He has a lot more than money wrapped up in his self-named business.
The following article by Michael Kruse was posted on the Politico website January 12, 2017:
When Donald Trump stood up in front of a throng of reporters as well as loyal, cheering paid staffers Wednesday at Trump Tower in New York, there was the theatrical stack of folders of papers on the table next to the lectern, and there were the phrases that floated out of the mouth of his lawyer (“completely isolating himself from his business interests,” “no new foreign deals,” “his sole business and interest is in making America great again”), and there was what he said, too (“could actually run my business and run the government at the same time,” “turning over complete and total control to my sons,” “I don’t have to do this”)—but the fact of the matter of Trump’s news conference on Wednesday, his first as president-elect, which came nearly six months after his last, was this: He’s not severing ties with his business. He’s not divesting.
Even though numerous ethics experts, Republicans and Democrats alike, have called explicitly for Trump to adhere to the norms of the Oval Office and sell his business or establish a blind trust, his attorney issued a lengthy statement about why he wouldn’t be doing that, and why it wasn’t necessary, or even possible. “President-elect Trump,” Sheri Dillon said, “should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”
But in interviews with POLITICO this week, people who have known, worked for and watched Trump closely for decades offered a different perspective, and one with potentially profound implications for his presidency. The reason, they said, is much simpler.
He can’t let go.
“I think he’s incapable of seeing himself as anything other than the CEO of his company,” said Trump biographer Wayne Barrett, who started writing about him in 1979 with a two-part investigation in the Village Voice. “He can give up titles, but he just can’t disengage from that. It’s his identification—it’s his self-identification.”
“He’s like a boy with his marbles,” fellow Trump biographer Tim O’Brien said. “He just can’t let go of a single marble in his collection.”
He can’t let go, not completely, not in a way that is even close to commensurate with his presidential predecessors, because his personal identity is virtually synonymous with his professional interests. His name … is his brand … is his business. And beyond the evident, ongoing concerns about the temperament and overall disposition of the 45th president of the United States, or the nature of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia, or even his volatile Twitter feed, this underscores maybe the most fundamental question heading into his administration: Whose interests is he serving, first and foremost—his or ours? Who, in other words, is he working for? Never before has this been such a question because never before has there been a president remotely like Trump.
“More than any person I’ve ever met, he’s focused on how things impact him,” said Bruce Nobles, the former president of Trump Shuttle, Trump’s short-lived, ill-fated airline.
“He’s like a pig hunting for truffles,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of The Trumps, a biography about him, his father and his grandfather.
“He’s never worked for anybody but himself,” said Barbara Res, a former vice president at the Trump Organization who was a Trump Tower project manager. “I think he wants to keep everything he created because he created it—and why should anybody else get rich off it?”
“He can’t let go of his assets because that’s his life,” Barrett added. “I mean, he’s spent his whole life creating this business, and I think he expects it to double in value in his first term even as he pretends to lay back in some ways.”
The conflation of the personal and professional has been a constant.
The first building he built he named after himself and moved in. That was Trump Tower, of course, in 1983. In 1984, he opened up a casino in Atlantic City and called it Trump Plaza. In 1985, he opened another casino, Trump Castle. In 1988, he bought the Eastern Airlines shuttle and renamed it the Trump Shuttle, and he bought a yacht he didn’t even want and changed the boat’s name to Trump Princess. “Trophies,” he called them. “Props for the show,” he said in an interview with Playboy in 1990. And the show? “The show is ‘Trump.’”
That year, in his book Trump: Surviving at the Top, he put it like so: “The Trump Organization is in some ways like the Disney Company. Images mean a great deal to me. If people don’t associate my name with quality and success, I’ve got serious problems.”
“I am the chairman and president of The Trump Organization,” he wrote in 2004 in the first sentence of the first chapter of the first part of Trump: How to Get Rich. “I like saying that …”
“In truth,” he admitted in 2007 in Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, “I am dazzled as much by my own creations as are the tourists and glamour hounds that flock to Trump Tower, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, 40 Wall Street, or any of my other properties.”
So those who know him well and have watched him for a long time were all but certain how Wednesday’s news conference would go.
“I just don’t see how he is going to—after all these years of building and building the brand—how he is going to disassociate from all this,” former Atlantic City casino analyst Marvin Roffman said Monday. “After dealing with him after many, many years, that’s just my reading of it. I don’t think he’s ever going to have a totally blind trust kind of thing. It just isn’t going to happen.”
“Just being around him and seeing how proud he is of what he’s built and what it’s become,” said Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser, “if he doesn’t have to technically leave it 100 percent, I don’t think he’ll completely divest.”
“Never,” Artie Nusbaum added. He was one of the bosses at the construction firm that erected Trump Tower. “He’s never going to separate himself.”
They were right.
While his voters and supporters are confident, or at least hopeful, that Trump, the veteran, self-celebrated doer of deals, will soon begin making great ones on their behalf rather than on his own, those who actually have spent time with him and studied his track record possess a far more pessimistic take—that Trump’s inability to make choices based on sound business sense instead of out of an effort to feed his ego actually has cost him and his shareholders, too.
In 1989, for instance, he could have saved himself some trouble by selling his large tract of land on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—the so-called West Side Yards—for more than half a billion dollars. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it—and was forced by banks five years later to unload it for about $85 million.
“He’s the worst seller ever,” a source told O’Brien for his book, TrumpNation. “That’s why he’ll constantly get hurt, because he just won’t let go.”
Trump could have sold his casinos, too, in 1996, according to O’Brien’s reporting, but he didn’t, and the heavily leveraged publicly traded company never turned a profit for the 10 years from 1995 to 2005. His casinos were largely failures—but it was his shareholders who were left holding the bag. Trump, on the other hand, used the cash flow for other endeavors. “The money I took out of there was incredible,” he said last June. “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City,” he tweeted in July. It was his backers who lost.
“Shareholders and bondholders have to be total fools ever to think that Donald Trump will put their interests ahead of his own,” financial columnist Allan Sloan wrote in Newsweek in 1997. Three years later, in Fortune, Jerry Useem called attention to Trump’s predilection to “use the casino company as his own personal piggy bank.”
Now his shareholders are not only his supporters but all American citizens, and when the questions about his conflicts of interest keep coming up—and they will keep coming up—Trump will do what he’s always done. In spite of former campaign manager and current top adviser Kellyanne Conway’s suggestion that people listen to “what’s in his heart” instead of “what’s come out of his mouth,” what’s come out of his mouth is hard to ignore. A mentee of the notorious Roy Cohn, Trump is a counterpuncher, and a vengeful one.
“When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and violently as you can,” he advised in Trump: How to Get Rich. In his book three years later, Trump: Think Big, he called it “a good feeling.”
“The advantage I have,” Trump said in Wednesday’s news conference, “is I can speak back.”
“As long as I’ve known him, he has never been able to take criticism of any kind,” said Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle president. “He’s 70 years old. You’d think at this point you’d be able to roll with the punches. But he never has.”
He defends his brand—his name and all that is attached to it—as vigorously as he promotes it. “It’s what he does,” said Scott Butera, a former CEO of Trump’s casino company and now the commissionerof the Arena Football League. “He’s not just going to let it go.”
“That’s just his style, and I think it’s something that won’t change,” said Nunberg, the former political adviser.
“People knew,” he said, “who they were electing, right?”