Russ Buettner showed up at strangers’ doorsteps with an overstuffed file under his arm, while he was reporting the Pulitzer Prize-winning expose on how Donald Trump got his money.
The prop was part of an orchestrated “first contact” strategy for the team of three reporters (Buettner, David Barstow and Susanne Craig) to not only ensure that high value sources help with key details, but also that they would be less likely to prematurely leak the investigation to the US President’s inner circle, and blow up the story.
Ultimately, their 14,000 word New York Times investigation was able to destroy Trump’s claims to having been a self-made billionaire, while also uncovering family tax avoidance scams.
While a mountain of financial documents proved the story, Buettner focused on the importance of thoroughly preparing for first contact approaches in describing their reporting process at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg.
For instance: In addition to real preparation, Buettner’s reporting partner David Barstow found that bringing a thick file had a calming effect on potential sources, and signaled to them that the reporter already knew most of the story, and just needed to fill in a few blanks. Which, Buettner said, was true for the reporting of this 18-month investigation, because the team spent months gathering more accessible documents before reaching out to sources least likely to damage the investigation.
“We started with the question: What are the true origins of Donald Trump’s wealth?” said Buettner. “But it’s a tough thing to do because ultimately what you want are tax documents and private banking records, and these were all privately held businesses.
“How do you investigate the finances of a private family? The important part of that is to find people who may have had access to those documents. Our main concern was to maximize the chances of us succeeding with that first contact.”
Buettner said the team got one big break when they received a document among Fred Trump’s financials mentioning a mysterious company called All County Building and Supply. It was clearly a key to the story, but they lacked a lock: the team had no idea what the company was.
“Then my colleague Sue Craig was Googling one night at 2 or 3 in the morning, and she came across the original Senate confirmation hearing when (Donald Trump’s sister) Maryanne Trump Barry was confirmed as a federal judge,” Buettner recalled. “And she had filed a financial disclosure form that was buried in 1,200 pages of senate documents. And she had put actual names of companies in these disclosures, and how much money she had received from them over a one year period. And she had [received] $1 million from All County Building and Supply in one year.”
Buettner said this knowledge about a fortune earned by the siblings “for doing nothing” was useful in motivating sources to open up with details on their own time with the businesses.
“This was very evocative when talking to people from Fred Trump’s empire [asking them]: ‘Did you know that Fred’s kids were making a million dollars a year for doing nothing at All County, while maybe you were making $80 000 for doing actual work?” he said. “We learned that All County was simply a device for Fred Trump to transfer wealth to his children outside the tax system.”
The story broke wide open, he said, when the team got an on-the-record interview with a boiler supplier to that front company, who described how the family tax-avoidance scam worked. Armed with the “how” of the story, the team was better positioned to approach many new sources and ask them to fill in the small blanks that made their investigation bulletproof.
David Cay Johnston, a fellow Pulitzer winner and media critic, described the Trump business story as “the most masterful investigation I have ever read in my life.”
Russ Buettner’s Tips on Handling “First Contact” Visits
Have a version of the story ready to go early on, in case a first contact interview “goes south.”
Part of the concern with first contact is: when you go to those people, and you’ve done your best to prepare for the approach, but it goes south on you, and they get angry, they could notify the subject. Things can change very quickly then. You can have everyone in the family business put on notice not to talk to us; there is a risk of being sued; and they can even launch their own public relations response to your investigation, before you’ve even published or prepared anything.
I fully expected a more savvy PR operation, where they could have said: ‘Donald, it’s time to give $10 million to a university in your father’s name, and make a speech about how much he meant to you, and how he set you up in business’. If he would have done that, and we published four months later saying he got all his money from his father, it would have greatly muted the impact. So we always felt that we had to be ready to publish.
Ask for a small nugget at first contact – never the whole story.
My basic premise is: the more you know, the more you learn. If you show up on someone’s doorstep and say: ‘Hi, I’m from the Times…could just tell me all the crimes you witnessed when you worked at the office with Fred Trump,’ they’re probably not going to help you.
But if you say: ‘Look, we’ve tabulated the sale of Fred’s entire empire; we found out there were trusts involved; we’ve found the vehicle used to transmit the money to his kids, and we know the trick they did with the transactions. And we understand you were in the room when that happened, and maybe didn’t go along with it. So I’m hoping you will see fit to find some way and help me connect that one little bridge, and I’ll handle the rest.’
They’ll feel more secure in talking to you; they’ll respect that you’ve done your homework. My great colleague David Barstow, who has won four Pulitzer Prizes, says always bring a folder full of documents to first contacts; he says bring, like, everything we’ve done under your arm! It’s not just for show, because your main goal is to impress upon the person that you’re not asking the world. I’ve got the world — I just have a few little bridges I can’t connect here. That does have a way of easing people’s minds.
List your sources by potential information and risk, and do your homework on each source and their field.
We make a hierarchical source matrix — with is really just a fancy way of saying a list of people we want to talk to, and prioritize them by what they know, and what risk they present for us, in terms of losing control of the story.
Next, we’d speak to industry experts we trust just to understand the business.
We create thumbnail profiles of (potential sources) before we go to see them. We don’t want any surprises on their doorstep. You need to already know if they are under any financial duress; did they get fired; are they broke — that could put them on a different footing as a source.
You want to first check their social media feeds; you want to know if they’ve given money to somebody (connected to the story); you want to know if they attended a (Trump) family wedding while they were working for the family business. If they did go to the wedding, I’m maybe not going to approach them at all.
We start approaching sources in the lowest risk category, and synthesize their information. It’s a period that could take months. Then we could begin to look at higher value sources.
It was many many months before we contacted anyone in the Trump family.
And we already had a tabulation of 130 transfers of property on one day in 2004, when the Trump siblings sold off their father’s empire, and split that four ways. We hadn’t even needed to call anybody by that time, which really was good fortune.
Rowan Philp was chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times for a decade; a period bookended by fellowships at the Washington Post and MIT. Rowan has reported from 27 countries, and his 2014 report revealing Russia’s secret effort to sell 8 nuclear reactors to the South African government was credited for a role in the scrapping of that deal last year. He is a regular contributor to GIJN.