TIMOTHY L. O’BRIEN: Take a look inside Trump's often bizarre business empire
'Trump isn’t like most presidents. His financial disclosure – imperfect, subjective and stocked with a porn-star payment – is evidence of that'
Thanks to the Office of Government Ethics, a US federal agency created after the Watergate scandals to curb the kind of flagrant conflicts of interest that are hallmarks of the current White House, we just received our annual accounting of President Donald Trump’s personal finances.
The big reveal in the document made public on Wednesday is that Trump belatedly disclosed a payment of between $100,001 and $250,000 to his personal lawyer and self-described “fixer,” Michael Cohen. The disclosure states that the president fully reimbursed Cohen in 2017, but doesn’t say for what exactly. It’s reasonable to assume, as everyone has already, that the funds covered Cohen for the $130,000 in hush money he paid Stormy Daniels, a porn star who claims she had a sexual encounter with the president.
The president, Cohen and another gaffe-prone Trump adviser, Rudy Giuliani, have spent months tying themselves in knots with conflicting accounts about Trump’s involvement with Daniels.
While disclosure of a payment doesn’t clear up matters entirely, it does establish that the hush money came from Trump. But it won’t fully put to rest a debate about whether that payment, channeled through Cohen right before the 2016 presidential election, violated campaign finance laws. And because Trump didn’t disclose the payment last year, when he should have, the OGE’s acting director has asked the Justice Department to consider whether the disclosure was “relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing regarding the president’s prior report.”
This is all seedy, of course, and degrades the dignity of Trump’s office. Cohen’s also the subject of a federal fraud investigation, and the recent drumbeat of revelations about him, Daniels and Trump could spill into that probe. If Trump violated campaign finance laws or disclosure requirements in connection with the Daniels payment then he may have legal vulnerabilities. But it’s not clear that he does – and even if he does, how consequential any charges might be.
So while sex helps sell the disclosure form to the general public, the humdrum details in the rest of the report may matter most. All 92 pages – in line after mind-numbing line describing the hodgepodge of shell companies, trademarks, licensing deals, skyscrapers, golf courses and other assets that the president owns or draws income from –remind us just how deeply conflicted he is. His business activities are global, and thus loom uncomfortably over his every bit of diplomacy as the nation’s chief executive. Meanwhile, there are serious questions about whether his more extensive US interests taint White House policy making.
Everything in the disclosure is self-reported, so readers have to rely on Trump’s own veracity. Allowing an independent auditor to assess the president’s portfolio would go a long way toward making the report more useful, but that’s unlikely to happen during his presidency.
Trump claimed ownership of assets and investments worth at least $1.4 billion in his disclosure and said they generated revenue and income last year of at least $453 million. His previous report in 2017 claimed revenue and income of at least $597 million from assets and investments also worth at least $1.4 billion, but the period covered was about 16 months so it can’t be compared directly to this year’s disclosures. Trump revealed debts of about $311 million this time, with creditors including Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank AG.
When Trump filed his first personal financial disclosure form while running for president, his team putting the report together had trouble with terminology even while boasting of Trump’s “incredible” wealth. They regularly cited “revenue” from Trump’s businesses as “income” to Trump. (“Income” should be the amount of money Trump puts in his own pocket each year and “revenue” the amount of money his businesses pull in – before expenses and other goodies that reside above the bottom line.) Team Trump’s past penchant for conflating personal income with business revenue is gone from this year’s report, perhaps because the OGE was more firmly in charge.
Still, some of the eccentricities of past reports remain. Trump lists 565 positions he holds outside of the federal government, including his membership on the board of the Police Athletic League. He also owns a surprisingly wide variety of equity index funds, many containing sums in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars – hardly the amounts your typical mega-billionaire stuffs into the market.
Trump also owns gold, the go-to investment for market bears. He still has an interest in a mattress company branded with his name, though that had paltry revenue last year. Trump Drinks Israel LLC is still around. It was the successor to Trump’s failed vodka business and only sold kosher vodka to Israel, even though the company’s based in Delaware. Trump has yet to punt a business with a name that seems suited to the political moment: Trump Follies LLC.
That’s all pretty small stuff, though. Trump’s bigger enterprises experienced financial ups and downs. Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach club, and Trump National Doral, a US golf course bought in 2012 for a handsome price, each suffered apparently significant revenue hits, though, again, it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons between this year’s report and last year’s. Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel – which sits on federal government land, meaning the president is essentially leasing the property from himself – appears to be humming along nicely, as do one of his Scottish golf courses and his Irish golf course.
The disclosure forms don’t require Trump to provide detailed information about his business partners, and that can make it harder to discern any broader problems lurking in the portfolio. Regardless, the sheer volume of operations speaks to just how easy it might be for Trump to mingle policymaking with dealmaking. Think about last Sunday, for example, when the president took to Twitter to let the Chinese know he loves them:
Trump’s sudden willingness to perform an about-face on his own administration’s decision to effectively put ZTE out of business – by cutting it off from US suppliers for violating trading sanctions – could have been influenced by any number of things.
Maybe Trump needed China’s help to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. So he tweeted. Maybe he was afraid of how effectively China was using its own tariffs to target the US farm belt, where Trump voters reside. So he tweeted. Or maybe he didn’t want to jeopardize China’s decision to pour $500 million into an Indonesian project that will include Trump-branded hotels. And so he tweeted. That latter idea would have been unthinkable if applied to most presidents in the modern era. But Trump isn’t like most presidents. His financial disclosure – imperfect, subjective and stocked with a porn-star payment – is evidence of that.