Media Must Scrutinize Donald Trump’s ‘Successful’ Career

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The culture of celebrity and the new media superstructure that supports it are a deceptive combination. They deal in the illusion of intimacy, trading on the fiction that they actually allow us to know the celebrities they create on a first-name basis—Angelina and Brad, Kim and Kanye and, perhaps most misleadingly, the Donald.

Oddly enough, though he seems to have lived his whole life in the public eye, there is a great deal about Donald Trump that we don’t know with precision. Because he’s never spent a minute of his life in public service, what we do seem to know about the Republican frontrunner has been mostly manicured by his public relations people and by the managed focus of reality television.

For most of his career, he has been marketed rather than scrutinized. The financial media’s general reluctance to examine his dealings closely probably has been reinforced not only by his vindictive and litigious tendency to go after skeptical journalists, but also by the fact that his activities generally are relatively small potatoes by the standards of American business.

In other words, who needs the tsuris? Unfortunately, all of us do now.

Donald Trump is a blowhard who counts himself the most “successful” man ever to seek the presidency. But his claims to that success must be scrutinized and investigated rigorously by the political media.

One of the loud-mouthed developer’s major claims to the nomination is that, “Nobody in the history of the presidency has been nearly as successful as I have been.”

Fair enough, though there are some among us who do not define “success” in the purely monetary terms that Trump does. Some of us, might consider George Washington successful for defeating the armed forces of the world’s most powerful empire in the Revolutionary War.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t particularly good with money—in fact, he thought it a bit of nuisance—but he did write the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. James Madison midwifed the Constitution into being. U. S. Grant—who had almost as many businesses fail as Trump—defeated the Confederacy and made it possible for Lincoln to save the Union. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton. Now, it’s true that none of these guys were billionaires, which one supposes makes them “losers” in the Trump schema.

One of the national political media’s greatest failings so far in this election cycle, is that it has not examined with any rigor just how successful Trump is on his own terms—and how we achieved the “successes” that he has. Partly, that’s the fault of a growing timidity, particularly in the electronic media. Partly, it’s the consequence of a much smaller campaign press corps, as compared to, say, 20 years ago, when half a dozen exhaustive Trump profiles already would have been published or been in the works. What’s required at this juncture is what we used to call “a scrub” on Trump, a thorough and unblinking ransacking of his personal and professional lives.

A first cut as the latter can be found in the current issue of the Economist, which has a two-page piece on the developer as businessman. There’s no doubt that he’s a rich man, though the Economist—like Forbes and Bloomberg—put his wealth at half or less of his own boastful claim: somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion. (Trump says he’s worth more than $8 billion.)

Since he doesn’t run a publicly listed firm and issues a one-page, unaudited estimate of his net worth, the Economist calls information on Trump’s businesses “sketchy.” Still, the newspaper came up with four overall conclusions: “First, his fortune is in the billions of dollars. Second, his attempt to shift away from debt-heavy property and to create a global brand has been a limited success.

About 93% of his wealth sits in American and 80% is in real estate (including golf courses). Third, Trump’s performance has been mediocre compared with the stock market and property in New York. Lastly, his clannish management style suggests he might be out of his depth if he ran a larger organization.”

Essentially, what the Economist found was that Trump made a good bet on depressed Manhattan real estate early in his career and today, the majority of his assets consist of the Trump Tower on Fifth Ave and a handful of properties close by. His foray into the casino business ended in utter disaster and managed to avoid bankruptcy only by selling off assets, by defaulting on some debts and refinancing others. What really rescued him was the recovery of the New York property market, though he’s no longer considered a major player on the level of the Durst or Fisher families.

As the newspaper put it, Trump “was in charge of a publicly listed company in 1995-2004. It defaulted.” It also points out that “One should also spare a thought for outside investors in his projects. . .Roughly $5 billion of equity and debt (at current prices) from outsiders sat in Trump vehicles that went bust.”

The major American media outlets ought to be out talking to those “losers”—to borrow a familiar Trump formulation—right now.

Overall, according to the Economist, Trump “has great wealth, much of it made well over a decade ago from a few buildings he has retained in Manhattan, including his favorite on Fifth Avenue. But he has not yet created a great company, raised permanent capital on public markets, gone global or diversified very successfully.”

Yet this is a blowhard who counts himself the most “successful” man ever to seek the presidency. Trump’s claims to that success deserve to be scrutinized rigorously on their own terms by our major political media. After all, this is a guy who wants to negotiate with Vladimir Putin on our behalf.

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