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A brief oral history of Wayne Barrett, the first journalist to fiercely cover Donald Trump

A brief oral history of Wayne Barrett, the first journalist to fiercely cover Donald Trump

 


Long before he became president, Donald Trump was doggedly covered by the Village Voice, the New York alternative newspaper founded in 1955 by Norman Mailer, Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf. Trump's nemesis at the Voice was a tall, lanky reporter, who began writing as a freelancer for the paper in the early '70s, named Wayne Barrett. When narrowed down to one subject, Barrett's dedication to discovering the truth was unwavering: he once told a class that he was a detective for the people. During his 37-year career at the Voice, Barrett tracked down New York's most powerful figures, including Rudy Giuliani, then the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and later the city's mayor; Governors Mario and Andrew Cuomo; and Senator Al DAmato, who once called Barrett a viper. (Barrett's response: I want it on my headstone.)

But his most sensational subject would turn out to be Donald Trump, then a young real estate mogul working under the tutelage of his better-known father, Fred Trump. From the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, Trump became a showy high-society figure, much to the benefit of gossip columnists and, of course, his own public profile. But Barrett knew better, and her first investigative series for The Voice revealed the slimier side of Trump's playbook for years to come.

After being fired from The Voice in 2011, Barrett continued to write for the Daily Beast and other outlets. And when Trump ran for president in 2015, Barrett's reporting proved more prescient than anyone could have predicted. Barrett, a non-smoker and then suffering from interstitial lung disease and lung cancer, was ensconced in his home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, writing frantically as his time on earth ticked away. Journalists went to his house to collect his files, now more valuable than ever; his 1991 biography of Trump, a treasure trove of Trump and his affairs, was reprinted in 2016 as Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention in 2016.

On election night in 2016, he watched the results with his wife, son and former Voice colleague Tom Robbins, dismayed to see the man he had denounced as a crook and con artist for decades was elected president. Barrett never completed his investigation: He died the night before Trump's inauguration, the only small pity being that he wouldn't be alive to witness the next four years.

You should watch this young man Donald Trump

WAYNE BARRETT: When I started, in the '70s, Trump was this golden boy, and he didn't get a lot of press, but it was all very favorable to him because he was doing the Grand Hyatt, which was his first major project in Manhattan. And the city was in ruins, almost bankrupt in the '70s, and he looked like the epitome of a city on the rise. And he was getting that kind of press, but not a lot.

I worked on it intensely in '78 while the Hyatt was under construction, not yet finished. And that's when I met him.

TIMOTHY L. OBRIEN: He had the idea to do a report on him thanks to Jack Newfield. He had asked Jack for advice on who would be a good person to write about, who is emblematic of the intersection of real estate money, politics and power in New York. And Jack said: You should take a look at this young man, Donald Trump.

TOM ROBBINS: Jack had a keen eye for these operators. Jack's famous book was The Permanent Government. He believed that there were all these people who had nothing to do with being elected or not, but who still remained in power in the city. He immediately spotted Donald Trump as a budding member of this tribe.

TIMOTHY L. OBRIEN: Wayne always talked about how he thought they had parallel lives in New York. They were almost the same age, and Trump was about to become a real estate developer at the same time Wayne was becoming an investigative reporter in New York.

Wayne began looking into family history. He was in one of the city archives and he's in a room looking through documents. There's a phone in there and the phone rings.

WAYNE BARRETT: I didn't know if I should start again or not. Wayne! It's Donald! I heard you're doing a story on me! I had never spoken to this guy in my life. When he found out I lived in the rundown Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, he called me and said, I could find you an apartment, you know. This must be a terribly difficult neighborhood. I told him I had lived there for ten years and worked as a community organizer, so he opted for another form of identification. So we do the same thing, he said. Were both neighborhoods under reconstruction. And again: we'll really have to get to know each other after this article.

ROBIN REISIG: Trump called him shortly after he started reporting and invited him to meet. Wayne did so and realized it was a mistake: he didn't know what to ask. He had just started his report. Of course, by the time he finished his report, Trump no longer wanted to meet with him.

WAYNE BARRETT: I met with Trump several times over the next few months, recording fifteen hours of energetic monologue, riding with him in his limousine, and relaxing through lengthy interviews on his penthouse couch. An interview was interrupted when Ivana insisted that a grumpy Donald go to the opera with her.

I decided early on that I wanted to profile him by describing his offerings and not his lifestyle or personality. After getting to know him, I realized that his business is his life. He once told me: I wouldn't make a deal just to make a profit. There has to be flair.

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