Go figure: WSJ, USA Today drop splashy exposes of Trump's unpaid bills within minutes of each other

The USA Today “exclusive” went live at 4:25 p.m. ET. The Journal story was published at 4:34. I wonder which paper was handed the story by Team Hillary first.

I don’t think it’s that surprising that they’d drop on the same day, actually. What probably happened was that the two papers got wind that they were working on the same scoop, possibly through a common source, possibly accidentally. (“Who’s calling? The Wall Street Journal? Oh, USA Today called about this last week.”) Once they knew they were competing to be first, the race was on. Maybe the Journal was scrambling to finish its piece, saw the USA Today story hit the wires, and then rushed their own article out for fear that it’d be stale and overlooked if they waited.

Or maybe it’s a coordinated hit on Trump, conveniently just as the general election’s getting started. The more interesting question than why the stories appeared on the same day is how it came to be that they each started working simultaneously on a topic that had been mostly (but not entirely) neglected for a year. The USA Today piece even makes the intended takeaway clear by spelling it out upfront instead of letting the reader deduce it: “Donald Trump often portrays himself as a savior of the working class who will ‘protect your job.’ But…”

Mr. Trump’s withholding of payments stood out as particularly aggressive in the industry and in the broader business world, said some vendors who had trouble getting paid.

It is “a strong-arm tactic that is frowned on,” said Wayne Rivers, a small-business consultant in construction. The tactic is more common in Northeast construction than in other regions, he said, and is abnormal in much of American business.

Mr. Trump pushed the approach beyond construction and into day-to-day casino operations, said Jack O’Donnell, president of Mr. Trump’s Plaza casino in Atlantic City in the late 1980s. “Part of how he did business as a philosophy was to negotiate the best price he could. And then when it came time to pay the bills,” he said, Mr. Trump would say that “ ‘I’m going to pay you but I’m going to pay you 75% of what we agreed to.’”

“In our business it’s very difficult to operate that way. You’re dealing with people on an ongoing basis. Every time you order with them you can’t screw them because they won’t be your suppliers anymore,” Mr. O’Donnell said. Executives at the casino paid vendors fully despite Mr. Trump’s directives, he said, and “it used to infuriate him.”

That’s from the Journal. USA Today cites 3,500 lawsuits over the last 30 years and devotes endless paragraphs to contractors complaining they did the job that was asked but were still squeezed when it came time for Trump to pay up. Trump’s response: A man with many development deals over decades is bound to see his share of lawsuits, and besides, why should he pay full price for bad work? The key to success in business is to stand firm in defense of your interests; that attitude has been at the core of his public image for ages, from firing contestants for shoddy performance on “The Apprentice” to his national-savior shtick now. If a contractor didn’t meet his high standards then he wasn’t going to be taken advantage of by paying full price. Simple as that. (“That should be the attitude of the country.”) The thing is, per USA Today, he sometimes rehired firms whom he had refused to pay in full previously, suggesting that their work was up to snuff. And if this was just a matter of good old-fashioned business hardball, designed to cut costs by deploying some legal muscle over a contract, how is it meaningfully different from outsourcing jobs to save a buck on labor? Refusing to pay a small business for its services on a major project could place them at financial risk, especially if they’d have to fight an expensive court battle to get paid. If Trump’s entitled to look out for number one at the expense of American workers who labored for him, why isn’t a company that wants to increase profits by moving a factory from California to Mexico entitled to do the same thing?

Not all contractors have bad things to say about Trump, of course. After he told the Journal that he sometimes pays bonuses for good performance, they asked for a list of vendors who received those bonuses. Trump’s campaign gave them 10, seven of whom spoke to the paper. All said they’d had positive dealings with Trump — but none said they’d ever received a bonus. Then the campaign provided two more names; one of those, an occasional golf buddy of Trump’s, said he sometimes gotten bonuses and that Trump had even handed out cash to workers on site. So there you go. Funny thing about this “he doesn’t pay his bills” attack, though — Noah Rothman notes that Reuters did its own expose about it all the way back in November, when it came and went without a ripple. In an interview at the time, Trump himself estimated that he attempts to “renegotiate” with roughly 10-15 percent of the business he contracts with. When asked about one contractor in particular who claimed to have been shortchanged, he said, “He was overcharging me. I could feel it in my bones.” I bet.

Too bad none of these people had Washington Post reporters pestering him about when he was going to cut them their checks. They might have gotten paid then. Exit question: How soon before the prefab Hillary attack ad about this goes live online? Today, or will they wait until tomorrow?

Update: Both papers have since updated the timestamps on their stories, presumably to reflect updates or changes. When I first saw them earlier the times were as noted in the first paragraph above; it could be that I saw them after one or both had already been updated, meaning that they might have gone online earlier than 4:25 p.m. Either way, the basic point stands: It’s notable that these stories, delving far into Trump’s past on the same subject, dropped on the same day.