The opening credits for “The Apprentice” in the show’s introductory 2004 season were unsubtle. Private jets, high-rise office buildings, a close-up on the Mercedes logo on a car. With those images, the show’s host, Donald Trump, teased the sort of wealth that he enjoyed. It was at least the third time that Trump’s business acumen had been presented to the American public anew, and it was almost certainly the iteration of that story that was most responsible for the results of the 2016 presidential election.
At the center of the show’s proposition was that, under Trump’s tutelage, random energetic business junkies could re-create his success. They were apprenticing with him, with Trump, the guy who took his father’s mishmash of real estate investments and built an empire on the island of Manhattan. That Trump built his wealth himself was essential to the show and to his candidacy.
On the campaign trail, Trump admitted that he got a “small loan” from his father that he used as a seed, about $1 million, but insisted that he had paid his father back, with interest. When I wrote about that comment in October 2015, I got a call from Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s spokeswoman and campaign manager respectively, complaining about the skeptical framing of the article. It was the only time that the pair directly took issue with something I wrote.
That version of events was always worth taking with a grain of salt, if only because of Trump’s proven record of embellishing his business success. His own personal estimates of his net worth, which he at one point admitted were largely subjective, were always substantially higher than those of outside observers. The Trump Organization is a privately held company, so it’s hard to be precise, but Trump’s most recent estimate, offered during the campaign, was that he was worth $10 billion. The most recent estimates from Forbes and Bloomberg are more in the range of $3 billion.
Part of that is a function of the declining value of his real estate investments, itself a function, in part, of some blowback against Trump since he got involved in politics. Forbes reported Tuesday that income from some of Trump’s premier properties declined sharply after he switched industries in 2016. He also suffered from the decline in brick-and-mortar commercial real estate, particularly in New York City.
One reason we do not know Trump’s net worth is that he has not released any tax returns to the public, a departure from decades of presidential precedent. Trump insists that he has nothing to hide and that his returns are under audit, a perennial headache he suffers through.
On Tuesday, the New York Times provided evidence for another reason Trump might not want to release his tax returns: You can learn a lot about someone’s finances by dipping into them.
In an exhaustive report that reads more like a criminal indictment than a news story, the Times described how Trump’s father, Fred Trump, took extraordinary — and often seemingly illegal, in the Times’s estimation — steps to shield his wealth from taxes. It included such alleged schemes as creating a shell company that was used to buy appliances for the Trump Organization’s many rental properties, then jacking up the appliances’ price, with the differential flowing to Donald Trump and his siblings. Had Fred Trump cut checks to his kids for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he would have been taxed on it. By making them the beneficiaries of Trump Organization overspending to the shell company, that was avoided.
That “$1 million” loan Trump got from his father was, in fact, much higher, the Times reported. We already knew that it was probably higher than reported, thanks to prior reporting that put the figure closer to $14 million. But the Times had it much higher — with Trump getting a seed of $60.7 million from his father.
Why does that matter? For one thing, as the story notes, it makes his subsequent financial success seem much less dramatic. Had Trump invested that loan in a fund that simply tracked the S&P 500, he would today be worth just shy of $2 billion, about $1 billion less than what Forbes estimates he is actually worth. “Loans” of $1 million or $14 million are less dramatic in their effect.
That alone cuts at the heart of “Trump the businessman.” But so do other details in the Times article, including this brutal paragraph explaining a tour of New York that Trump gave a Times reporter in the mid-1970s.
In the chauffeured Cadillac, Donald Trump took The Times’s reporter on a tour of what he called his “jobs.” He told her about the Manhattan hotel he planned to convert into a Grand Hyatt (his father guaranteed the construction loan), and the Hudson River railroad yards he planned to develop (the rights were purchased by his father’s company). He showed her “our philanthropic endeavor,” the high-rise for the elderly in East Orange (bankrolled by his father), and an apartment complex on Staten Island (owned by his father), and their “flagship,” Trump Village, in Brooklyn (owned by his father), and finally Beach Haven Apartments (owned by his father). Even the Cadillac was leased by his father.
Not only was he playing with house money, he was playing in the house casino. The extent to which Trump’s depiction of himself as largely self-made was further undercut by one specific observation made by the Times: He was a millionaire before he was out of elementary school.
But there’s another bit of mythology that the Times seems to hobble. Trump’s presentation of himself is as a savvy manipulator of the rules. On the campaign trail, he would argue that his use of offshore labor to produce his products or his contributions to politicians were examples not of hypocrisy but of his shrewdly employing loopholes to his company’s own benefit. His campaign even waved off reports about his not paying income taxes by saying he had a “fiduciary responsibility” to pay as little tax as possible.
What the Times presents, though, is a picture not of shrewd manipulation of the rules but an at-times willful disregard for them. Fred Trump is the architect of the effort to shield his children’s inheritances from excessive taxes, but Trump is presented as both a participant in the effort and, at times, an innovator.
Even coming into 2016, the Donald Trump that Donald Trump wanted people to see was already divergent from reality. But the simplified mythology of Trump that powered his political career was established in that 2004 sequence from the first season of “The Apprentice.”
That was also the year, according to the Times, that a cash-strapped Trump convinced his siblings to sell most of the property they had inherited from their father. The master dealmaker who would soon become the face of American business on prime-time television engineered a sale in which the properties reportedly went for $200 million less than they were worth.