Timothy L. O’Brien: Wouldn’t you like to know if Trump can be bribed?
President Donald Trump, courtesy of the Office of Government Ethics, gave the public its annual look at his business holdings on Thursday afternoon. According to Trump’s personal financial disclosure form, his boutique portfolio of golf courses, hotels, real estate and other ventures had revenue of at least $435 million in 2018, about $30 million less than the year before. (An undisclosed portion of this lands in Trump’s wallet as personal income.)
Trump owes banks and other lenders at least $315 million, and Deutsche Bank AG — a German financial titan that has drawn repeated scrutiny from regulators and the U.S. Congress — remains one of his single largest creditors. Business at Trump’s Washington hotel — a favorite haunt of foreign diplomats and lobbyists courting the federal government — was relatively steady, with revenue of about $41 million. Revenue was up modestly at Turnberry, a golf course on the west coast of Scotland. Elsewhere, business was soft. For example, Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach resort, saw revenue drop 10% to about $23 million.
Trump said that Trump National Doral, a Miami golf course that is one of his biggest revenue generators, saw its top line climb slightly to about $76 million — though that figure is well below what the club has said it hoped to take in. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that company documents indicate Doral’s earnings are in a “steep decline” and show more broadly that “the Trump Organization’s problems are bigger than previously known.” The Post reported that a Trump Organization representative “publicly acknowledged the president’s name has hurt business” at Doral.
The Trump brand is wilting further north as well. Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that Trump Tower, a signature Manhattan property that the president has prized for decades, has become a dated hulk and one of New York’s least desirable luxury properties. Occupancy rates are down, many condominium owners have taken losses on sales, and the building’s income has dropped substantially over the last several years. A culprit behind those problems? The president himself. “The name on the building became a problem,” one former condo owner told Bloomberg News.
Despite all of this, a key lesson of Trump’s disclosure forms is that they don’t disclose enough. The public still knows very little about how Trump has funded his business and to whom he might be financially beholden. As the forms show, Trump controls a skein of murky financial holdings tucked inside hundreds of shell companies. He can use those shells to insulate his holdings from one another. He also can use them to park loans and debts or steer payments away from prying eyes. (Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, for example, used a shell company to pay hush money to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had a sexual encounter with Trump.)
If some of Trump’s business problems accelerate then the financial conflicts of interest that have marked his presidency from its inception may become even more significant. Trump has historically put his wallet ahead of other considerations and souring businesses would make him more susceptible to outside financial and political influence than he already is — presenting, of course, a clear national security problem.
At times the financial conflicts are apparent. Trump helped steward a massive tax cut for upper-income payers in 2017 and while deductions for real estate taxes and mortgage interest on residential homes were cut back, commercial real estate developers were still permitted to deduct their property taxes. Developers like Trump were also permitted to treat income as “pass through” payments taxed at a lower individual rate rather than the corporate rate.
More recently, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is a senior White House adviser, helped engineer legislation creating the “Opportunity Zones” program meant to encourage developers to invest in low-income neighborhoods. Her husband, Jared Kushner, also a White House adviser, invested millions in an entity benefiting from that program.
Meanwhile, the Trump International Hotel in Washington sits on federal government land — meaning the president is essentially leasing the property from himself — and remains the centerpiece of a group of lawsuits alleging that visitors to the hotel are essentially paying bribes to gain access to the president.
The Trumps’ self-dealing, financial opacity and indifference to ethical norms speak beyond the disclosure forms the president released on Thursday and highlight an important truth about his ongoing battle with Congress over disclosure.
Senior Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham — as well as a host of other GOP politicians or advocates — have recently advised the public, law enforcement and the media that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe is over and it’s time to “move on.” As McConnell put it, it’s “case closed.” Yet Mueller inherited a probe that began as an examination of Russian efforts to sabotage the 2016 presidential campaign and then morphed into an obstruction of justice investigation after Trump began meddling. Mueller chose to define his mandate narrowly and ultimately focused primarily on conspiracy and obstruction. He appeared to avoid an intense, granular examination of Trump’s business and finances.
The case that McConnell insists is closed is only a portion of what several Democratic committees in the House of Representatives have decided to explore. They’re looking at Trump’s deals overseas and at home, his relationships with banks and other business partners, and other questions arising from financial conflicts of interests that loomed over Trump from the earliest days of his presidency long before Mueller came on the scene.
Battles about those issues have resulted in a stalemate over releasing Trump’s tax returns, Congress and the White House jousting in court and frequent complaints from Trump and his allies that the president is being unfairly targeted — in other words, all of the things someone does when he or she is hiding something. Trump’s financial disclosure form is a reminder that until the public gets an open, transparent look at the president’s finances and business dealings, nothing is closed.