Faced with a crumbling empire, Donald Trump will struggle to come back
The US president entered office worth $3bn and will leave about $500m poorer, while his buildings are saddled with more than $1bn in debt
New York — On the day Donald Trump was getting impeached in Washington, the lobby of his New York tower at 40 Wall Street was almost silent. Few footsteps smudged the shiny marble.
But up the dark and golden elevators, trouble was stirring in one of the billionaire’s most valuable properties. Inside one law office, two partners had clashed over whether to keep paying rent to a landlord who encouraged the Capitol’s deadly riot. On the 24th floor, a non-profit that fights tuberculosis was exploring options for leaving. On the seventh, the Girl Scouts were figuring out how to break their lease.
And in the basement, vintage bank-vault doors that weigh more than 10 tonnes stood wide open. There, in a club room that Trump renovated, the news was playing on a jumbo television to an audience of empty armchairs just as Congress voted against him.
So it goes in Trump’s empire as his presidency slouches towards the end.
The Trump Organisation, run by sons Eric and Don Jnr, was struggling with the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic even before their father incited a raid on Congress. Efforts to sell his Washington hotel were shelved, his office buildings were losing value amid a glut of space in Manhattan, and his golf courses were facing the reality that younger generations are not so interested.
Trump entered office worth $3bn. Despite soaring stock prices and his own tax cuts, he will leave about $500m poorer, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.
His buildings are saddled with more than $1bn in debt, most of it coming due in the next three years and more than a third of it personally guaranteed. Refinancing would mean finding lenders and corporations willing to work with history’s only twice-impeached former president.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to him,” said Barbara Res, who was an executive in Trump’s company for years. “Will he come back? My gut tells me yes, because he always comes back. But he won’t come back the same.”
Trump has already survived corporate bankruptcies, rough times in Atlantic City, a school that ended with probes and dead-end brand journeys for Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka and even an airline. The man who made “America First” his catchphrase could now hunt overseas for partnerships and licensing deals.
Even so, Deutsche Bank, his longtime financier, will not touch him any more. Signature Bank, where his daughter Ivanka once served on the board, is closing his accounts. Cushman & Wakefield, a broker for 40 Wall Street, is cutting ties, and PGA of America is steering clear.
The biggest hits to Trump’s fortune are in New York, the heart of his empire, where the Queens-born developer turned into a reality star and then descended his own escalator to enter politics.
Outside Trump Tower, East 56th Street remains blocked, a parking lot for about a dozen black SUVs with government plates. The building is closed to visitors due to the pandemic, shutting Trump’s grill, bar, cafe and ice cream parlour.
Not that there are tourists around for winter sundaes. Fifth Avenue is almost deserted. Vacant storefronts are multiplying, and some remaining boutiques are now appointment-only. Rents have slid 32% from a 2018 peak, according to the Real Estate Board of New York.
Trump’s cavernous East 57th Street space is now subleased to the iconic Tiffany & Co jewellery store, but a new tenant will soon be needed.
High above, 150m² of Trumpian extravagance keeps getting cheaper. Apartment 55B, with blue lapis floors and medallion ceilings, is listed for $2.995m, about $2.5m less than four years ago. It is hardly an outlier. Prices at the skyscraper have slipped by a third since Trump took office, StreetEasy data show.
And even before the Capitol attack, his company was offering concessions to some tenants at 40 Wall Street, lender records show. The $137m debt at the property was added to lender watch lists in November after net income dipped below what underwriters expected when the debt was issued in 2015.
“I don’t believe his name is going to bring a premium currently,” said Warren A Estis, founding partner at real estate law firm Rosenberg & Estis and owner of an 86th-floor penthouse at Trump World Tower near the UN. Still, Estis said he has heard no rumblings from his condo board about stripping Trump’s name from the building.
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name is still a rose,” says Estis. “It appears Donald is very resilient and I expect he’s going to bounce back from this.”
New York City itself wants nothing to do with Trump. Officials plan to end more than $17m in contracts with the president’s family business, including a carousel and two ice skating rinks in Central Park, and a Bronx golf course.
“The City of New York has no legal right to end our contracts and if they elect to proceed, they will owe the Trump Organisation over $30m,” the company said in a statement. “This is nothing more than political discrimination, an attempt to infringe on the First Amendment, and we plan to fight vigorously.”
While police officers were keeping the public out of Trump Tower, including its Trump Store, there was also bad news for fans going online to nab Trump pint glasses for $55 or a Trump candle set for $80. Shopify is refusing to service the website, which has left customers with a warning that their connection is not private and “attackers might be trying to steal your information”.
Not long ago, the big question hovering over Trump’s return to the business world was whether the former reality television host would make a foray into conservative media, where product endorsements and licensing deals are legion. Now the talk in finance circles centres on whether he can defend his existing empire. He will have to convince lenders he is worth the risks and prove to developers his name retains enough cache.
“The presidency and Donald’s racist, sexist and xenophobic language has tarnished the brand to such an extent that it is valueless,” said Michael Cohen, his lawyer-turned-critic.
Eric Trump brushed off such assertions in an interview with the Associated Press this week, blaming “cancel culture” for recent hits to the family empire that he said posed no threat to the company’s finances. His father, he noted, still has armies of fans: “You have a man who would get followed to the ends of the earth by a hundred million Americans.”
One executive in conservative media who is still bullish on Trump’s prospects for creating a subscription-based video service conceded that recent events may limit possible platforms, advertisers and partners.
Still, the executive said that even controversial porn purveyors can find homes online. He estimated Trump could get 5-million to 15-million supporters to pay $10 a month for content, predicting gold hawkers and close friends would not balk at advertising.
The Trump Organisation could also look overseas. During his presidency, Trump pledged that his businesses would not sign new deals in foreign countries, but it continued to collect income from licensing arrangements in Turkey, the Philippines and India. His administration developed close ties in the United Arab Emirates, where he has previously done business, and Saudi Arabia, where his company considered projects before his ascent to the presidency.
Betting on rebound
Hussain Sajwani, chair of Dubai’s DAMAC Properties, said he would welcome the chance to expand his firm’s relationship with Trump. “We have a great relationship with the Trump Organisation, and, be assured, we have absolutely no intention to cancel our agreement,” he said in a statement.
The author of The Art of the Deal and The Art of the Comeback could try his hand at a return to publishing. Trump’s predecessors in the White House, president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, got a record-breaking $65m advance for their memoirs.
Trump may have created problems for himself here, too. Publisher Simon & Schuster cancelled a planned book by Trump ally Josh Hawley, citing the Missouri senator’s “role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom”.
At least for now, a return to politics isn’t out of the question. Betting website PredictIt pegs the odds that Trump will file this year to run again for president at about 30%. Recently, like so much else, that number has taken a tumble.
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