When Donald Trump unveiled his new online travel booking venture, GoTrump.com, he said in a promotional video in 2006 that customers would “love everything I put on this site.” “There’s nobody better,” he added. “There’s nobody even close!”
A few months later, ground was broken for Trump Tower Tampa, a project he said would “redefine both Tampa’s skyline and the market’s expectations of luxurious condominium living.”
And when he signed a long-term deal with the fledgling U.S. Pro Golf Tour that summer to become a partner on a new championship series, he proclaimed that “there is no doubt the talent level is among the highest in the world.”
The travel venture never took off. The tower in Tampa, Fla., was not built. And the golf championships? Trump withdrew as the tour fell apart.
Moving past a disastrous period that led to a loss on paper of more than $900 million — possibly freeing him from federal income taxes for years — Trump became a one-man factory of big ideas, churning out a constant stream of projects and promises. Together they fed the image of Trump as an American Midas, the foundation of his argument for why he would make a great president.
To see whether the results of these ventures came close to their high-energy billing, The New York Times analyzed scores of Trump business announcements starting a decade ago, including those posted on the Trump Organization’s website and those that have been deleted but live on in web archives. The Times also combed through news reports, his personal financial disclosures and court records; interviewed partners; and interviewed Trump himself.
Of the roughly 60 endeavors started or promoted by Trump during the period analyzed, The Times found few that went off without a hitch. One-third of them either 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 — notably the television show “The Apprentice” and the purchases of numerous golf courses, including properties near Philadelphia and in the Hudson Valley.
In interviews, Trump disputed some of the characterizations, saying that, among other things, some projects that might appear to be failures were successes, for him at least, because he often made his money upfront, through fees for the use of the Trump name. The bottom line of all the hits and misses, however, is impossible to determine because Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has not released any tax returns.
Regardless of how much money a deal made — or did not make — one constant through the years is that these ventures were almost always introduced with a certain Trumpian flair: Each would set a “new standard” or be the “very, very best.”
Art of the spin
Jim Dowd, who advised Trump on public relations and marketing from 2004 to 2010, recalled that Trump typically took a personal interest in each news release, marking up drafts with a red pen he kept on his desk.
“We would draft a quote for him, but he would always rewrite it, making it much larger than life,” Dowd said in an interview earlier this year. (Dowd died last month.)
There were some common terms: “Huge, billions — those words would have to be in there,” Dowd said. “Definitely ‘unprecedented.’ Definitely ‘the best of the best.’”
For free publicity, Trump would also schedule news conferences to announce his deals, and he seemed to feast on the attention.
“He was so caught up in the glamour of the press conference and getting the lobby of Trump Tower filled with media,” Dowd said. “He would plop down the elevator, do his thing for 35 minutes, and he was pretty much in every media outlet the next day.”
Eventually, Dowd said, the throngs of journalists who attended Trump’s news conferences waned, as they asked Dowd, “Really, another one?”
Dowd thought Trump was putting himself out too often. “He was doing these all over the world,” he said. “He was flying to Panama to announce that project. He was flying to Puerto Rico; the golf course in Scotland.”
Trump said he recalled those visits fondly, though he demurred when asked if he had been overexposed in his business ventures. “It’s a big world,” he said. “You can do a lot of things.”
Sell the name
But the reality was that the success of “The Apprentice,” which averaged 21 million viewers weekly when it made its debut in 2004, had given Trump access to what seemed like an endless flow of business opportunities.
There were unrealized real estate developments in Atlanta; on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico; and in Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, an “elite destination that will be known worldwide in the years to come.” The hotel and golf club in Cap Cana bearing the Trump name, announced almost a decade ago, have not been built, and Trump ended up suing his partners over licensing fees.
There were entertainment endeavors: a concept for a Trump animation series akin to “The Simpsons”; a speaking tour in Australia that was canceled, though Trump did eventually go there for a round of lucrative speeches; and “Trump Tycoon,” a smartphone app that sold for “$2.99 but the advice is priceless,” as he wrote at the time on Twitter. He said recently that he did not recall the app, which is no longer available.
There were scores of Trump-branded products, with mixed success: vodka; magazines; suits; ties; chairs; bath towels; crystal; and perhaps the most famous one, Trump Steaks, sold by Sharper Image and “by far the best tasting, most flavorful beef that you’ll ever eat.” Some live on, but in general, they typically failed to match the initial hype before quietly disappearing.
And there was Trump University, a series of real estate seminars that, like many of Trump’s endeavors, wound up in the courts.
Trump’s name seemed to be just about everywhere.
But a close look reveals patterns, particularly before and after the financial crisis of 2008. (The Times did not analyze any projects begun after 2012, because a number of them were too new to evaluate.)
Until the crisis, Trump focused mainly on real estate developments, often mixed hotel-condominium projects. The market downturn thwarted some of those plans, and he began shifting more aggressively to smaller licensing agreements with makers of home products and goods.
The Trump Organization accelerated its focus on golf, buying clubs near Philadelphia; in Westchester County, N.Y.; in Doral, Fla.; and elsewhere. Despite occasional bumps, as when neighbors in Doral complained about noise and the course’s new view-blocking trees, the purchases have generally gone according to plan.
Where others might see disappointment, Trump is unfailingly upbeat when reflecting on his business ventures.
In the interviews, he maintained that his deals, for the most part, “are all tremendously successful.” And a number of them were, at least for him, because they were licensing arrangements that paid him millions of dollars in fees upfront regardless of how well the engagement turned out. Other times, he said, he showed his business acumen by canceling or delaying deals to avoid hitting a difficult market.
“All of my jobs work in some form or another,” Trump said, noting several times that he had more than 100 deals in progress or in negotiation. “A lot of people don’t understand.”
He harbored no regrets about how he had trumpeted his past engagements, explaining how his promotions were no different from what one might find in newspaper ads for a new car or home. “People use language that’s very much up there,” he said.
He acknowledged that sometimes he announced deals before they were fully baked. It was part of the plan, he said, to gauge the public’s response, like a trial balloon, to see whether a deal was worth doing.
“It is an awfully good way of testing things, I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “There’s no investment, as opposed to doing the deal and letting it be a failure.”
As president, Trump said, he might use the same approach to policymaking. “I guess you could say there will be a time where I may want to test something by talking about it publicly and seeing what the response is,” he said.
But he said that some of his campaign pledges were positively bankable.
“For instance,” he said, “we are going to build a wall. I’m going to build the wall.”