When Donald J. Trump was building casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1990s, he spoke of his dream of bringing jobs and development to the hard-luck community. In the end, after all the bankruptcies, layoffs and stiffed contractors, it was Trump who walked away with tens of millions of dollars in management fees and huge tax deductions that may have helped him avoid paying personal income taxes for nearly two decades.
When Trump announced the founding of Trump University in 2005, he described it as a way to share his real estate secrets with ordinary investors. “If I had a choice of making lots of money or imparting lots of knowledge,” he said, “I think I’d be as happy to impart knowledge as to make money.” In the end, after the university was shut down amid investigations and allegations of fraud, it was Trump who again walked away with millions in fees.
Today Trump is making his most selfless pledge of all, promising that if elected president he will walk away from his beloved business empire so he can devote himself entirely to the American people. With the presidential campaign in the homestretch, Hillary Clinton and her supporters are suggesting that Trump regards the White House as one more moneymaking venture. “Imagine having a president who owes hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign banks and other foreign entities that he doesn’t tell us about,” Clinton said at a rally in Pittsburgh. “Ask yourself: So if he’s sitting across the table negotiating with people from those countries, is he going to put his own financial interests ahead of America’s interests?”
For more than a year, reporters from The New York Times have been scouring Trump’s business record. That review reveals plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Trump’s oft-stated promise to direct every ounce of his business acumen and negotiating prowess in service of the American people. But the same review also reveals patterns of behavior and qualities of leadership that could indeed help Trump fulfill his now-familiar sales pitch to voters: “If we could run our country the way I’ve run my company, we would have a country that you would be so proud of.”
Trump has won millions of supporters by promising to renegotiate, abrogate or ignore any number of written commitments made by past US presidents. If there is one recurring theme in Trump’s business ventures, it is his brazen willingness to ignore the plain terms of contracts he finds inconvenient while relentlessly enforcing contract terms he finds useful.
Another recurring theme – one that might come in handy given the inherent unpredictability of the White House – is Trump’s strategic flexibility. When either his ambitions or circumstances shift, Trump has shown himself willing to make swift and dramatic course corrections in his businesses.