Thin Line Splits Donald Trump’s Politics and Businesses
November 06, 2016, 2:33pm
By David Barstow – The New York Times.
When Donald J. Trump was building casinos in Atlantic City in the 1990s, he spoke of his dream of bringing jobs and development to the hard-luck community. In the end, after all the bankruptcies, layoffs and stiffed contractors, it was Mr. Trump who walked away with tens of millions of dollars in management fees and huge tax deductions that may have helped him avoid paying personal income taxes for nearly two decades.
When Mr. Trump announced the founding of Trump University in 2005, he described it as a way to share his real estate secrets with ordinary investors. “If I had a choice of making lots of money or imparting lots of knowledge,” he said, “I think I’d be as happy to impart knowledge as to make money.” In the end, after the university was shut down amid investigations and allegations of fraud, it was Mr. Trump who again walked away with millions in fees.
Today Mr. Trump is making his most selfless pledge of all, promising that if elected president he will walk away from his beloved business empire so he can devote himself entirely to the American people. “If I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company,” he said at one debate. “It’s peanuts.”
With the presidential campaign in the homestretch, Hillary Clinton is now taking dead aim at Mr. Trump’s professed altruistic purpose. She and her supporters are suggesting that Mr. Trump regards the White House as one more moneymaking venture, the most lucrative opportunity of all to advance his family fortune.
“Imagine having a president who owes hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign banks and other foreign entities that he doesn’t tell us about,” Mrs. Clinton said at a rally in Pittsburgh on Friday. “Ask yourself: So if he’s sitting across the table negotiating with people from those countries, is he going to put his own financial interests ahead of America’s interests?”
At the same rally, one of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, put it even more bluntly: “There’s going to come a time, if Donald Trump, God help us, was president, where a Putin or an Assad would say to him, ‘Donald, if you do this, I’ll give you $20 billion,’” Mr. Cuban said, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
“Do you think he’s going to do what’s right for the country? Or do you think he is going to take the money?”
For more than a year now, reporters from The New York Times have been scouring Mr. Trump’s business record, exploring the cycles of boom and bust, the spectacular reinventions, the shady business partners, the audacious tax avoidance maneuversand the persistent deceptions that have been the leitmotif of his five decades of deal making.
That review reveals plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Mr. Trump’s oft-stated promise to direct every ounce of his business acumen and negotiating prowess in service of the American people. But the same review also reveals patterns of behavior and qualities of leadership that could indeed help Mr. Trump fulfill his now-familiar sales pitch to voters: “If we could run our country the way I’ve run my company, we would have a country that you would be so proud of.”
Mr. Trump, for example, has won millions of supporters by promising to renegotiate, abrogate or ignore any number of written commitments made by past American presidents, like trade deals, climate change pacts, even the Geneva Conventions. If there is one recurring theme in the litigation spawned by Mr. Trump’s business ventures, it is his brazen willingness to ignore the plain terms of contracts he finds inconvenient while relentlessly enforcing contract terms he finds useful.
Another recurring theme — one that might come in handy given the inherent unpredictability of the White House — is Mr. Trump’s strategic flexibility.
When either his ambitions or circumstances shift, Mr. Trump has shown himself willing to make swift and dramatic course corrections in his businesses. From the moment Mr. Trump took the reins of the real estate business his father founded, he was bent on reinvention, steering its focus away from mostly middle-class apartment projects in the other boroughs to big, splashy commercial developments in Manhattan. It is a formula Mr. Trump has returned to time and again as he has cycled through different money making personas.
His foray into reality television with “The Apprentice” was the biggest and most successful detour, a decision that came to look prescient with the collapse of the real estate market and recession in the late 2000s. Then, sensing opportunity in the public’s economic anxiety, Mr. Trump remade himself yet again, this time as a sort of walking infomercial for get-rich-quick schemes. He peddled Trump University, a real estate sales seminar, and a multilevel vitamin marketing business called Trump Network as ways for average people to make money during difficult times.
Mr. Trump, who has pledged major spending to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges and airports, also has a track record, albeit with significant blemishes, of completing complex and politically fraught construction projects on time and under budget, most famously in the 1980s when, in a matter of months, Mr. Trump refurbished Wollman Rink in Central Park, a project the City of New York had notoriously failed to complete after years of budget overruns and false starts. Likewise, last month when he attended the grand opening of his latest Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House, Mr. Trump boasted that the hotel was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.
“In my whole life, I’ve gotten things done,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Times in May. “Whether it’s getting a city built on the West Side of Manhattan or getting zoning board approvals, my whole life has been finding a consensus.”
Any assessment of how Mr. Trump might use the White House to advance his financial interests is impaired by his unwillingness to release his tax returns, even in summary form, breaking with four decades of tradition followed by both Democratic and Republican candidates. His tax returns, for example, would reveal far more information about the nature of and financing behind his partnerships, which number in the hundreds.
An investigation by The Times this summer into Mr. Trump’s maze of real estate holdings in the United States found that Mr. Trump’s companies owed at least $650 million, or twice the amount that could be gleaned from the financial disclosure reports Mr. Trump submitted to run for the presidency. Separately, partnerships in which he has a significant interest have loans from the Bank of China and Goldman Sachs, two powerful financial institutions his administration could expect to encounter.
Further complicating matters is his plan to have his children continue running his business empire should he occupy the Oval Office. “I would probably have my children run it with my executives, and I wouldn’t ever be involved because I wouldn’t care about anything but our country,” Mr. Trump said at a debate in January.
The potential for conflicts of interest are all the more glaring given the prominent role his children have played in his political operation, both as surrogates and advisers.
“We are not going to be involved in government,” Donald Trump Jr. said during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Mr. Stephanopoulos asked how conflicts could be avoided given that Mr. Trump was aware of all his business interests. “We’re not going to discuss those things,” his son replied. “It doesn’t matter. Trust me.”
Regardless of how carefully the Trumps police potential conflicts of interest, critics have been quick to note that Mr. Trump’s tax proposals alone would clearly benefit his business empire, not to mention the estate his children could expect to inherit on his death. Less clear is how Mr. Trump’s oversight of the Internal Revenue Service might impact an agency that has had Mr. Trump or his partnerships under nearly constant audit for more than two decades.
Then there are all the times Mr. Trump has used his business empire as a backdrop during his campaign — at times combining campaign statements with naked promotions for his properties, be it Trump Tower, where he first announced his campaign, or his golf courses in Scotland, where he took his press pool on a hole-by-hole tour, or, most notoriously, when he summoned reporters to his new Washington hotel to show off its gleaming marble amenities while, after stoking doubts for years, he admitted in one terse sentence that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
Mr. Trump has given no indication that as president he would curb his compulsion to constantly promote the Trump brand, which, according to Mr. Trump’s own assessment of his total net worth, is now his single most valuable asset.
In June, Mr. Trump posted a message on Twitter that suggested how difficult this may be for him. Mr. Trump said that he had “instructed my execs” to reopen Trump University if he is elected president. “So much interest in it!”