Donald Trump, the Businessman
Donald J. Trump, the nation's 45th president, is unique among U.S. presidents in his connections to the business world. Certainly, there have been presidents before him who were businessmen: both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W., were in the oil business. Herbert Hoover was in mining and Warren G. Harding was in the newspaper business.
The difference is that every president before Trump had held one or more government positions before taking the office or had served as a general in the military.
This means that Trump's business record and the performance of his companies were the public's only basis for measuring his professional performance before he became president.
We know considerably more now, although there is still much to know. Here's what we know, and don't know, about Trump's business dealings, his successes and failures, and his financial health as he left the presidency.
- Trump's businesses generated at least $446.3 million in sales in 2019. That dropped about 40% to $278 million in 2020.
- The Trump National Doral golf resort generated the most revenue of any of the former president's businesses in 2019, posting $77.2 million in sales. Its revenue plunged more than 40% in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic year.
- Trump's net worth slipped to about $2.3 billion during his presidency compared to about $3 billion before he took office, according to Bloomberg. Separately, Forbes estimates his current wealth at $2.1 billion.
- Trump's personal income is unknown because he lists business revenue instead of profit on his financial disclosures.
Mixing Business and Politics
Trump's potential conflicts of interest were a prominent topic throughout his tenure from 2017 through 2020. As president, the enormous power he had at his command made it more important than ever to understand his long list of businesses and how they could intersect with his public role as president.
These conflicts of interest did not pose a legal problem for Trump. The president and vice president are explicitly exempt from ethics regulations concerning conflicts of interest.
There were other issues, though, such as the emoluments clause, which was written into the U.S. Constitution by the nation's founders. The clause prohibits the president from accepting things of value from foreign governments.
Many critics say the emoluments clause applies to Trump in several respects. But none of the many legal cases alleging violations by the former president have been concluded, nor does it look like they will be in the near future.
The President's Trust
Most U.S. presidents for the past 40 years chose to put their investments into a blind trust to avoid real or perceived conflicts between the president's financial interests and the nation's best interests.
The owner of a blind trust has no knowledge or control over what assets are in the trust. Their use is a guard against accusations that the powers of the presidency are being used to benefit the office holder's financial interests.
One exception was President Barack Obama, who did not use a blind trust because his only investments were in such vehicles as index funds and Treasury notes, which were unlikely to pose conflicts of interest.
To create a blind trust, it is first necessary to liquidate all of the trust owner's current assets so that new ones can be placed into the trust. Trump's assets were largely in highly illiquid real estate. They would have been costly and time-consuming, or even impossible, to liquidate. For example, Trump can't sell his minority stakes in some office towers without the consent of the real-estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust (VNO).
So, Trump ignored this presidential norm, instead of placing his assets in a trust that was managed by his two eldest sons. He was able to withdraw funds from the trust at any time for any reason, without disclosing it.
In fact, Eric Trump, one of the trustees, told Forbes in early 2017 that he planned to regularly update his father on the Trump family businesses.
This practice violates trust documents stating that trustees "shall not provide any report to Donald J. Trump on the holdings and sources of income of the Trust."
The result was that the president's businesses were held by a trust controlled by his sons, and the ability of the trust to insulate the former president from conflicts of interest was questionable.
What We Know
The former president's business activities are largely opaque for several reasons. Trump's main company, formally called the Trump Organization, is a privately held business and is therefore not required to publish quarterly earnings releases like publicly traded companies do.
The former president has also notably refused to release his tax returns, contrary to the recent practice of presidents.
Trump's annual financial disclosures to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics had become the primary avenue to assess what businesses the former president owned and how much they were making.
Every year, the president is required to file a list of assets, income sources, positions held outside the U.S. government, business transactions, liabilities, and gifts received. But in some instances, critics say the former president had been reluctant to fully comply with these disclosure requests by delaying filing and going to unusual lengths to avoid providing clear answers to the public.
On Sept. 27, 2020, The New York Times released two stories containing data from some 20 years of Trump's tax returns. The full records have not been released.
What We Don't Know
There are some caveats to keep in mind when assessing the data in the Trump Organization's financial disclosure forms.
First, the data is unaudited, self-reported data, meaning that readers have to take the company's word that it's accurate.
Second, many of the numbers listed as "income" from certain assets seem, instead, to be the revenue from those businesses. This was confirmed when data from Trump's tax returns were released by The New York Times showing that many of the businesses have been losing money, including some of the largest revenue producers, such as Trump National Doral golf resort.
That being the case, the financial numbers don't show the amount of money that the former president actually took home as income. For example, in Trump's 2017 disclosure, he listed his income for the Trump National Doral golf resort as $75 million, which matches the revenue number reported to Miami-Dade County. Net operating income for the resort for that year was dramatically smaller at $4.3 million.
Getting a clear picture of the former president's businesses is further complicated by the fact that income and asset values are listed in very wide ranges. For example, Mar-a-Lago Club is listed as having a value of "over $50,000,000." The Trump National Golf Club in Charlotte is listed as worth between $5 million and $25 million.
Yet another complication is that the Trump Organization itself has contradicted its own numbers in disclosures. The Trump Organization contested Palm Beach County's $19.7 million valuation for the Trump International Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, as being too high.
But the former president's government disclosure to the Office of Government Ethics valued the property at more than $50 million. This inflated the value of the former president's property to the public even as he was trying to deflate its value for tax purposes.
This lack of information means that any attempt to put a number on the former president's net worth is, at best, an educated guess and would require more information than has been disclosed.
Equally important: Because we do not know the expenses of the businesses listed, it is impossible to figure out Trump's personal income from his own disclosures.
Public prosecutors are trying to answer these and similar questions. Trump and his company are being investigated by the New York State attorney general over how the Trump Organization values assets on financial statements used to obtain loans.
The Manhattan district attorney appears to be investigating similar claims of inflated asset values. The former president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has testified that Trump regularly inflated the value of company assets to get better loan terms.
On Feb. 22, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a subpoena by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. for Donald Trump's tax returns, as well as other financial records. Due to grand jury secrecy rules, they were not made public.
All of these developments cast doubt on the value of unaudited self-reported financial data from the Trump Organization.
Trump's Current Wealth
Despite these obstacles, valuable information can be gleaned from Trump's financial disclosures, especially in concert with other information.
Forbes has used financial disclosures and a plethora of other sources to come up with an estimate of Trump's net worth after he left office. The publication currently pegs it at around $2.4 billion. This should be regarded as a rough estimate, even though the publication did as thorough a job as possible given the dearth of information.
This $2.4 billion represents a significant drop, having fallen from $3.1 billion since the end of 2019. This is largely due to the damage COVID-19 has done to the hotel and casino industries.
The second important financial number we can glean from these documents is that Trump and his businesses generated a minimum of $446.3 million in revenue in 2019, which is up 2.6% from $434.8 million the previous year.
Also available are specific revenue numbers for some of Trump's business interests. The numbers provide a general idea of which Trump businesses are the largest revenue generators and whether revenue is rising or declining.
The Real Sources of Wealth
The former president's businesses generally fall into five categories: hotels, golf courses (or some combination of the two), condos, residential and commercial real-estate rentals, and payments for the licensing of Trump's name.
The New York Times articles unleashed a major new source of information, besides confirming that Donald Trump's disclosed income numbers were actually revenue figures.
The numbers also show that companies owned by Trump were incredibly unprofitable for the period between 2000 and 2018. His real sources of income were a television show and some licensing deals.
Although certain enterprises such as Trump Tower have been profitable, Trump businesses overall lost $174.5 million from 2000–2018. During the same period of time, his net income from licensing and endorsement deals was $230 million, his net income from The Apprentice television show was $197.3 million, and his income from other investments in companies run by other people was $178.7 million.
Top 5 Businesses Owned by Donald Trump
The list below is limited to businesses for which a specific revenue amount was given. The numbers are the latest available from documents.
1. Trump National Doral
- 2019 Revenue: $77,207,936
- 2018 Revenue: $75,962,848
- 2019 Asset Value: Over $50,000,000
- Business Type: Golf Resort
What is now the Trump National Doral golf resort was founded in 1962, in Doral, near Miami. Trump bought the resort out of bankruptcy for $150 million in 2012.
The Doral was the source of considerable controversy in 2019 when the former president announced plans to hold the 2020 meeting of the G7 at Trump National Doral. He withdrew the proposal after accusations that this was an attempt to profit from his presidency.
2. Trump Old Post Office LLC
- 2019 Revenue: $40,523,041
- 2018 Revenue: $40,842,294
- 2019 Asset Value: Over $50,000,000
- Business Type: Hotel
This business is a holding company for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which operates in the Old Post Office building, a national landmark. Trump's company holds a long-term lease on the property, owned by the U.S. government, which could last nearly 100 years with extensions.
The hotel was at the center of a major emoluments case against the former president. A group of hotel and restaurant owners sued Trump for violating the emoluments clause, alleging that he was unconstitutionally profiting from his office because his hotel gets the business of foreign officials staying there to curry his favor. The group argued that this gave the former president's hotel an unfair competitive advantage against their businesses.
Possibly as a result of lawsuits and public criticism, the Trump Organization planned to sell its lease to the property. They were seeking a purchase price of more than $500 million, one of the highest-priced hotel deals per room ever. The sale process was placed on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Trump Ruffin Tower LLC
- 2019 Revenue: $27,677,448, divided between $4,414,500 in condo sales and $23,262,948 in hotel revenue
- 2018 Revenue: $28,558,298, divided between $6,002,244 in condo sales and $22,556,054 in hotel revenue
- 2019 Asset Value: Over $50,000,000
- Business Type: Hotel and Condominium Complex
Trump Ruffin Tower LLC manages the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Las Vegas. Constructed in 2008, the tower is a combination hotel and condominium development.
It struggled as the Great Recession hit when it opened more than a decade ago, devastating the real estate market. Plans for a second tower were scrapped.
4. Trump Turnberry
- 2019 Revenue: 25,691,318
- 2018 Revenue: $23,446,634
- 2019 Asset Value: Over $50,000,000
- Business Type: Golf Resort
Originally built in 1906 by Archibald Kennedy, the third Marquess of Ailsa, Trump Turnberry is one of two golf resorts the former president owns in Scotland.
Trump purchased the Turnberry resort from a Dubai-based company for an undisclosed sum.
5. Mar-a-Lago Club LLC
- 2019 Revenue: 21,432,344
- 2018 Revenue: $22,692,146
- 2019 Asset Value: Over $50,000,000
- Business Type: Hotel and Resort
The Mar-a-Lago Club was built as a private mansion in 1927 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who inherited the Postum Cereal Company, which later became the General Foods Corporation.
In 1968, she decided to donate Mar-a-Lago to the U.S. government to serve as a winter White House. When she died in 1973, the government refused the gift due to its high maintenance costs.
The estate was purchased by Trump in 1985 for a reported $8 million. He used it as a winter White House and continues to operate it as a private resort club.
The year 2020 was challenging for the former president's businesses because the COVID-19 pandemic hit the hospitality industry hard.
A study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) found that nearly nine in 10 hotels resorted to furloughs or layoffs in 2020. More than half of the hotel owners surveyed said they were in danger of losing their properties to foreclosure.
The Trump Organization laid off roughly 1,500 employees due to COVID-19 as of the beginning of April 2020, including 560 at Trump National Doral.
Trump's largest business by revenue, Trump National Doral, had to close in March along with many of his other properties.
It reopened in June 2020 along with several other Trump hotels.
Trump's Failed Businesses
Trump's current businesses give only a partial picture of his record as a businessman. Over the course of his several decades as a real estate executive, he has created a long list of companies that have been sold or dissolved, or which have gone bankrupt.
Trump companies have filed for bankruptcy six separate times, a fact Trump has bragged about, saying he has "used, brilliantly, the laws of the country."
One Decade of Business Dealings
A useful snapshot is Trump's record during the 10 years before he won the presidency. From 2006–2016, The New York Times went through every business deal that the Trump Organization announced or that was reported.
The 60 deals reflected a highly uneven track record of business success: "One-third of them never got off the ground or soon petered out. Another third delivered a measure of what was promised—buildings were built, courses taught, a product introduced—but they also encountered substantial problems, like lawsuits, government investigations, partnership woes, or market downturns...The remaining third, while sometimes encountering strife, generally met expectations," according to The New York Times.
Any deeper examination of the former president's business record would be incomplete without looking at his series of high-profile bankruptcies and other failures. Below is a list of some of the highlights, although it is by no means comprehensive.
In the early 1990s, Donald Trump faced personal bankruptcy due to large personal debts, deteriorating finances, and a trio of money-losing casinos in Atlantic City. His largest casino, Trump Taj Mahal, had already declared bankruptcy in 1991.
To deal with this, Trump launched an initial public offering (IPO) of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. The public offering raised enough money for Trump to avoid personal bankruptcy and allowed him to offload his heavily indebted casinos to investors. Trump stepped down in 2009 as chairperson of the company, whose name had been changed to Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2005.
By then, the company had gone through bankruptcy twice and investors had lost "well over 90 cents on the dollar," according to billionaire Warren Buffett.
Trump Entertainment Resorts went back into bankruptcy in 2014 and was sold to Icahn Enterprises (IEP) in 2016, resulting in Trump losing his stake in the company. The Taj Mahal, which Trump spent $1.2 billion to build in 1990, was later sold by Icahn Enterprises for $50 million, or 4% of its cost, to Hard Rock International in 2017.
Trump Model Management
Trump Model Management was a modeling agency Trump founded. The company is a natural extension of Trump's interest in beauty pageants, with his production company formerly producing Miss USA pageants and a TV tie-in titled Pageant Place.
In April 2017, news that Trump Model Management would shut down surfaced after an email from the company's president leaked. Some speculate that the decision to shut down was due to the accusations from some foreign-born former models that they had been hired without the necessary work visas.
Trump Model Management denied using illegal labor practices. Trump himself held an 85% stake in the business before it dissolved.
The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative
The now-defunct Trump Entrepreneur Initiative was once known as Trump University. The for-profit education company offered courses in real estate, asset management, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation.
The company was not an accredited school and did not offer high school or college credits.
The company was embroiled in an ongoing, high-profile scandal during Trump's presidential campaign, and it continued into his tenure as president.
The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative faced a lawsuit in 2013 alleging illegal business practices. The New York state attorney general filed a $40 million civil suit that alleged the corporation made false promises to its students.
A New York judge found Trump personally responsible. In late March 2017, when Trump was serving as president, a judge approved a $25 million settlement for the defrauded students.
Trump Ice Natural Spring Water
Trump Ice was a bottled water brand. The winner of The Apprentice Season 2, Kelly Perdew, served as executive vice president of the organization.
The company's website no longer exists, and the product can no longer be found in national grocery chains or stores but some can still be found on eBay and other auction sites.
The company was used as a gimmick in the show's first season when contestants marketed and sold the product.
Launched in 2007, Trump Steaks was a line of beef products sold exclusively by The Sharper Image and QVC. Due to poor sales, the products were removed from distribution after just two months.