Ethics & Public Policy Center

The World’s Brokest “Billionaire”

Published in The Bulwark on September 30, 2020


Seated at the breakfast table, scanning the New York Times story on Trump’s taxes, I said to my husband, “We have a greater net worth than Donald Trump.” He knitted his brow.

I was thinking of a story that Samantha Bee found a while back. It was from the 2003 documentary Born Rich, in which Ivanka Trump shared this memory of the family’s financial troubles from the 1980s and 1990s:

I remember once my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue and there was a homeless person sitting right outside of Trump Tower and I remember my father pointing to him and saying, ‘You know, that guy has $8 billion more than me,’ because he was in such extreme debt at that point, you know?

In 2020, despite the dazzling success of The Apprentice, in which NBC was able to portray the failing and flailing trust fund boy as a business genius and earned Trump the first real money of his life (apart from his inheritance), Trump again seems to be worth less than the homeless guy on the street, at least in financial terms.

The New York Times reporting suggests that Donald Trump owes something like $400 million to creditors. Much of that debt—personally guaranteed by Trump—is coming due in the next four years. Pause on the irony: Only by pretending to be a successful business tycoon on TV did Trump actually achieve business success—to the tune of $427 million (including licensing deals). Yet, even with a windfall like that, he managed to lose it, and is facing a serious financial crisis in the near future. And pause for a minute on this coincidence: $400 million (in today’s dollars) is almost exactly the amount he is said to have inherited from his father. Trump always characterized this as a “small loan of a million dollars.” Had he merely invested that fortune in a stock index fund, he would be worth upwards of $30 billion today.

Instead, he invested in a series of flamboyant flops: Trump steaks, Trump vodka, Trump airlines, the Trump Taj Mahal, Trump magazine, Trump the boardgame, Trump mortgage, Trump University, and on and on. Did he have successes? Sure, his books hawking his pretend  business skills were best-sellers. The Miss Universe pageant in Moscow earned him a couple million. Some of his real estate investments continue to throw off income. But it’s significant that his most sound investments are in properties owned and managed by others.

With Trump calling the shots and making the executive decisions, the ventures that haven’t already gone belly up are hemorrhaging cash. Insert moral for the nation here.

But surely, the average Fox News watcher must be asking, a titan with his assets shouldn’t have any trouble paying off those loans, right? The Times stories haven’t shed light on his net worth. He may have properties he can sell. But it appears that most of his assets are golf courses and resorts that are being hammered by coronavirus. On net, Mar-a-Lago, Doral, Turnberry, the Trump International Hotel in D.C., and others have lost vastly more money than they have generated over the past decade—even before the virus struck. That’s why he has paid no income taxes in forever.

Now the question that arises after every Trump revelation: Will it matter? Will it affect Trump’s image at all? Hard to say. The Trump fan base is unlike anything I’ve seen in more than 30 years of observing American politics. But I venture to say that this is not like the Stormy Daniels payoff. With a few exceptions, the Christians who supported Trump weren’t misled into thinking he was a good or even a minimally decent man. They knew what he was and gave their assent. He delivered the judges and policies they liked, and no revelation about his character will alter the contours of that bargain.

Build the wall fanatics will not be swayed either—even though they didn’t collect on their side of the deal. Their attachment to Trump has hardened since 2016 into something like worship, and they will accept it if he tells them the Times story is fake news.

Trump has made exactly this accusation, while also claiming that the Times obtained their information illegally. As Sarah Isgur pointed out, it’s logically impossible for the White House spin to be true. It can’t be both fake and a legal violation. If it’s a made up story, then no one broke any laws. It’s only a legal violation if these are indeed his tax returns—and it would be the leaker, not the New York Times, that would be potentially liable.

People whose driving motive is fear and loathing of the left will not stumble over this news either, even if they have to convince themselves that Joe Biden is secretly taking orders from Raul Castro.

But there are other voters for whom the image of Trump as successful was key to his appeal. A 2019 survey found that 54 percent of Americans believed Donald Trump had been a business success. Other polls conducted between 2016 and 2018 found that many Americans were unaware that Trump was not self-made. Belief in his up-by-the-bootstraps myth accounted for a 5 point boost in his popularity according to one study.

Beyond admiration for what they mistakenly thought was business acumen, many were taken with the idea that because Trump was so rich, he was incorruptible. “He has so much money but he’s waking up every morning to campaign. He deeply cares about America,” John Friedlander of Washington, D.C. explained to the BBC in 2016. A voter from Pennsylvania said, “I believe Trump will be a good president because he knows how to make deals, deals that will make America prosperous again.” Many agreed with Trump’s own claim that he was so rich he couldn’t be bought. In her focus groups with women who voted for Trump in 2016, Sarah Longwell often hears that his image as a mega-successful businessman was a key reason they pulled the lever for him (second only to disliking Hillary Clinton).

Now what? If Trump were to be reelected, he would face a reckoning on a mountain of debt. Not only is he not too rich to be bought, he may well be too poor to turn anyone away. Doubtless, there would be sovereign wealth funds from places like Qatar and oligarchs from precincts like Russia and China who would be ready, in exchange for favorable U.S. policies, to help Trump retire that debt. Because Trump has been so dishonest and so opaque about his business dealings, the American people might never know what was exchanged. Trump speaks to Putin frequently, and permits no notes.

No person with even a fraction of Trump’s indebtedness would be granted a security clearance in the U.S. government. Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents many in the national security field, recounts that one client was denied a clearance due to excess student loan debt.

There are voters out there who voted for Trump once but are not now and never were part of the Trump cult. Because they gave their support provisionally, they have no emotional investment in proving that they were right and the Trump critics were wrong. How many are there? We are about to find out. Even a small percentage could make all the difference.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.

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