'White House, Inc.' Author: Trump's Businesses Offer 'A Million Potential Conflicts'
Forbes magazine investigative journalist Dan Alexander has pored over business records, mortgage documents and government reports — and even staked out some Trump properties — to assemble a detailed picture of the president's business interests. He says the president has broken a number of pledges he made about how he would conduct business while in office.
Other segments from the episode on September 22, 2020
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. While Donald Trump is never shy about touting his wealth and business acumen, he's not so willing to disclose hard information about his finances, such as his tax returns. And unlike other presidents, he opted not to put his business interests in a blind trust upon taking office. Our guest today, Forbes magazine investigative journalist Dan Alexander, has pored over countless business records, mortgage documents and government reports and even staked out some Trump properties to assemble a fairly detailed picture of the president's business interests. He says Trump owns over 100 different business entities. And despite the skepticism of some critics, he is a billionaire.
In his new book, Alexander also details dozens of examples of the president's business dealings that present potential conflicts with his responsibilities as a public official. Foreign nationals and governments, lobbyists and federal contractors pay millions in rent to Trump's commercial real estate holdings, to cite just one example. Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes. His book is "White House Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business." He spoke to me from his apartment in Jersey City, N.J.
Dan Alexander, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DAN ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: You open this book by describing going to an office tower in San Francisco. And to get in, I think you had to rent one of those little working spaces on one of the floors just so you could get in the building. You wanted to check out a particular office space. What were you after?
ALEXANDER: So I had seen a document a few months before that I sort of stumbled across. And when I stumbled across it, I was pretty shocked. It was a list of all of the tenants in 555 California St., which is sort of this anonymous building that not many people pay attention to but actually is Donald Trump's most valuable holding in his entire portfolio. He only owns a 30% stake of the building. But because the building is so valuable, that 30% stake is worth over $400 million, even after debt.
So I found this document that showed all the tenants in the building, which is a big secret of Donald Trump's business. You know, where is he actually getting his money? Who's paying him? And the answer is the tenants in his commercial real estate holdings, including this one. But it's hard to figure out who those tenants are. And so this document showed who all of the tenants were.
And on the 43rd floor, the documents showed Qatar Investment Authority. And when I saw it, I was really surprised because I'd never heard anything about it. And when I searched around online, I couldn't seem to find anything else about it. The Qatar Investment Authority - their website didn't list an office in 555 California St. There didn't seem to be any record of it anywhere. And so I got curious. Was this really true? And in order to figure that out, the only way to figure it out seemed to be to actually go to the building and to get inside and look at the office.
DAVIES: So would - you got there. What did you find?
ALEXANDER: So I get there. And it was, you know, this moment of the document that I wasn't sure if it was real or not coming to life. There was a beautiful office with Qatar Investment Authority written on the wall. The thing looked like it had been, you know, given a spectacular buildout. But the really strange part was that no one was there. There was no one at the front desk where, you know, the receptionist would normally be. A lot of the interior walls were glass, and so you can kind of see through it. There was no one in any of the conference rooms, no one anywhere. Even the - all the furniture looked like nobody had ever sat in it.
And so I knocked on the door. No one answered. And then I saw that on the front desk, there was a plant. I think it was an orchid or something. And it was totally brown, looked like it had been dead for months. And so this seemed to be an office that somebody was renting and not actually using. And so then your brain starts connecting these pieces. This is the Qatar Investment Authority, which acts as an arm of the Qatari government, renting an empty office space in Donald Trump's most valuable holding. And here it is, sitting in front of me. And no one knows that this is going on.
DAVIES: Right. So you did some calculation. Trump's - owns a 30% stake in the building. And so roughly, how much was the Qatari government paying for this office that they apparently weren't using?
ALEXANDER: It doesn't look like that much money. Assuming that they're paying market rates, then their full annual rent is about $450,000, which means that Trump's 30% cut of that, equivalent to his 30% ownership of the building, would work out to about $135,000 - not an amount of money that would matter to most billionaires. But Donald Trump is not like other billionaires.
DAVIES: And what do you mean by that?
ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I've spent years covering billionaires from all over the world for the Forbes 400 and the Forbes billionaires list. And a lot of these guys, you know, they don't care that much about small amounts of money. Frankly, they don't really care where Forbes puts them on the list. Donald Trump, more than anyone else, anyone that we've - and we said this before he was a political figure - cares about where he ranks in that list. And if you care that much about where you rank in that list, then you care that much about any little thing that you can do to get higher on that list.
And if you look through, it's not just the Forbes list. I mean, this is a guy who, you know, back in the late '80s, Spy magazine did this test where they sent - they tried to figure out, who's the cheapest rich person in New York? And so they sent checks to all these different people. And, you know, the first check - I don't remember the exact amount, but let's say it was a dollar. And they said, who's going to cash this check? And, you know, maybe a dozen people cash the check.
Well, they repeated the exercise over and over again to figure out who was actually the cheapest. And I think that the final number was like, you know, 37 cents or something like that. And there were only two people on the starting list who cashed the check. One was a Saudi arms dealer, and the other one was Donald Trump. He's a guy who cares about small amounts of money, even though it doesn't make any logical sense.
DAVIES: So this office that appears not to be used - and you spoke to people around there, and no one had ever seen anyone actually working in there. Explain why this matters. What was happening with Qatar during Trump's presidency that might have given them an incentive to send some money Donald Trump's way?
ALEXANDER: Right. So, you know, Trump arrives in office. And unlike, say, you know, the George W. Bush presidency or the Barack Obama presidency, there doesn't seem to be coming in a really clear Middle East policy, you know, where he is going to do X, or he's going to do Y. And so he's kind of a blank slate. And when he comes in, the very first trip that he takes is to Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis are U.S. allies, as is Qatar. But those allies are sort of fighting amongst themselves. And the Saudis are accusing the Qataris of funding terrorists.
So Trump goes over to Saudi Arabia. And he comes back convinced of this argument. And he says, you know, right away, well, you know, Qatar - and remember, he's speaking about a U.S. ally. You know, Qatar, unfortunately, has been a funder of terrorists historically. And everyone's kind of like, whoa, that's a pretty wild thing to say about a U.S. ally. And Trump sort of pitches it as, well, this is, you know, me doing business in an unconventional way. You know, somebody had to shake things up.
And so Qatar, after that, you know, goes on this big lobbying spree where they're hiring a bunch of people in Washington. They're really trying to repair their image and make sure that the United States, one of their most important allies, isn't accusing them of funding terrorists. And around that time is when the Qataris move into this - well, quote-unquote, "move in" - to this unoccupied office space in San Francisco, apparently figuring out a way to secretly funnel money into the president's business empire. And then the position that Trump takes on Qatar does a total 180. He invites the emir of Qatar to the United States. And on the second one, he says, you know, I'm so proud of you for all that you've done to fight against terrorism funding. And the emir of Qatar is sitting there in the Oval Office. And he's like, well, I just want to make something clear, Mr. President. (Laughter) You know, we were never supporting terrorist funding. And Trump just sort of nods along.
And then you go about a year after that. The emir of Qatar comes back to the United States. And this time, Trump rolls out the red carpet. They've got a huge dinner ready. Trump's invited a ton of businesspeople there. There were, like, 40 businesspeople in the audience and a third of them were billionaires. This is, you know, a who's who of America meets a who's who of Qatar. And where do they host it? - of all places, in something called the cash room of the Treasury Department, which is where the United States used to store, you know, its currency, its gold, its silver and that sort of stuff.
And Secretary Mnuchin stands up. And he says, you know, this room is a really fitting tribute to the economic and security partnership of the United States and Qatar. And then Trump stands up. And he says, you know, I just want to let you know - addressing the Qataris - that here in the United States, we really appreciate your investments. And so it's hard to get inside someone's head. But if you add up all of that timeline, it certainly leaves the question of, is U.S. policy being informed in part by business deals that are going on on the side that no one is aware of?
DAVIES: Right. And it's fair to note that the world is complicated. A lot of things can affect U.S. foreign policy. So you reached out to the White House, to the Trump Organization, to the other partners in the office building, to the government of Qatar. Did anybody offer you any explanation?
ALEXANDER: No. Reached out to all of them and the answers were either ask somebody else or no response or declined to comment.
DAVIES: I'm going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Dan Alexander. He's a senior editor at Forbes. His new book is "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Forbes senior editor Dan Alexander. He has a new book about President Trump's personal finances and potential conflicts they might pose with his duties as president. The book is called "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business."
You know, a lot of people have been skeptical that Trump is really a billionaire. I mean, he always...
DAVIES: ...Likes to tell you he's a billionaire. I'm remember when Michael Bloomberg got into the president's race, people said, do we need another billionaire in the race? And he said, well, who's the other (laughter) billionaire?
DAVIES: You've looked at it. And indeed, he is a billionaire, right? What's he worth?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, he is. You know, we've got him right now 2 1/2 billion dollars. We update it about every six months or so. So that number is as of about a month ago. But yeah, you know, if you go through his assets and you look at what he owns and you look at the income that they throw off and you look at the value of other similarly traded assets - it's just a math equation. You get to the end. And you find that he's worth 2 1/2 billion dollars. And it's nowhere near what Trump says he's worth. You know, he'd like to imagine these were $10 billion or something like that.
But it's also not true what his critics say - that he's broke or that, you know, he's never made a dollar in his life. It's just - you know, it's an example of (laughter) liberals doing what they get frustrated about conservatives doing, which is not looking at the facts and adding up the numbers and just going with what the data says. And if you look at his business, what the data says is that he's a billionaire, but not one that's worth - as rich as he claims.
DAVIES: Now, you write that when Trump occupied the White House, never before had someone assumed the presidency with such a large business reaching into so many areas - more than a hundred different entities he owns, as you say. What does federal law provide for government officials who have business that could present potential conflicts?
ALEXANDER: So there are some disclosures that all officials have to make. You know, they have to list, for example, all of the companies that they own. And they have to give some information about either the revenues or the profits that those companies generate. And so we know what he owns. We know a little bit from that about how profitable these companies are.
But you've got to go to a whole range of other documents to put together the full picture and understand really what his empire is, how much money it's generating. And then what they don't require, of course, is to show your tax returns. They also don't require you to say, for instance, who's putting money into those companies that you own. It's a very simple loophole that allows Donald Trump to basically follow the law without much disclosure about who's actually paying him because all of the money flows through shell companies.
DAVIES: Now, federal law doesn't require a president to place his or her business interests in a blind trust. It's been a tradition that other presidents have followed. For Trump to have done that, given that he owns a hundred different business entities, would he have to sell all that, basically, and put their value into something, simply, he doesn't control, like, you know, index stock funds?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. You know, I mean, if he were to truly have a blind trust - you can't have a blind trust and have a building that says Trump Tower on the outside of it. You know, how blind is that? (Laughter) Everyone can tell what you own including yourself. So you would have to divest those assets, hand it over to a trustee and then let that trustee invest in whatever they decided made the most sense based on what your financial goals were. So it could be an index fund, could be bonds, you know, but something that wasn't readily recognizable to everyone including yourself.
DAVIES: But if you say, well, I'm going to keep all the businesses but let somebody else manage them, that doesn't really prevent conflict - right? - because you know and contributors and favor-seekers all know who's - what your businesses are and how you might benefit them. So that really doesn't accomplish the same thing, right?
ALEXANDER: Well, that's right. And, you know, if you just think about it, I mean, how many business owners who are in their mid-70s are really on a very active, day-to-day-basis managing their businesses, especially ones that have other interests? Not that many. So what Trump has done, where he's basically handed over the keys to his kids - well, that's what anyone who is still in the business would probably be doing anyway. So there's really not a whole lot of separation there. And ultimately, the question is, who controls the money? And the person who controls the money, who owns the money, is the president.
DAVIES: You say he made three specific pledges to govern his business conduct while he was in office. What were they?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So one of them was to do - he was going to do no new foreign deals. And he ended up doing foreign deals anyways. Another one, that he was going to have outside ethics advisers review all new transactions that were coming into his business. That did not happen. Another one was that he wasn't going to talk with his kids about his business. Eric Trump, his son, told me in an interview inside Trump Tower that he was going to update his father on the business. And a fourth one I'll add is that he suggested that he'd donate all foreign profits, profits from foreign governments, to the U.S. Treasury. And that did not happen.
DAVIES: All right. There were some contributions from the hotel. But you did some calculate - that's the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which is built on a government space, actually, the Old Post Office. You did some calculations on his remittances from foreign governments there and found what?
ALEXANDER: Well, if you just do the math on the rent that flows in from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which rents space on the 20th floor of Trump Tower, and then you look at what the profit margins are on rent flowing into that building, you can see that just that one lease alone means that more than three times as much money from China is flowing into Trump's coffers than his business has donated in what it says are its profits from foreign governments. So they're doing something. But what they're doing is not what we thought it was.
DAVIES: So what's the scale of what he has remitted from foreign governments?
ALEXANDER: So what he handed over in 2000, you know, '17 and '18 was a total of about $350,000. And then in 2019, it was a similar figure. So you know, it's a hundred grand, 200 grand per year, which might sound like a lot of money. But remember, this is a guy whose, you know, businesses take in $191 million of commercial rent a year from lots and lots of different entities. And if you look at the amount that comes in, you know, from this Chinese bank or from the Qataris, who are in 555 California Street, or from the Bank of India that's also in 555 California Street, you get to a much higher figure than what he's actually donated.
DAVIES: And an issue that came up early in the Trump presidency was the fact that he was opening this - the Trump International Hotel in Washington. It occupies a building that's actually owned by the federal government - right? - by the General Services Administration, the Old Post Office building. And so the Trump Organization has a lease with the General Services Administration. And it actually has a provision that prevents any elected official from benefiting from the lease, right?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. That's right. And the provision seems pretty clear. You know, it says that no one shall be admitted to share any part of this lease or any benefit that may arise therefrom, provided, however - you know? It goes into - it's a bunch of legal language. But basically, it's saying that if you're a public official that you can't be on the lease. So when Trump becomes a public official, it seems pretty clear that he's not able to be on the lease. And then there's the other question of whether - by owning this hotel, it opens him up to violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits U.S. officials from collecting money from foreign governments.
And those two things are immediate issues on Day 1 of his presidency that the government has to consider how to handle. And ultimately, the GSA decides that he can, in fact, be a part of the lease. And part of their rationale there is that it's a shell company that owns the lease, not him personally. Well, of course, it is. I mean, that's how business works. No one would hold, you know, a lease that's worth $200 million, you know, in their own personal name. But that was one thing. And then the other part was the Emoluments Clause. And with the Emoluments Clause, they basically didn't weigh in, you know?
They said, we recognize that this could be an issue. But we have determined that we're not going to make a call on it. Basically, it's kind of above our pay grade. And then, when they went back and did an investigation of this, then, you know, they said, well, (laughter) sure, it's above your pay grade. But it's actually not above your (laughter) pay grade. You know, it might feel that way. But your job is to make sure that you and everyone else is following the Constitution. That's the fundamental, you know, first law and job of everyone in the government. And so by not making sure that this was compliant with that, you abdicated your responsibilities.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes. His book is "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business." He'll be back to talk more about the president and his family's finances after a break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Forbes senior editor Dan Alexander, who's assembled a detailed portrait of President Trump's personal finances and ways they may present conflicts with his responsibilities to the public. The book is called "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business."
So the Trump Organization's commercial real estate holdings are, I guess, a very big source of their revenue. And so you wanted to look at who is paying rent at these buildings, these big office buildings. There are a lot of them. Why is it hard to figure out?
ALEXANDER: The Trump Organization and the White House won't list - won't release a list of the president's tenants. And by law, although the president has to disclose, for example, that X shell company or Y shell company is providing him with, you know, say, over $5 million of revenue, they don't have to get more specific than that. They also don't have to then say who's putting money into those shell companies. So you don't know who the tenants are. And then if you go to the buildings, you know, you can see, for instance, like the retailers on the bottom floor. And so I did. I went to the buildings and, you know, I walked to try to figure out how big some of these spaces were. You know, I paced out with my boots, you know, boot over boot and measured the length of my boot to try to estimate, you know, what the square footage was. And then you could figure out what the market rate was per square foot and estimate how much money this tenant might be paying the president. That's how you have to figure out, you know, how much money is flowing in from who.
But then on the upper floors, especially in office buildings, you know, a law firm or a bank isn't going to put, you know, Barclays on the side of the building. So most of the money is stuff that's happening up above in the sky and you can't see that. And there aren't directories. You know, there was a directory at 40 Wall Street in the financial district in New York City, and we went in and took a picture of every page of the directory. And then after we did that, they removed the directory. But the other buildings - 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 555 California Street - there's no directory in there. And so it's really difficult to figure out who's in there, how much space they have and then what they might be paying. It's a big puzzle.
But ultimately through a lot of different methods, we pieced it together and identified more than 150 different tenants accountable for an estimated $177 million of revenue per year. And then you start tracing through who all those tenants are and what their connections are to the government. And that's where you can see just a million potential conflicts.
DAVIES: You cite a lot of specific cases in which entities are paying Trump substantial commercial rents that have interests before the government. Do you have any overall figures on things like government contractors or foreign entities paying rent to his commercial properties?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So if you look across, you know, the more than 150 different tenants, at least 35 of those tenants lobbied the federal government while their landlord was in office. At least 30 of them received more than $8 billion in federal contracts. So you have hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Trump's empire and billions of dollars flowing from Trump's administration to these companies. At least 17 faced federal investigations while their landlord was the president. And four government entities were renting space in Trump buildings.
DAVIES: Let me ask a naive question here. I mean, I've done reporting in Pennsylvania and there's a state ethics act, and it has a provision that says, you know, a public official can't make a decision which benefits himself or any member of his immediate family. It would seem that there are cases here that would fit, you know, that circumstance. Has anyone sued or sought to bring enforcement actions along about any of this?
ALEXANDER: So at the federal level, there is a very similar rule, the federal conflicts of interest statute, which says that you can't take any actions that will clearly benefit you personally or your spouse. But there is an exemption to that rule for both the president and the vice president. So every other vice president or president has acted like it pertained to them anyways just because of the optics of it. It looks terrible. But Trump did not choose to act like it pertained to him. And there's no legal restriction on him benefiting from his own power while he - you know, doing something to push money to his own properties. There are some other - it's not that he's totally free of any rules. There are some other things that he can't do. You know, he can't - bribery. He can't participate in bribes. He can't violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause. He can't violate the Domestic Emoluments Clause. But that basic conflicts of interest statute does not apply to the president.
DAVIES: You know, apart from President Trump's commercial real estate holdings, there's a lot of residential real estate. He owns a lot. What kinds? Where?
ALEXANDER: So, you know, Donald Trump at his core and in his earliest stages was a condo builder, you know, built towers and sold off the condos. That's what he did in Trump Tower, his first major successful deal. And he did it for years afterward. And so there's still a lot of condos that he owns in New York City where, you know, maybe he built a building and he sold off most of the units but not all of them. So Trump Park Avenue, which is at the corner of Park Avenue and 59th Street, he owns - I believe it's 17 condo units there. Trump Park East and Trump Park, which are both on the south end of Central Park, he owns another about dozen condo units there. On the southwest corner of Central Park in Columbus Circle, he owns a condo there in the Trump International Hotel & Tower. If you go eastward in Manhattan over to the East River at Trump World Tower, he owns another condo there.
And then he owns things in Chicago. There's a big building that he has there. And he owns 177 units in that building. In Las Vegas, he's partnered with a casino developer named Phil Ruffin. They had a big golden tower just off the Las Vegas Strip, and he owns a bunch of condo units there. He's got plots of land on a - right outside of one of his golf courses in California. And so all these different parcels are sort of small units and plots that he owns all over. And as he has been president, he's continued to sell off those lots and plots to the tune of about $117 million.
DAVIES: One of the transactions you describe as a purchase by a woman named Angela Chen of a Park Avenue penthouse from the Trump Organization. What did she pay? Why was this purchase of interest?
ALEXANDER: So Angela Chen, shortly after the election, agreed to buy a penthouse in Trump Park Avenue for $15.9 million. It's of interest not only because that's just a big number but also because it seems to be an above-market number. There is a basically an identical penthouse that had sold less than a year earlier for $1.8 million less than she was paying. And the value of penthouses and condos in that building were decreasing, not increasing. So you would have expected her to be paying a lower number than the previous buyer, not a higher one.
The other reason why it's of interest is because Angela Chen runs a business called Global Alliance Associates, which basically helps companies expand into China. And she boasts on her website that, you know, one of the things that she uses to help companies do this sort of thing are all of her connections with high-ranking government officials. So here she is, you know, just days after the election making a very clear, very big money connection with the incoming president of the United States by buying this penthouse that actually, it turns out, used to be the penthouse where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump lived, even though it was owned by Ivanka's father, Donald Trump.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Dan Alexander is senior editor at Forbes. His new book is "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Dan Alexander. He's senior editor at Forbes, and he has a new book about President Trump's personal finances and potential conflicts of interest they might pose. The book is called "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business."
The president loves golf and has bought a lot of golf courses, kind of went on a buying spree in recent years. Give us a sense of what he does with these clubs that he buys, like how he renovates them.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean, you know, he spends a whole lot of money on the things. You know, it's sort of - I think of Donald Trump's golf strategy sort of in the way that you might think of other billionaires' yachts strategy. You know, they like toys. Donald Trump loves to play golf, and he loves to buy golf courses. He loves to own golf courses. He loves to arrive in golf courses on his helicopters and have everybody, you know, come up to him and have him be the man, you know? That's something that really exhilarates him. And so he puts a ton of money into the things. And, you know, some of them have been decent investments. He made a couple, you know, in the middle of the recession that were OK. But by and large, it looks like it's just been a terrible investment. You know, most yachts aren't good investments either. So, you know, I guess, you know, billionaires have their vices and the things that they want to pursue. But from a business perspective, you know, Trump's golf portfolio does not make a whole lot of sense.
DAVIES: You know, you describe a property tax negotiation in Florida. Was this over Doral, I think?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It was over Doral. So Doral's his most important golf property in the United States.
DAVIES: Near Miami.
ALEXANDER: It does - it's in Miami. It's a huge golf resort. So, you know, most of his courses are sort of traditional clubs. You know, you have members, and the members pay fees and all that. But Doral is a resort, so it's really more like a hotel. And it's a big hotel. It's a hotel with 643 rooms, four golf courses, you know, almost a thousand acres in the middle of Miami. It's really a spectacular property. But Trump's finances there really, really took a hit after he became president. You know, a lot of his businesses are not very consumer facing. For example, if you own a office building, OK, you are signing a bunch of, you know, corporate tenants. They're signing, you know, 10-, 15-year leases. That's not something that if they're mad at Trump's policies, they're just going to be able to easily say, OK, well, we're moving buildings. But if you basically have a resort or a hotel, well, if you don't like Trump's policies, you don't have to go stay at the hotel. You can go stay at the Hilton, you know, or you can go stay at the Biltmore or any other hotel that you want. So it's one of the most consumer-facing businesses that he has. And as a result, after he becomes president and alienates, you know, half the country, including a lot of people in the Northeast where Doral had historically drawn huge numbers of customers, then the financials just plummet.
DAVIES: Has he used the presidency to drive business into his resorts?
ALEXANDER: Oh, no question. I mean, you know, the Republican National Committee has hosted enormous events at Doral and his own campaign has spent a lot of money at his properties. So there definitely are a lot of instances where he's taking political money or encouraging other people to spend political money or inspiring other people to spend political money at his properties. And if you add all that up, it's a huge amount of money, but it's still not enough to recover from all of the business that they lost. So the revenues at Doral, if you just take Doral, you know, have climbed from - they dropped from, like, $87 million before he becomes president to $75 million his first year in office. Then they tick up to 76, then they tick up to 77, and he's getting all this political revenue, which is nice, but really what he wants to be is at 87 and growing. You know, that's what a typical business would have done had he not become president.
DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things about looking at your book, you have essentially a balance sheet where you can see Trump's - what Trump's holdings are. And, you know, critics of Trump have had this alternate narrative about him that he, in fact, is a terrible businessman, that he got a fortune from his father, which you report. You estimate it was over $400 million in current dollars. You know, he does some deals, but then he makes all these stupid, ego-driven investments, buys the shuttle, buys a bunch of casinos, gets in debt, files bankruptcy, stiffs creditors and then reinvents himself as a reality TV star and does licensing deals but that he doesn't really do much substantive business. If I look at that balance sheet, actually, no, I mean, he really has a lot of revenue-producing properties and he's worth between $2 billion and $3 billion, right?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, he sure does. I mean, you know, Donald Trump's business is sort of a Rorschach test, you know? I mean, you can look at it and see what you want to see. He has done terrible businesses that have lost a lot of money. He has done great businesses that have made a lot of money. But, you know, what my job is at Forbes is to sit down and just look at the numbers and figure out - what are the value of these assets? What is the amount of debt that he has?
And you're right. You know, if you go through the properties and you look at - here's what he owns. Here's how much it brings in. Here's what it's worth. Here's the mortgages on it. And here's the debt. And you just add everything up, and you look at - you know, here are the values. And then you can also look at - here are the revenues. Here are the profits. It's a real business (laughter). I mean, this is not a made-up, you know, fantastical thing. He did inherit a ton of money, and he would be very, very rich even if he had just taken that money and just invested it in the S&P 500. But, you know, there are a lot of rich heirs who walk away poorer than the day that they inherited the money, and Donald Trump, to his credit, is now richer than he was when he inherited the money.
DAVIES: Right. Although, a lot of people would say that's to the discredit of, you know, creditors that he didn't pay (laughter).
ALEXANDER: There's no question that he has done business in a way that is unethical and that a lot of business people, you know, would and do shake their heads at.
DAVIES: You know, there are legal actions aimed at getting Trump's tax returns and other data from Deutsche Bank and other places, and these seem to have some momentum. What impact do you think they might have?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think that, you know, if you just look at what Trump's own lieutenants have said about his tax returns. You know, Michael Cohen, in sworn testimony before Congress, said that he believes that Trump does not want to release his tax returns because there are things that, you know, people will look at and that will cause him legal issues. And even Phil Ruffin, who's Donald Trump's best friend, partner on his project out in Las Vegas, a fellow billionaire - you know, I was with Ruffin in Las Vegas, and I asked him this very question. You know, what do you think - why do you think he doesn't want to release his tax returns?
And Ruffin said, well, you know, I wouldn't really want to release mine, either. I mean, you know, if you release them, then you've got, you know, a bunch of people like you - you know, pointing at me - a bunch of people like you and other reporters and other people who are obsessed with taxes just pouring over the things, looking for mistakes. And, you know, that - first of all, to anyone, that would be an uncomfortable thing. Nobody likes to be audited, certainly not to be audited by 5,000 people. But for the president, who, you know, has made some very aggressive tax moves in his past, that would be a very, very scary thing. And so, you know, I think that if they do come out, that there are going to be real questions about whether Trump was paying his fair share in taxes.
DAVIES: Well, Dan Alexander, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes. His book is "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into A Business." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new release from singer-songwriter Mickey Guyton, one of the few African American women recording country music hits. This is FRESH AIR.
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