The author of this book is not a novelist: he is Finance Editor of The New York Times. But here is his opening sentence:
“It was a little before one p.m. when a wiry American emerged from the Tube station into a drizzle, the type of dreary January weather that earns London its reputation as a depressing place during the long winter months.”
One sees from this sentence, which has presumably received much thought, that the author will never be a novelist. Nor does he have an acute feeling for London: later on he refers to “Kentish Town, a hipster enclave in the northern part of the city”.
David Enrich is a gifted financial reporter who, after the suicide of a senior Deutsche Bank executive, Bill Broeksmit, takes enormous trouble to get to know the dead man’s unhappy stepson, and thereby obtains the entire contents of the deceased’s computer.
The suicide, which Broeksmit carried out in his flat in London by hanging himself with the lead of the family dog, could be the opening episode in an airport thriller, the sort of book where the plot carries the reader along, even if the prose is humdrum.
But as a professional journalist, employed by serious newspapers – he was with The Wall Street Journal, where he had a spell as European Banking Editor, before joining The New York Times – Enrich is dedicated to telling the truth.
And for this book he cannot devise a plot, or what in newspapers is known as a story, which conforms to the requirements of an airport thriller, while also being true.
There are instead three plots, none of which has yet reached a satisfactory denouement. We have the story of poor Broeksmit, whose death is examined at inordinate length but never properly explained, even though he left notes to seven different people in the dog basket.
And we have the story of how Deutsche Bank wrecked itself by abandoning its stolid German business practices and aping the worst excesses of Wall Street.
Lastly, we have the story of Deutsche’s most famous client, Donald Trump. But this is the least finished story of the three, involving as it does a President who is still waging a legal battle to stop Deutsche complying with subpoenas by congressional committees requiring it to release his tax returns and other information about his finances, which it has held since the days when it lent him enormous sums of money.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on that case. Trump’s hopes of re-election could turn on what it says.
But many people who have examined Trump’s record have long ago decided he is morally unfit to be President, and this is yet another problem for those who write about him.
For if one is already convinced of his guilt, any claim of impartiality is liable to look hypocritical.
Enrich reminds us that Trump came to be regarded, during his career as a New York property developer, as someone with whom it was inadvisable to do business:
“Even Trump’s friends would go to considerable lengths to avoid lending him money.”
This was because Trump over and over again turned on those with whom he was in partnership, ordering his lawyers to hurl preposterous but potentially ruinous allegations at them, so that in the end it became cheaper and safer to pay him to go away than to contest the Trumped-up charges.
James D. Zirin last year described this practice in Plaintiff In Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.
In Enrich’s book, we get Trump’s relationship with Deutsche, an institution which as it sought to modernise itself, and diversify out of financing German industry, came to be dominated by greedy, arrogant, hyper-competitive investment bankers, who put profit before reputational risk, and plunged in where others, quite rightly, feared to tread.
Deutsche was involved, Enrich points out, in
“money laundering, tax evasion, manipulating interest rates, manipulating the prices of precious metals, manipulating the currencies markets, bribing foreign officials, accounting fraud, violating international sanctions, ripping off customers, and ripping off the German, British, and United States governments.”
It plunged deep into Russia, where it provided a useful service to those who wished to get their money out. It was late to the party in New York, where it ended up with the clients and acquisitions other banks refused to touch.
Over the years, it lent several billion dollars to Trump and to members of Trump’s family. When he took some of Deutsche’s executives to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Florida, he played golf with them:
“Trump, decked out in white polyester, impressed the bankers with his brazen cheating.”
Trump exaggerated his personal wealth by a factor of about four, Deutsche reckoned, yet still it lent to him. In 2008, when a repayment to the bank of $40 million was due, he proceeded to invoke the force majeure clause in the contract, claiming the financial crash was a “tsunami” (a term used by Alan Greenspan), so amounted to an act of God, which meant Trump was not obliged to pay.
Nor did his shamelessness end there. He accused Deutsche of “predatory lending practices” and demanded it pay damages of $3 billion.
The bank was so angry it said in future he would not be allowed to attend its golf tournament, yet in due course a settlement was reached.
The investment banking arm of Deutsche vowed never again to do business with him, but in an act of self-parody, its private banking arm lent him the money he needed to repay Deutsche.
With the help of this messed up bank, Trump maintained his reputation as a successful businessman. Historians will need to work out whether Deutsche’s help was indispensable, but one can see already that it was highly significant.
One of the paradoxes of Trump the nationalist is that he was funded by foreigners.
The respectable rich of New York wanted nothing to do with him, nor did the educated classes, for they agreed with the testimony to Congress of his former lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump is a crook, a racist, a cheat and a con-man.
This disdain he feels acutely, but it has helped him to present himself to the wider American public as an outsider.
Indignation at Trump’s shamelessness averts recognition of his staying power, his nerve in a tight spot, his eye for other people’s weaknesses and his ability to pretend as his position crumbles that everything is going swimmingly.
He talked Deutsche round because it wanted so much to believe his hype, his pretence of being a profitable customer, and later on he talked millions of Americans round because they too wanted so much to believe his hype, his pretence that he could Make America Great Again.
This is something which a prim and proper institution like The New York Times cannot grasp. Moral indignation precludes comprehension of the huckster’s resourcefulness.
When Trump won the presidency, Deutsche found itself in an alarming position. He still owed the bank a lot of money, and if he refused to pay, it would face “the ugly choice between seizing the President’s personal assets or not enforcing the loan terms and, in effect, dispensing a very lucrative gift to the American president”.
This book is full of admirable research, muddled up with irrelevant characters and excursions. We journalists get over-excited by whatever is new, regardless of whether it sheds much light on what is actually happening.
Perhaps the attempt to start the book as if it were a novel carries an implicit recognition that journalism is not enough. To comprehend a character like Trump, and see how he gets people to do his bidding, the gifts of a novelist are required.
To Enrich’s credit, he does in Chapter One relate a scandal from the 1880s and 1890s, when the fledgling Deutsche Bank got badly burned after it was persuaded by Henry Villard, a German-born American financier, to invest in American railroad stocks.
Trump is not as new as his critics are inclined to suppose. He has much in common with the robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whom Theodore Roosevelt made such a good thing out of opposing.
The history of the United States is not just a tale of virtue rewarded. It includes figures like Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding and Donald Trump.