. The Trump family still does that. In our podcast, "Trump, Inc.," we recently uncovered that that has happened at Trump Tower and at several other buildings in New York, where there - where the numbers do not line up.

They don't seem to have a problem with telling mistruths so long as they see it as in service of the family business. And I think something that's really, really important to understand with President Trump - because there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time fact-checking the president. And I am grateful for the people at the Toronto Star and at The Washington Post who really track the Trump lies. But one of the things from the very beginning of his presidency and even before was he understands that he is not telling the truth. And it's a way of displaying power. It's a way of saying I know that it is raining outside, and I'm going to say it's not raining. That actually happened on his inaugural day.

So it's - he is doing it as a way to say, I can control the truth. And it's important to not go too far down that rabbit hole of correcting him because that is something that is drawn from his business. He controls the facts. He controls the truth, and he uses it to accrue power.

GROSS: So we've been talking about Trump's grandfather and father. Trump gets into the business at a very early age and takes the business in a slightly different direction. Tell us a story about how Trump established his own credentials kind of separate from his father.

BERNSTEIN: Fred Trump's business model was very much building, in the outer boroughs of New York City, modest apartments that were for the middle class that he kept building and building and building and extracting money from and building more. And he never thought Manhattan was worth it. He thought Manhattan was too risky.

But Donald Trump always wanted to be in Manhattan. And while he was in his 20s, he noticed that Penn Central was going bankrupt. And he began to put his eyes on some pieces of Penn Central land. So Donald Trump decides he wants to buy some parcels of Penn Central. And one of them that Penn Central owns is the old Commodore Hotel, which is next to Grand Central Terminal. And the hotel is falling apart.

And Donald Trump has no experience as a real estate developer, so he goes to the person who is selling the property on behalf of Penn Central, a man named Ned Eichler. And he says, I want to do this. And Ned Eichler's kind of suspicious because here's this young blond guy in his 20s with no track record of developing in Manhattan. And he says, well, we'll have to see the mayor. And Trump, without missing a beat, says, when do you want to see him? And he says, tomorrow. And Trump says, OK. I'll send my limo at 1:30, and we'll meet the mayor at 2.

Now at 2 o'clock, there is Mayor Abe Beame and Fred Trump and other associates in City Hall. And Mayor Beame puts his arm around Fred Trump and Donald Trump and says, anything they want, they get. And this is because Abe Beame came from the political club that Donald and Fred Trump had poured so much into. And he was able to use that political connection to get the sale for Penn Central - to get the sale from Penn Central and to renovate the Commodore Hotel. And that is what made Donald Trump a Manhattan real estate developer, was being able to sell his carefully cultivated political connection to the mayor of New York City.

GROSS: My guest is Andrea Bernstein, author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushner's, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the Kushner family and how they came to the U.S. and built a real estate business and a fortune. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new collection of Jean Stafford's three novels published by the Library of America. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE ANDERSON'S "IMMIGRANT SUITE: JUROR NUMBER ONE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andrea Bernstein, author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She describes it as the story of two dynasties that have both benefited from and fueled a system of widening inequality and greater influence of money in politics. Bernstein also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." which investigates who's profiting from the Trump administration and at what cost. It's a co-production of public radio station WNYC in New York and ProPublica.

So let's talk about Jared Kushner's backstory. His grandparents have pretty remarkable stories about how they survived the Holocaust in Poland. Tell us one of those stories.

BERNSTEIN: So Jared Kushner's grandmother, Rae Kushner, has a remarkable story of survival. She grew up in a family of furriers in a town in what was then northeast Poland. It's now Belarus. And she began hearing stories that the Germans were killing Jews and just didn't believe it. But then the Germans marched into Novogrudok.

And at first, things were OK. But then came a very cold December day where thousands of Jews were rounded up in a courthouse and told, you go to the right, you go to the left. And one way was to live and one way was to die. And the Kushner family was sent to die, to board trucks bound for mass graves. But then before they could board the trucks, they were asked, is anybody here a furrier? And the Kushners said they were. And the Germans pulled them out of the line because they wanted them to make hats and coats for the German army.

And this is what they did. They basically lived inside a ghetto, had very little to eat and had to work as enslaved people for the Nazis. And the Nazis kept killing more and more people, as they decided they were superfluous. There were a few hundred survivors in the summer of 1943. And they realized they had to escape. And they knew that there was a band of partisan Jews in the forest. And if they could get out there, they had a chance of living.

So they began to dig a tunnel. And they had to hide the bags of dirt that they were excavating underneath beds and inside walls so the Nazis wouldn't find them. But they did build this tunnel and crawled out of it. It was 2 feet across. And Rae and her - Rae Kushner and her father Naum (ph) Kushner and her sister Lisa made it out of the tunnel alive and into the forest. Their brother, Channon, when he got out of the tunnel, became disoriented, ran in the wrong direction and was ultimately shot by the Nazis.

GROSS: So that's a really remarkable story of survival. And they managed, eventually, to get to America, the Kushners - the surviving Kushners.

BERNSTEIN: So Rae Kushner and her husband, Joe, who had his own story of survival during the war, met up after the war and got married in Budapest on the run, took trains and walked and snuck across borders - and this is all by their own account - illegally until they ended up in a displaced persons camp in Italy, where they were stateless. And they tried to get into any country that they could. They tried to get into South Africa. They tried to get into Israel. They tried to get into the U.S. And no one would take them.

And then, as they understood it - and this is by the account of a book that was written for Jared Kushner's grandmother on her 75th birthday - they realized that U.S. immigration law favored sons over son-in-laws. So of course they had nothing left. All of their documents had been destroyed by the Nazis. So in their immigration paperwork, Jared Kushner's grandfather said that he was his father-in-law's son.

So the family took on the name Kushner. So to just raise into historical relief what happened here, that Jared Kushner's family made it here by doing what they needed to do. And now in the White House, the Trump administration policy is to constrict and constrict and constrict the number of refugees that are allowed into the United States.

GROSS: The Kushner family did what it needed to do to survive. And they did it, I think, in a really brave and admirable way. You do what you do to stay alive. I think the question is not that they had to lie to get here, but rather, why is it that Jared seems to show so little sympathy or empathy for people who are trying to get to the U.S.? And this isn't - I'm just wondering why knowing what his family history is.

BERNSTEIN: Every time he's asked about it, he changes his story into a story of family success. And I should say that I, in the course of writing my book, sent 83 questions to Jared Kushner at the White House - some of them were answered, this one was not. And the question was, is there any contradiction between your family history and the current administration policy? Other journalists have asked him about it, and he has just resisted.

He has said it doesn't really matter because there are 65 million refugees and we can't possibly take them all, so we have a rational policy. That is the answer that he's given. I mean, I think that he, Jared Kushner, comes from a family that values family loyalty and married into a family that values family loyalty. And he will always be loyal to his father-in-law unless there was some kind of radical break. So that is as simple to him as breathing is defending his father-in-law's policies, whatever they may be.

GROSS: We have to take a break here. And we'll be right back right after that. There's a lot more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Bernstein. And her new book is called "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." - Inc. as in incorporated. And that, too, tracks the president, his history and the history of Trump money in politics.

So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Bernstein, author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." - as in incorporated - which is also about the Trumps' money and power.

In your podcast and in the book, you deal with Rudy Giuliani. And I'm curious, like, how did Rudy Giuliani and Trump first meet? Like, what's the first time they come together?

BERNSTEIN: So it's - one of the things in writing my book (laughter) is that - my book is in five acts. And when I started writing the beginning of the book, I did not know who was going to come back in Act 5. I have Paul Manafort on Page 1 of the introduction. And I didn't know that he was going to resurface with the Ukraine story at the end of Act 5. Rudy Giuliani appears very early in the book when he's running for mayor. And he's a corruption buster.

And he is talking about not only prosecuting corruption, but about the toll that corruption takes on ordinary citizens of New York City. And he's very passionate about it. And he, in fact, prosecuted some of the most significant corruption cases in the history of New York City. He actually sent Roy Cohn's business partner to prison for 20 years, which was one of the longest sentences ever for political corruption in New York.

Then Rudy Giuliani comes back and runs for mayor. And Donald Trump is, by this time, a very substantial donor because he sees where things are going. And he gives a lot of money to Rudy Giuliani. He cultivates him in his later years as U.S. attorney, while he's running for mayor the first time, while he's running for mayor the second time, all through his mayoral administration. And he hires the lobbying firm closest to Rudy Giuliani.

Rudy Giuliani, in turn, does some nice things for Donald Trump. For example, he gives him the air rights to build his building near the United Nations very, very high. He tries to get the federal government to give Donald Trump mortgage insurance, which was supposed to be for low-income housing for one of his developments on the West Side of Manhattan. So he turns out to really be an ally in government of Donald Trump. And Donald Trump rewards him handsomely.

GROSS: So Trump and Giuliani go back to the very start of Giuliani's political career.

BERNSTEIN: They go - they do. And what happens to Giuliani, obviously, is Sept. 11. And he becomes America's mayor. And he runs for president himself, eventually, in 2008. One of the problems for Rudy Giuliani is out on the campaign trail, it was very hard for him to live up to that image. People liked him the best the first day they met him. And he didn't wear well. And he ended up dropping out very early in that contest, which John McCain ultimately won.

And then he sort of kicked around for many years. He did ads for LifeLock. He traveled around the world. He made business ties in Ukraine and elsewhere. But he didn't have the big purpose in life that he'd had when he was mayor, when he was running for president, until Donald Trump ran again. And then he became a major surrogate. And he was able to do what Trump does, which is to sell his name - Rudy Giuliani, America's mayor, supporting Donald Trump.

And he began to appear on TV again. He became an important person again. So Donald Trump's presidential campaign revived, for Rudy Giuliani, his business purpose and his purpose in life. And that's how they reconnected.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you, like, an impossible question to answer briefly, but...

BERNSTEIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...I'm going to give it a shot. I think you might be up to the task (laughter). One of my favorite episodes of your podcast, "Trump, Inc.," is called Why Ukraine. And it basically asks the question, why is, like, Giuliani and his business associates and other people - you know, Paul Manafort - why are they all connected in some way to Ukraine?

And I think the larger question is, why were there so many corrupt business deals emanating from Ukraine? And you have a great podcast that goes into depth about some of this. But just tell us a little bit about, why Ukraine? And, of course, Ukraine is at the very center of the impeachment and the possible Senate trial.

BERNSTEIN: So the name of my book is "American Oligarchs." When I picked the title for it, I did not know what was going to be happening with Ukraine. But one of the things that has become clear and that I've learned in the course of reporting this book is how the political system works in Ukraine. And the way the political system works in Ukraine is the very rich simply hire the political consultants they want to install the politicians they want to make it possible for them to keep making money. And that's what we saw during Paul Manafort's trial, that exact fact pattern.

And it is an eerie premonition of our political future where the rich just contribute directly and get what they want. And what is happening in Ukraine is that it is a battleground. It is between Russia and Europe. It is a place where there is a battle of the oligarchs, where there is very little in the way of the rule of law. So it's a great place for U.S. businessmen and entrepreneurs and people like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Cohen and others to try to go and make money - and they do.

But it is also this sort of tragic place because it clearly wants to separate itself from the old Soviet ways. It clearly wants to be a democracy. And one of the things that we are seeing in this whole impeachment trial is that exact struggle, is bipartisan U.S. policy trying to make Ukraine more democratic. And what we are seeing is that, rather than that happening, what Donald Trump has done with the assistance of Rudy Giuliani is make our government more oligarchic.

GROSS: I don't know if you'll have anything to say about this, but knowing as much about Donald Trump, his businesses, his administration, do you have any insights to share about why he might have chosen to take out Soleimani and bring us to the brink of war with Iran?

BERNSTEIN: Let me say this. When Trump ran his business, there was only one decision-maker, and that was Donald Trump. And he just did what he wanted. And he did it also impulsively. This is clearly the way he runs the country as well. He doesn't necessarily read evidence. He doesn't take advice. He makes decisions, and he acts on them. And he acts aggressively. I think that this is connected to what the New York real estate community always tells me about him. He's not one of us. He just goes his own way. But he is so skilled at the art of compromise and of drawing people into his circle of influence that he has created a situation in the White House where no one can object.

We haven't really talked about Michael Cohen, but I'll just throw in a quick anecdote about Michael Cohen. When Michael Cohen was testifying before the House Oversight Committee, he said to them, Donald Trump kept making me feel like I was important. It was a thrill to work for him. And I kept crossing lines. And each time I crossed a line, it was harder to say no to the next line. And he said very directly to Congress, don't do this. I could be you. I was where you are. But I think that's what we've seen in the White House, that Trump creates a situation where people around him do not say no and are willing to go with him wherever he goes. And now we're at the situation where he has created this very tense diplomatic and foreign relations crisis.

GROSS: There's so many reporters who have been documenting evidence of breaking laws, corruption, falsehoods connected to Donald Trump. You alone (laughter) have covered so many stories relating to, you know, various misrepresentations of the truth, corruption, breaking of the law. And yet, it keeps going. So why do you think it is that there's been so little accountability?

BERNSTEIN: One of the things that the Trump family has always understood is that part of their business success needs to be making sure that no law enforcement agent or district attorney or prosecutor is going to blow the whistle. And they've done this in a variety of ways. They've done it by supporting the electoral machines that support them. They've done it by making donations to charities of district attorneys. They've done it when their lawyers make donations to the district attorneys.

And in cases, Donald Trump has just charmed FBI agents. He's invited them to play golf and ride in his helicopter and have lunch with him at the 21 Club. And he has managed, through money and charm, to keep law enforcement at bay, and he has never been called to account. And what we find is that each time he is not called to account, he feels more powerful to go even further the next time. We see this exact pattern with Ukraine. Mueller report does not lead to an impeachment. The day after Mueller testifies, he calls the president of Ukraine and asks him to interfere in the 2020 election.

So what is at balance in this upcoming impeachment trial? This is the final way to call Donald Trump to account. If he is not called to account, I think we can only expect what we've seen in the past, which is that he feels even more empowered to break rules, break norms in the way he's been doing.

GROSS: Andrea Bernstein, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

BERNSTEIN: It is so great to talk to you. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Andrea Bernstein is the author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." She also co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new collection of Jean Stafford's three novels published by the Library of America. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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'Ghosting The News' Author Says Local Journalism 'Freefall' Is Accelerating

More than 2,000 newspapers have shut down in recent years, and some regions have become news deserts. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan says the collapse of local news undermines democracy.

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