Donald Trump claims he only licensed his name for real estate projects developed by others. But an investigation of a dozen Trump deals shows deep family involvement in projects that often involved deceptive practices.
by Heather Vogell, ProPublica, with Andrea Bernstein and Meg Cramer, WNYC, and Peter Elkind, ProPublica
INCE DONALD TRUMP’S FORTUNES came surging back with the success of “The Apprentice” 14 years ago, his deals have often been scrutinized for the large number of his partners who have ventured to the very edges of the law, and sometimes beyond. Those associates have included accused money launderers, alleged funders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a felon who slashed someone in the face with a broken margarita glass.
Trump and his company have typically countered by saying they were merely licensing his name on these real estate projects in exchange for a fee. They weren’t the developers or in any way responsible.
But an eight-month investigation by ProPublica and WNYC reveals that the post-millennium Trump business model is different from what has been previously reported. The Trumps were typically way more than mere licensors or bystanders in their often-troubled deals. They were deeply involved in these projects. They helped mislead investors and buyers — and they profited handsomely from it.
Patterns of deceptive practices occurred in a dozen deals across the globe, as the business expanded into international projects, and the Trumps often participated. One common pattern, visible in more than half of those transactions, was a tendency to misstate key sales numbers.
In interviews and press conferences, Ivanka Trump gave false sales figures for projects in Mexico’s Baja California; Panama City, Panama; Toronto and New York’s SoHo neighborhood. These statements weren’t just the legendary Trump hype; they misled potential buyers about the viability of the developments.
Another pattern: Donald Trump repeatedly misled buyers about the amount (or existence) of his ownership in projects in Tampa, Florida; Panama; Baja and elsewhere. For a tower planned in Tampa, for example, Trump told a local paper in 2005 that his ownership would be less than 50 percent: “But it’s a substantial stake. I recently said I’d like to increase my stake but when they’re selling that well they don’t let you do that.” In reality, Trump had no ownership stake in the project.
The Trumps often made money even when projects failed. And when they tanked, the Trumps simply ignored their prior claims of close involvement, denied any responsibility and walked away.
The cycle is exemplified in Panama City, where the Trumps were involved in a project to build a massive tower and complex known as the Trump Ocean Club. The project’s unfortunate turns included bankruptcy, then, years later, the forcible ejection of the Trump Organization from managing the hotel.
There, as elsewhere, the Trump Organization disclaimed responsibility. It emphasized that it had merely licensed the Trump name to developers who handled everything from construction to marketing. “The Trump Organization was not the owner, developer or seller of the Trump Ocean Club Panama project,” it said in a statement last year. “Because of its limited role, the company was not responsible for the financing of the project and had no involvement in the sale of units.”
That was false. For starters, Trump arranged financing — his promised commission: $2.2 million or more — by bringing in investment bank Bear Stearns, which issued the bonds that paid for the Panama project’s construction.
Trump touted himself as a “partner” of the developer. His daughter Ivanka briefly boasted that she had personally sold 40 units. (A broker on the project said he couldn’t remember her selling even one.) Meanwhile, Ivanka told a journalist at the time that “over 90 percent” of the Panama units had sold — and at prices five times as high as comparable buildings. Both statements were untrue.
Not only were the Panama sales figures inflated, but many “purchases” turned out to be an illusion. That was no coincidence. The building’s financing depended on obtaining advance commitments from buyers, often before concrete had started pouring. But in between the sale of the bonds in 2007 and 2013, the year the building went bankrupt, buyers of 458 units in the 1,000-unit building abandoned their purchase contracts. Those buyers forfeited more than $50 million in deposits, and they never took possession of finished units. Given that the “buyers” were often shadowy shell companies or other paper entities, it was nearly impossible to discern who the actual purchasers were, let alone why they backed out.
Trump licensed his name for an initial fee of $1 million. But that was just the beginning of the revenue streams, a lengthy and varied assortment that granted him a piece of everything from sales of apartment units to a cut of minibar sales, and was notable for the myriad ways in which both success and failure triggered payments to him.
Consider the final accounting: In the wake of the project’s bankruptcy, a 50 percent default rate and his company’s expulsion from managing the hotel, Donald Trump walked away with between $30 million and $55 million.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a long list of questions about its transactions. The White House didn’t have a comment.
Trump’s licensing strategy originated with his early-2000s comeback, as “The Apprentice” propelled him to international TV stardom and restored luster to a reputation tarnished by multiple bankruptcies. As Trump put it in one promotional video during that period, “When the first season of ‘The Apprentice’ finally finished shooting, I was able to get back to my core business, real estate, and I’ve made some really incredible deals.” That strategy is still playing out today. The Trump Organization, which pledged not to launch new projects during the Trump presidency, is aggressively pursuing existing ones, including in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and India. Continue: The Trump Family Lied to Push Their Deals Around the World. And They Profited.