Of course, Trump had used this business experience as a selling point on the campaign trail — presenting himself as so rich that he wouldn’t be like any establishment politician, beholden to a donor class. The believability of the sales pitch rested on two not entirely believable assumptions: that Trump was in fact as rich as he said he was, and that he was capable of staying satisfied with whatever amount of money he had.
Alexander shows how Trump was so obsessed with his ranking on the annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans that he became known at the magazine for trying to inflate his profits and hide his debts. “Most tycoons did not want to be on the Forbes list,” Alexander writes, presumably because of the scrutiny it invited, but Trump wanted it badly, and seemed to think that any journalistic due diligence could be simply undone by deflection and spin. When one of his lawyers noticed that the number of rooms in his penthouse fluctuated wildly, depending on the article, he asked how many rooms Trump’s penthouse really had. Trump’s answer: “However many they will print.”
If you get lied to enough, cynicism can settle in, and sometimes Alexander lets loose a deadpan “whatever” or “well, never mind” — though for the most part he bypasses the low-hanging sarcasm and simply explains where Trump adds to his fortune (minority stakes in two office buildings, for instance) and where he loses some of it (the golf courses in Scotland and Ireland). A chapter on commercial real estate even includes a handy list of companies that happen to be in the “position of asking the federal government for favors while paying the president huge sums of money.” Alexander calculates that a number of federal contractors who are set to pay $200 million in rent by the end of Trump’s first term in office are poised to “collect more than $10 billion in taxpayer dollars.”
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., located in the landmark Old Post Office building, opened to immediate controversy just weeks before the 2016 election. It looked like a place where it would be remarkably easy for D.C. swamp creatures and foreign governments to spend money and try to curry favor with the president — and it was, Alexander says, at least to a point. But Trump had to take out an enormous loan from Deutsche Bank for renovations; operating costs were high, making profit margins low. Security issues and the deteriorating value of the Trump brand made it “less of a cash cow and more of a money pit.” The hotel was put on the market last fall. In April of this year, after the pandemic hit, the Trump Organization sought relief on the hotel’s lease payments.
“Donald’s Trump real plan,” Alexander writes, was “to turn the presidency into a business.” For some free-market conservatives who keep touting the efficiencies of the private sector, that may have sounded like a dream come true, but what if the business turns out to be a bad one — recklessly managed, drained of cash, gutted of expertise?