President Donald Trump’s businesses are facing a new challenge: the controversial nature of his administration.
On Wednesday, the restaurant Koi announced that it will be closing its location in Trump SoHo, one of the president’s properties in New York City. As Suzanne Chou, the general counsel for the pan-Asian chain, told the food blog Grub Street, “The restaurant is closing because business is down.” Though Chou didn’t explicitly identify the reason for decline, her answer suggests that backlash to Trump’s presidency may be to blame: “I would prefer not to speculate as to why, but obviously since the election it’s gone down.”
Koi’s departure from Trump SoHo isn’t the only sign that Trump’s politics may be damaging his businesses. On Tuesday, after a USA Today investigation into a sudden surge of anonymous condo purchases at Trump’s Las Vegas property, the Chicago Tribune noted that Chicago’s Trump International Tower is facing the opposite problem: People just don’t seem to be interested in moving in. Demand is down not only relative to previous years—the average time on the market for a unit has increased by more than 50 days compared to the six months preceding the election—but also compared to surrounding properties: 10.7 percent of the tower’s units are on the market, more than double the vacancy rate of comparable nearby buildings.
How Trump’s businesses fare isn’t necessarily an indicator of his performance in office; however, it does reflect how certain demographics—particularly the well-heeled cosmopolitans that are his typical clientele—feel about the Trump name. Unsurprisingly, the dips in business are so far most concentrated in big cities, where opposition to the commander-in-chief is especially strong. And the fact that so many of Trump’s holdings are in left-leaning urban areas may be producing more stories of consumer backlash than if his businesses were scattered more evenly around the country. Still, his brand has in many ways suffered, underlining the irony of a candidate as distinctly metropolitan as Trump having won the presidency in large part by positioning himself against the very cities in which he makes his money.
In fact, the trend of revenue streams drying up predates his time in office. The first dip in business came after his invective-laden campaign-launch event in June 2015. In response to his remarks, NBC announced it would end its partnership with Trump on The Celebrity Apprentice (although Trump has since resumed his role as the show’s executive producer). Macy’s, Serta, Nascar, the Professional Golfers’ Association, and Phillips-Van Heusen also terminated deals with the then-candidate, as did the celebrity chef José Andrés, who withdrew from an agreement to open a restaurant at the then-uncompleted Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. In October, after the tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was leaked, a San Francisco-based marketing consultant began the #GrabYourWallet campaign, which advocates boycotting not only Trump’s businesses but also those that sell his products.
The election didn’t stop the pattern. Shortly after his victory, residents of a Trump-branded apartment complex in New York successfully petitioned the company that owned the property to remove all references to the president-elect from the buildings’ facades. The next week, ESPN reported that three NBA teams decided they would not stay at Trump properties during his presidency; a fourth announced it had made the same resolution in December. And, according to research done by congressional Democrats, Trump’s new hotel in D.C. lost more than $1.1 million between its opening in September and his inauguration in January.
There are other signs of trouble at the Trump Organization. The Miami Herald recently reported that health inspectors found 13 violations (a local record) in the kitchens at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, where the president has spent several of his weekends since taking office. A number of his properties around the world are on shaky financial footing, most notoriously the Azerbaijan hotel that Adam Davidson of The New Yorker reported on at length under the headline “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal.” Meanwhile, Trump’s net worth has slid 220 spots down Forbes’s list of billionaires over the past year as he’s lost roughly $1 billion in net worth.
Of course, these troubles—some of which may be more symbolic than they are impactful on Trump’s bottom line—must be balanced against the enormous benefits that Trump’s presidency affords for his companies, which could easily outweigh any turbulence the organization is currently facing. His presidency—and penchant for spending time at his own properties—offers plenty of easy ways to gin up free publicity, attracting both well-wishers and those who may be attempting to curry favor with the commander-in-chief. For example, in January, the Trump Organization doubled the initiation fee at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where he has spent many of his weeks since taking office. There are also numerous ways he can favor himself and his companies from his newfound position of authority, ranging from renting out apartments in his buildings to the Secret Service and Department of Defense to simply cutting his own taxes (assuming that he pays taxes).
Still, the president’s adult children have apparently noticed the effect anti-Trump sentiment is having on their brand; according to The Washington Post, they “are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family’s name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump Organization’s portfolio of hotels.” The concern may even have been a factor in the freezing-out of the president’s chief strategist and former campaign CEO Steve Bannon: According to an unnamed Republican operative cited in the same piece, “the fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage.” Should Trump actually enact the policies on which he ran, his White House “would be so protectionist, nationalist, and backward-looking”—in other words, so alienating to liberal city-dwellers—“that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”
That might help explain why, during the waning days of the campaign, when the general consensus was that Trump would be dealt a sound defeat at the polls, the Trump Organization launched a new line of hotels called Scion. The official rationale was to diversify the company’s brand portfolio with a lower-price option that would appeal to millennials. However, the combination of the then-candidate’s low poll numbers and analyses suggesting bookings were down at Trump hotels across the country led to speculation that the real goal was to provide a source of income less linked to the increasingly polarizing family name. Whereas Michael Jordan (apocryphally, at least) justified his decision not to talk politics by observing that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” the Trumps seemed to be doing the opposite, renaming their business to save it from their politics rather than avoiding politics to protect their business.
But the new name hasn’t been enough to spare Scion. On April 12, the Dallas Morning News reported that a deal for a Scion-branded property in the city, which would have been the first hotel under the new name, had fallen through due to “public opposition to the project”; the article cites, in part, a petition highlighting Scion’s connection to the larger Trump brand that garnered roughly 1,000 signatures. A spokeswoman from the Trump Organization noted that “it is very common in the hospitality business that some projects do not come to fruition.” Still, it’s not a promising sign for an attempt at establishing a new brand.
There’s no way of knowing yet the extent to which these problems will counteract the inordinate amount of opportunities the White House provides for self-enrichment. Nevertheless, the trouble that the Trump administration has created for the Trump Organization provides a unique window into the tangible effects of his polarizing presidency.