The big reveal from NYT scoop: For Trump it was always about the $$$
Did you know that Trump ran for president in 2000?
And that he announced in 2011 that he was running against Obama in 2012?
And he ran again in 2015.
And in none of those runs did he expect to win. He had other reasons.
Sunday the New York Times published an extraordinary account of how Donald Trump paid no federal income taxes for ten years, and only $750 in the year he ran for office, and another $750 in his first year in office.
But to me the big insight from the Times is not that Trump cheated on his taxes, or was such a bad businessman. Rather, the Times investigation allows us to make sense of things that otherwise wouldn’t.
Bottom line: It was all a grift. He did it for the money. And not the way we might think.
In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I studied the patterns of Trump’s language and behavior over the past several decades. In the book, I show that Trump follows predictable and repeated patterns. The way to understand Trump is to notice the patterns. They don’t change, but they do intensify.
And one pattern is his tendency to run for president to boost his financial condition.
Changing Trump’s Business Model
In 2000, Trump was moving away from a business model based on building and managing real estate, and creating a new business model where he licensed his name and brand. He would let others take the risks, and he would collect the licensing fees.
In 2017 the Washington Post noted that Trump had licensed his name in at least 50 real estate deals.
A Forbes magazine article described it this way:
Donald Trump positions himself as a real estate visionary and developer, and he’s created a remarkable brand. In truth, however, Trump doesn’t own a large number of his properties. He licenses his name to developers and offers property management services. For instance, his name is on 17 properties in Manhattan, but he only owns five of them outright.
Forbes notes that as of 2012 Trump had
over 200 trademark applications containing his own name, from Trump Steaks to Trump’s American Pale Ale to the Trump names on the front of luxury properties.
But for a person’s name to be trademarked, it needs to have what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office calls an “acquired distinctiveness.”
In other words, a name must become so closely associated with a particular person that the name immediately makes people think of the person. Donald Trump achieved that level of branding, and he’s reaped the rewards by trademarking his name.
Running for president is one of Trump’s way of creating that distinctiveness.
Trump’s own son admitted as much in 2015, when Eric Trump said that the campaign, “has had an immensely positive impact” on Trump’s brand.
Trump Ran Twice Before
In 2000 Trump ran for the Reform Party nomination for president. Remarkably, his campaign themes were fair trade and universal healthcare. He got lots of media attention, including suggesting that Oprah Winfrey would be an ideal running mate. He floated the idea of Roger Stone becoming White House Press Secretary.
But he dropped out three months after getting in. Pat Buchanan eventually got the nomination.
The Reform Party chair at the time questioned the sincerity of Trump’s run. He told The New York Times,
All this was, was a serious hustle of the media, and I think the media should send him a massive bill on it.
Trump was at it again in 2011. By then he was a TV star, and The New York Times tax investigation showed that the revenue from The Apprentice was one of Trump’s largest sources of income.
Trump addressed an overflow crowd at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and told them he would run against President Barack Obama the following year. He used the occasion to revive the Birther Conspiracy, claiming that Obama was secretly Muslim and born in Kenya.
He argued, without evidence, that no one in Hawaii knew who Obama was. He said,
Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.
From there Trump was all over the news, claiming that Obama’s birth certificate was a fraud.
Trump milked this visibility for five years, into his run for the 2016 nomination.
Trump Wasn’t Supposed To Win in 2106
In 2018 Michael Wolff published the first tell-all book about Trump’s first year in the white house. In Fire and Fury Wolff noted that as before, Trump’s run for office was intended to elevate his visibility, build a political audience, and be the launch pad for the creation of a Trump media empire. But he didn’t expect to win:
Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star. Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.
Indeed, this Sunday’s New York Times expose makes the point that Trump needed to boost his revenue, and succeeded in doing so:
When Mr. Trump glided down a gilded Trump Tower escalator to kick off his presidential campaign in June 2015, his finances needed a jolt. His core businesses were reporting mounting losses — more than $100 million over the previous two years. The river of celebrity-driven income that had long buoyed them was running dry.
The Times details the depths of the problems:
The picture that perhaps emerges most starkly from the mountain of figures and tax schedules prepared by Mr. Trump’s accountants is of a businessman-president in a tightening financial vise.
Most of Mr. Trump’s core enterprises — from his constellation of golf courses to his conservative-magnet hotel in Washington — report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year.
His revenue from “The Apprentice” and from licensing deals is drying up, and several years ago he sold nearly all the stocks that now might have helped him plug holes in his struggling properties.
And it worked. As he became more and more visible, more and more people began using his brands. For example the Times found that Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fl, alone saw a flood of new members after his campaign started, boosting Trump’s revenue an additional $5 million from the increased business in 2015.
What the Times allows us to see with real clarity is that Trump’s inability to govern — indeed, his lack of interest in governing — should not come as a surprise. It was never about governing. It was a grift. It was all about the cash.
As we learned in a defining crisis involving an earlier president, Follow the money…