Trump’s ‘rollercoaster’ of a career marked by self-interest

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The Trump International Hotel and Tower is seen in Chicago, Illinois, United States, January 14, 2016.   REUTERS/Jim Young  - RTX22G2L

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Donald Trump’s tax returns aren’t the only way to gain insight into his financial dealings.

Trump’s business record offers another look.

William Brangham has that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To understand Trump’s vast and varied business dealings, we’re joined now by two men who’ve spent a good deal of time looking into those businesses, as well as talking with Trump at length about his career.

Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post and co-author of the book “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money and Power.” And Tim O’Brien is executive editor of Bloomberg View. His book is called “Trump nation: The Art of Being the Donald.”

Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being her.

Marc Fisher, I would like to start with you.

The Trump campaign is predicated in large part on the idea that Trump is a magnificent businessman who can bring America back to prosperity. And you have done a long analysis of what his business career is like. Is that a fair characterization of him? Does he deserve that title?

MARC FISHER, The Washington Post: Well, he’s certainly had a good deal of success. He’s also had some terrible failures.

His business career has been a roller coaster. He’s been at great heights. He dominated Atlantic City’s casino gambling business for a time, but then he overextended himself there and actually ended up cannibalizing his own business and ended up with six corporate bankruptcies there.

Similarly, around the world, he’s had a number of successes, but he’s really changed his whole business model in recent years, so that he’s taking on less debt, less risk, because that had not been going well for him. And so he has really retreated and found a new avenue in recent years, where he essentially rents out his name and uses his name to allow others to take the risk, foreign investors and others.

So they take the risk on projects and he merely rents out his name and gets a guaranteed income stream from that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tim O’Brien, I would put this same question to thank. And I should say, for the record, you are one of the few journalists in the world who have actually seen some of Trump’s tax returns, but because of a court order of a suit brought that Trump brought against you for libel, you are not allowed to talk about them in too much detail.

But tell us what you can about them and whether or not they shed any light on whether he deserves this reputation for having a tremendous business acumen.

TIM O’BRIEN, Bloomberg: Well, I do think that the tax returns are important. I don’t think he will release them.

I think the reason he won’t release them is because I think they would go towards offering substantiation around a bunch of things that Trump has made central to his political campaign, his track record as a business person, how charitable he is as a philanthropist, his operations overseas, and the kinds of business and financial conflicts that would potentially come to bear on him should he end up in the Oval Office.

And I do think it does come back to yet another referendum on his business career. And I think what’s important to remember about him is that the Donald Trump of the ’80s and the ’90s was essentially a creature of debt. And the last time he really operated a large business that involved, you know, complex financial and managerial decisions was when he was running the Atlantic City casinos, which he essentially ended up running into the ground.

He put those through four separate corporate bankruptcies. And, as we all know, he almost went personally bankrupt in the early 1990s. And the Trump who emerged from that is essentially now a human shingle, as Marc said. He oversees a licensing operation where he puts his name on everything from mattresses and men’s underwear to vodka and buildings.

And then he’s got a golf course development operation, and then essentially a self-promotion publicity machine that made itself the most visible during “The Apprentice” years.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Marc, let’s talk a little more specifically about that business, one of those businesses that Tim just mentioned, the casino business.

As you know, the Clinton campaign has been making a lot of hay about Trump’s time as a casino operator. They say he enriched himself, left this trail of bankruptcies and really ruined a lot of small businesses. That’s been a big part of their argument against him. How true are those accusations?

MARC FISHER: They’re quite accurate.

I mean, he did have some early success in Atlantic City, but he had great trouble making the payments on the finance notes that he took out in order to build those casinos. He did have trouble paying and in many cases didn’t pay some of his vendors and contractors. There was a series of lawsuits about that.

We have a number of such vendors and contractors who we quote in the books saying that their small businesses were ruined by Trump’s failure to pay them for work that they did for his casinos. So there’s a huge gap between what Donald Trump was able to do for himself in Atlantic City and what he — the people he ran roughshod over in order to get there.

We asked him about this. And he said: Look, I was looking out for myself and that other people took risks to come along with him and, if they failed, that’s their problem.

We asked him, well, how does that translate into someone who needs to do something for all the people as president of the United States? And he said: Look, it’s just a completely different phase of my life. I was doing this for Donald Trump, and I didn’t likely care what was happening to other people.

So there’s a large trail of destruction coming out of the Atlantic City experience. But he did at various points manage to make sure that he had a guaranteed income stream, and he did manage to negotiate with the banks in such a way that he was able to hold on to those properties or at least some portion of them even after they had essentially failed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tim O’Brien, you looked at this career for a long period of time. Are there any examples in Trump’s career that do support his contention that he is a strong, smart, successful businessman that might have some bearing on him being commander in chief?

TIM O’BRIEN: Well, I mean, this all comes back to, how do we want to define success and how do we want to define business?

I think he has not been a successful operator of large enterprises. The Trump Organization now is essentially a boutique operation. At times, when it’s mattered the most, he hasn’t demonstrated strong financial discipline.

On the campaign trail, already, we have seen a number of moments in which he’s actually been financially unsophisticated when he’s spoken about the debt markets, the federal debt, the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, fiscal policy.

There is a large degree of ignorance around someone who is saying that his experience as a businessperson qualifies him for the Oval Office.

And I think what he has been successful as, as a businessman, is self-promotion. He’s a very self-assured self-promoter. But that’s very different from being a great entrepreneur. He is not a John Rockefeller. He’s not a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg.

He’s essentially a P.T. Barnum. And there’s a real skill and street-smart approach he has around keeping himself in the public eye, keeping a certain perception about who he is front and center with the media, with his political opponents, and with voters.

But the reality is, there is a — there is a very “Wizard of Oz” truth about a lot of the things surrounding Donald Trump, that when you just look at the fact pattern around his track record as a businessperson and pull the curtain back, you know, there’s a guy there busily spinning the wheel and myth-making.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Tim O’Brien and Marc Fisher, thank you both very much for being here.

MARC FISHER: Thank you.

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