It was a question from the CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour that allowed Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, his one and only fist-bump, slap-down moment before his bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination fizzled to expensive nothingness.
She asked: “Do we need yet another billionaire in the race?”
He replied: “Who is the other billionaire?”
Oh, how political America giggled. It knows that the thin-skinned Donald hates nothing more than having his manhood questioned. And for Trump his manhood is, to a larger extent than with most men it seems, his money.
So where is his money? Here the events of recent weeks are deeply relevant. The President is, by his own admission, not much of a stocks and shares man. He likes stuff you can see: preferably from a distance. Stuff with space for a neon sign. Casinos, hotels, resorts, golf clubs. Places where people mingle and spend money. Places with staircases the late Saddam Hussein would appreciate. Places that are closed or about to close for extended periods as the Covid-19 wave breaks across the USA and the wider world.
So when the President says – as he did on the day he announced he was standing for office – “I’m very rich,” do we still believe him? There is no completely certain way of judging. This is because the Trump organisation — run now by his sons Don Jr. and Eric — is a private company. It seems fair to say, though, that they are taking a hit.
The President likes to keep his eyes on Fox News, but if his sons, worried about the money, were watching CNBC the other day they will have heard Bill Ackman of Pershing capital suggesting that even Hilton Hotels, one of the world’s strongest hospitality brands, was “going to zero”. If we carry on with this shutdown, he said, “every hotel company in the world is done”.
So does this mean coronavirus is going to wipe out the Trump empire?
Trump properties have been doing well recently, in part – controversially to put it mildly – because the fundraising effort for his 2020 run has seen large meetings requiring expensive rooms in … well, actually in Trump properties. According to the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a two-day event in December at Trump’s Washington DC hotel, hosted by Trump Victory, saw the cheapest rooms going for $6,719 compared with the usual rate of $500. That’s the art of the fundraising deal.
CREW say there have been 81 political events held in Trump properties since the presidency began, 122 events held by outside special interest groups, 143 visits by foreign officials and 468 by the president himself. The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ hardly does justice to the scale of this branding/money making/room filling exercise.
But the truth is that even before the Covid disaster, Donald Trump’s properties were not doing well. As a couple of investigative journalists at Forbes Magazine put it in 2018: “Donald Trump is not getting richer off the presidency. Just the opposite. His net worth, by our calculation, has dropped from $4.5 billion in 2015 to $3.1 billion the last two years.”
It’s a lot of money. But it sits on a pile of debt estimated by Bloomberg (the organisation, not the man) to be around half a billion dollars. “I am the king of debt,” Mr. Trump once said on CNN. “I love debt.” What if that debt, in the wake of current events, balloons?
It has happened before. In his book, Trumpocracy, David Frum, one of Trump’s fiercest Republican opponents, puts it like this:
“Donald Trump and his Kushner in-laws are perceived as fabulously wealthy. But while they do own substantial assets, they also owe enormous debts…Trump has teetered on the edge of financial ruin again and again throughout his career.”
The extent of the teetering would be gut-wrenching to any ordinary person. In his pre-presidency biography of Trump, The Truth about Trump, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Michael D’Antonio has a chapter entitled Luck Runs Out. Michael is a mild-mannered man with a twinkly smile: I think he liked the restraint of this description. The reality was grotesque.
‘Donald Trump’s big bet’ was how the Washington Post headlined its piece on the Taj Mahal Atlantic City — the biggest (of course) casino the city had ever seen. On a pre-opening tour the paper was horrified by vulgarity but impressed, in spite of itself, with the ambition: “With more than 3,000 slot machines and 167 blackjack, roulette and other gaming tables, the Taj will boost Atlantic City’s gambling capacity by 20 percent when it opens April 2.”
“We’re calling it the eighth wonder of the world,” said Donald Trump of his creation. “I think it’s going to do huge numbers. The overall majesty of the building is what’s going to attract people. People are just amazed at the opulence.”
After opening in 1990, it went belly-up in 1991 — along with an airline shuttle Trump ran between New York and Washington. What happened next is instructive for those who think the President might be done in by the Covid-19 depression.
Six thousand people lost their jobs. The man who made the elephant statue for the garden was one among many contractors who claim they were never paid. But Donald Trump walked away from the wreckage. Because, as the old adage goes, if you owe the bank a tenner it’s your problem, if you owe 10 million it’s theirs. And it was theirs.
As D’Antonio puts it in his account of the fallout from the collapse: “Trump grasped the power of his position after the lender who had held the mortgage on his yacht not only accepted that Trump had stopped making payments but but took responsibility for the vessel’s upkeep and insurance at a cost of $500,000 a month.”
Trump, so it goes, was too big to fail. Well here we go again. According to the Wall St Journal: “More than 500 staff at Trump properties in New York, Washington, Las Vegas and Florida have been laid off or furloughed, say people familiar with the matter and federal disclosures. Several Trump hotels have been closed, and those still running have experienced dwindling occupancies. One day in March, the family’s flagship Trump International Hotel in Washington had just 11 guests in its 263 rooms, according to an employee.”
Eric Trump told the paper: “We have an unbelievably strong company and we continue to pray for the health and safety of all Americans,” but went into no more details about what happens now. So it does look like Donald Trump could be in serious trouble on paper as a result of the shutdown he is belatedly supporting — and there are surely plenty of Americans who would see that as an upside of the virus.
But history suggests Donald Trump’s businesses and fortune have an uncanny ability to bounce back — while all around go bankrupt. If the rich ‘are different from you and me’ then Donald Trump is different from most of them too. As he put it once to an incredulous lawyer in a court deposition, “My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.”
Yes, he believes he can control his wealth with his feelings. And, for now at least, the President of the United States almost certainly believes that he is still “very rich”. Who are we to suggest otherwise…