Trump Has Nothing Else up His Sleeve

In business and in politics, he falls back on the same tricks, but his tax returns show how poorly those tricks work.

Donald Trump
Drew Angerer / Getty

When voters say they want politicians to run the government like a business, they should stipulate which business. Surely not the Trump Organization. A blockbuster New York Times report yesterday suggested that either the president’s real-estate empire is a boondoggle that’s losing millions of dollars a year, or it’s a massive tax-avoidance scheme. (Or perhaps it’s some of both.)

Trump is not the first president to encounter difficulty in his personal finances, though none has premised his political appeal so narrowly on business acumen. But the Times revelations are important not only because they raise the question of whether the president is fleecing the federal government on taxes, but because they illustrate his failures as a leader.

Trump has only a few tricks: postponing all reckonings, bluffing his way through his current mess without concern for the next one, and falling back on his family. The president has returned to these same maneuvers over and over, and there’s no reason to expect that they will work out any better for the American people than they have for the Trump Organization. In fact, the proof of Trump’s failure has already arrived.

While the headline from the Times investigation is that Trump has paid practically no taxes in most years this century—likely galling to anyone who’s had to pay the IRS more than $750, the nominal amount he paid in 2016 and 2017—the bigger revelation is how much money the president loses.

The tax returns reveal Trump to be an awful businessman, rescued only by his father’s largesse and his own skill in playing the part of a mogul on The Apprentice. Flush with cash from the TV show, Trump splurged on high-profile properties, but they have turned out to be liabilities, rather than assets. In filings to the government, Trump reported losing tens of millions of dollars on those properties. The Times story also shows the extent to which Trump has blended his personal and business lives. Lavish dinners, expensive haircuts for himself and his family, private-jet travel, and a historic mansion outside of New York City: Trump has claimed all of these as business expenses for tax purposes. He has engaged in a number of legally dubious maneuvers to transfer money to his children.

Now, however, the snare is tightening around Trump. He is in a lengthy battle with the U.S. government over a refund of nearly $73 million he has claimed. Worse, he has hundreds of millions of dollars in loans that he personally guaranteed coming due in the next few years. To plug the holes, Trump has sold hundreds of millions in stocks and bonds, draining his reserves. He has few options left; late last year, his company even put a crown jewel, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the sales block—though the hotel carries substantial debt, and the market for major properties has frozen.

Trump has faced difficulties like this before, and he’s managed to wriggle out mostly unscathed. His companies have had to declare bankruptcy at least four times, but he has avoided personal bankruptcy by finding ways to delay a reckoning, and by burning lenders, which is one reason few banks will now loan him money. The Times report is only the latest indicator that Trump’s run for the presidency was actually designed as a promotional gimmick for the struggling Trump Organization.

Nevertheless, Trump ran for president promising to bring his experience from the private sector to the White House, and while his record of honesty is poor, he has kept this promise. He has installed his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as top advisers. He has made a series of short-term bets, taking on enormous long-term risks and lacking a plan to deal with them.

Having ignored any boundaries between his business and personal interests in his private life, he has adopted the same approach in office. Trump has used the presidency as a marketing opportunity, spending roughly a third of it at his own properties. The Trump International and Mar-a-Lago have become hot destinations for anyone trying to curry favor with Trump, whether political allies or foreign diplomats. He has charged the U.S. Secret Service exorbitant rates to stay at his own hotels, even when the hotels were closed. He invited a delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence to stay at his Doonbeg resort in Ireland, then charged taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for it. He attempted to host the G7 summit at his Doral resort (which the Times reveals to be perhaps his greatest white elephant), but backed down in the face of disapproval from even Republican allies. Trump has also charged huge bills for the use of his properties to his reelection effort, even as the campaign burns down its once-fearsome reserves.

I have pondered why a billionaire would act this way. Defiance? Penny-pinching? The tax returns suggest an answer: He desperately needs the money to keep his asset-rich, cash-poor business afloat. Trump can donate his $400,000 annual salary to the Treasury, secure in the knowledge that his presidency has generated far more in revenue for his company.

This is plain corruption, but it’s also fairly petty corruption: just skimming from taxpayers, campaign donors, and political allies to feed the sputtering Trump Organization. The philosophy of mingling public and private interests has more dangerous implications, though. Last year, Trump was impeached by the House for using U.S. government funds appropriated by Congress to extort Ukraine into granting his reelection campaign the political favor of announcing an investigation into Joe Biden’s son. Even Trump’s allies don’t really dispute the charge; they just say his behavior wasn’t improper. The conflation of a president’s personal interests and those of the state are hallmarks of autocracy.

On matters of policy, Trump has used the same impulsive approach he did in business: Act now to reap the short-term benefit; deal with the ramifications later (or even better, let someone else deal with them). His biggest legislative success was a major tax bill passed at the end of 2017—which cut taxes for many, but also inflated the federal deficit. Trump has launched a long-running assault on the Affordable Care Act, and although he has promised he will replace it with something better, he still has no plan, let alone a feasible legislative proposal. Even as fires rage across the western United States and hurricanes batter the East Coast, Trump boasts about pulling out of the Paris climate accord. Climate change is for someone else to handle. Trump also risks hollowing out the Republican Party’s future by alienating growing demographic groups for decades to come—but he’ll be long gone by then.

The negative effects of some of these policies are abstract or still pending, but in COVID-19, Trump has met a problem he can’t so easily postpone. The president has tried to prioritize winning reelection over handling the pandemic. “His sole purpose is to get reelected,” the infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci said, according to Bob Woodward. Instead Trump finds himself an underdog going into November’s election—in part because the coronavirus has persisted, killing more than 200,000 Americans, and appears to be surging once again. Trump thought he could jawbone a reopening of the economy without first getting the virus under control, and as a result has reaped both a weak economy and an unyielding pandemic. Among his economic stimulus suggestions: a payroll tax cut that, you guessed it, workers will have to repay next year. By then, Trump will be either reelected or out of office.

If Trump has approached his business and political careers in precisely the same way, and with precisely the same success—fooling just enough people to keep getting by—the stakes are very different. Trump’s business struggles largely pose a risk to himself, his family, and his lenders, none of whom are especially sympathetic figures. In office, however, the harm he does is much broader. Trump could permanently weaken the effectiveness, integrity, and solvency of the U.S. government. All Americans stand to lose, and more than 200,000 have already lost their lives.