NEW YORK – To his supporters, the business career of Donald Trump is proof he’s got the decisiveness and smarts required to lead the country. To critics, his exaggerated claims, burned customers and four bankruptcies suggest a man wholly disqualified for the office.
The truth: It’s complicated.
Criticized by Republican rivals for his crude comments and what they call iffy conservative credentials, Trump now finds his business acumen in the political crosshairs. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has started calling Trump a “con artist” who has been “sticking it to the little guy” as he built his empire, and says he would be “selling watches in Manhattan” if he hadn’t gotten help from his millionaire father.
Trump’s business record gives “Super Tuesday” voters inclined to praise or condemn his boardroom bona fides a way to support either view.
Gutsy, shrewd and armed with an uncanny sense of timing, Trump built a business that spans the globe, much bigger in scope and riches than when he took it over from his father. Yet some of his failures have been as spectacular as his successes, and he’s stiffed creditors and has licensed his name in ways that raise questions about his judgment.
“Donald has proven himself an innovative and smart businessman,” says real estate developer Don Peebles, a registered Democrat who does not plan on voting for Trump if he makes it to the general election. “I respect and admire what he’s accomplished.”
The fortune built by Trump’s father, estimated at several hundred million dollars, came from low- and middle-income housing in Brooklyn and Queens. Trump wanted more. So he bet big on much richer Manhattan, a risk for the son of an outer-borough builder.
Two early ventures: Turning around the former Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Station, with help from tax subsidies, and buying a train yard out of bankruptcy across town, then getting New York to put a convention center there.
He was bold and creative. He put his name on luxury condo buildings, gambling that buyers would share his unabashed love of glitz and excess. It was a branding strategy like that used by giant hotel chains — Conrad Hilton had done it with Hilton Hotels — but it had never really succeeded in luxury residential buildings.
His timing was near perfect. He began construction in 1980 on his signature Fifth Avenue building, Trump Tower, just as New York City began a long boom following a brush with bankruptcy.
He put up more buildings, bought an airline and rolled the dice in another industry — casinos. In 1984, he opened the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he opened Trump’s Castle the following year. In 1991, he took an especially big risk to build the Trump Taj Mahal. He personally guaranteed loans used to develop the project, putting his own fortune on the line if things went sour.
They did. As the U.S. muddled through a recession, Trump was unable to make good on billions of dollars of debt. He put two of his casinos into bankruptcy, sold the airline, threatened to tie up his creditors in court and cajoled and blustered his way into deals that erased much of the guarantees on the Taj Mahal that endangered his personal wealth.
The bankruptcies — four in all, stretching over nearly a decade — left many casino lenders and vendors bitter. They got just pennies on each dollar they were owed.
Trump makes no apologies. He says he uses the laws of the land, including the bankruptcy law, to his advantage.
“People forget that he left bondholders out to dry … that these were not victimless events,” says Michael D’Antonio, author of the Trump biography “Never Enough.” He views Trump as a “competent” businessman but no genius. “When he tried to do other kinds of business — airlines and casinos — he stumbled.” Trump began building again. In 2001, he completed the 90-story residential Trump World Tower in New York City. Then, three years later, he discovered a flair for reality TV with the launch of “The Apprentice” on NBC.
As his celebrity star rose, Trump moved to squeeze more dollars out of his name.
These days, you can drink Trump bottled water in your Trump suit with sun glinting off your Trump cufflinks while reading one of his books — perhaps “The Art of the Deal,” a best seller.
And you can do it sitting in one of the many Trump-labeled hotels or residential towers across the globe. He has struck deals to put his name on properties built and owned by others in Panama, Uruguay, Turkey, India and the Philippines.
As he has extended his brand, he’s faced criticism that he’s gotten careless, or worse.
He invested in a health products company that extolled the wonders of taking Trump-branded vitamins based on people’s urine samples. The business struggled, and Trump sold it a few years later.
Trump Mortgage, which the candidate predicted would soon be the country’s largest home loan provider, fizzled out after the man he hired to run it stepped down following revelations that he’d inflated his resume.
Rubio has focused in the past several days on Trump University, which charged students $1,495 each for seminars that would teach them the billionaire’s secrets to making it big in real estate. A lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general claims the classes fell so short of promises that it amounts to fraud.
“This is a guy who says he stands for the working class,” Rubio said Saturday. “When in fact his entire business career, he’s been sticking it to working-class Americans.”
It’s clearly struck a nerve with Trump, who spent a large part of his time defending the business while campaigning on Saturday. He called the litigation “a small deal, very small” and told supporters he could have settled but is continuing to fight on principle.
Trump also railed against the California judge presiding over the civil suit, calling him hostile and noting his Hispanic ethnicity. Trump said of the judge: “I believe he happens to be Spanish, which is fine. He’s Hispanic — which is fine.”
That drew a reply from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who said “there is no place in this process for racial demagoguery.”
Trump has also left bitter feelings at residential towers that bear his name but which he didn’t build. Condo buyers in failed Trump-branded properties in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Baja, Mexico, have claimed in lawsuits that the presidential candidate misled them to believe he was deeply involved in the projects, not just lending his name. Trump won the Fort Lauderdale case and settled the one in Baja.
As the Trump candidacy gains momentum, even early Trump triumphs are getting new scrutiny.
The Rubio campaign is highlighting a 1983 lawsuit by union laborers who helped build Trump Tower. Polish laborers living in the U.S. illegally were paid “substandard” wages with no overtime, and paid “irregularly if at all,” according to a judge hearing the case. In his campaign, Trump has taken a hard line on employers who pass over Americans for workers living in the U.S. illegally.
The candidate has maintained he had no knowledge of his contractor’s activities, though the presence of the “Polish Brigade” was overt, with more than 200 men working 12-hour days, some sleeping at the construction site during the demolition of the building the Trump Tower replaced. The judge hearing the case found Trump had engaged in a “conspiracy” to shortchange union workers. Trump appealed, then settled and sealed the case.
For Trump, there’s perhaps nothing as important as the idea he’s a winner — especially in business.
“I’m really rich,” Trump declared in his speech announcing his candidacy last year. He added, “I’ve done an amazing job.”
For a man who measures his success in dollars, Trump has managed to grow them substantially.
“Amazing” is more debatable.
According to Forbes magazine, Trump’s wealth has risen to $4.5 billion from $1 billion in 1988, a 350 percent gain. That’s half of what he would have earned if he had invested in a broad U.S. stock index, and that doesn’t count dividends.
Other moguls have been more amazing. Donald Bren, a California developer who Forbes says is worth $15 billion, has increased his wealth at twice the pace in that time — a nearly 700 percent gain.
Trump, by the way, says Forbes is all wrong.
“I borrowed a tiny amount of money, $1 million,” he said Saturday. “I started a business. It’s worth much more than $10 billion right now.”