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Trump Family Business Faces Post-Election Reckoning


NOVEMBER 15, 2020

When President Trump leaves the White House in January, he will face some of the deepest financial and legal challenges in his family business empire in decades.

No matter what he focuses on after the presidency, the businesses will require his attention. Two New York investigations will continue after he leaves office and the Trump Organization will need to avert a potential cash crunch caused by looming debt maturities at the firm’s real estate holdings. Personal guarantees Mr. Trump made on some of the organization’s debt add urgency to shoring up its financial position.

Trump Organization executives say a key focus will be growing the brand globally once Mr. Trump leaves office. Yet those plans will face hurdles. In China—a market long eyed by Mr. Trump—the president has become deeply distrusted after his trade war damaged U.S.-China relations. In Europe, some of the Trump trademarks have been eliminated by legal challenges.

The Trump Organization might soon slim down. Several properties are for sale, including its Washington hotel and two skyscrapers in New York and San Francisco that are part-owned by the Trump Organization. The organization also has been considering selling its Seven Springs estate outside of New York City, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.

Any sales could help the family avert a lending crunch. The Trump Organization has more than $400 million of debt due in the next few years and many lenders have indicated they are wary of doing business with Mr. Trump.

Additionally, the pandemic has hurt business at Trump hotels and resorts, and the financial benefits some get from Mr. Trump being in the White House could decline.

Trump Organization executives say its businesses are healthy. “The Trump Organization is an incredible company with tremendous cash flow. We have never been stronger,” the company said.

It is unknown whether Mr. Trump will want to resume an active management role. When elected, he turned over management of the business to his sons Eric and Donald Jr. while keeping ownership. Some Trump associates predict the president will return to his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York. “He won’t be able to help himself,” longtime friend and business partner Phil Ruffin previously told the Journal.

Others, including former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney expect he could run for president again. Mr. Mulvaney said in recent days he “would absolutely put him on the shortlist of people likely to run in 2024.”

Since Mr. Trump launched his run for the presidency in 2015, his businesses have become closely linked with the GOP. Republican spending at Trump properties has topped $23 million since 2015 compared with less than $200,000 in the five years prior, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Those revenues will likely decline, including $37,000 of monthly rent payments the Trump campaign has made to Trump Tower in New York. The office tower, where the Trump Organization is based, has suffered from falling occupancy rates since Mr. Trump took office, the Journal previously reported.

Other properties have fared better, including the two office towers in San Francisco and Manhattan in which Mr. Trump owns a minority stake alongside Vornado Realty Trust. Vornado now says it is considering selling the buildings, known as 555 California Street and 1290 Avenue of the Americas, and people involved say potential deals could include the Trump Organization’s stakes in the properties.

In Washington, the Trump International Hotel in Washington has been a favorite gathering spot for GOP staffers, lobbyists and activists. The Trump family began exploring a sale of its rights to the hotel before the coronavirus hit, and people familiar with the situation say that while there has been significant interest from possible buyers, the pandemic has delayed any transaction.

Financial challenges facing the Trump Organization are compounded by long-running legal issues, with New York probes of Mr. Trump’s businesses set to continue after he leaves office. Mr. Trump has also been contending with an Internal Revenue Service audit of his finances.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a Democrat, has been pursuing years of Mr. Trump’s financial records, and says criminal tax fraud and falsification of business records are among the laws investigators believe may have been broken. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have sought to block a subpoena for the records, arguing the request was overbroad and issued in bad faith.

Another investigation, by New York state’s Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat, is examining whether Mr. Trump inflated asset values to obtain loans and get other economic and tax benefits. The Trump Organization has called the investigations politically motivated and denied wrongdoing.

Mr. Trump is unusual among U.S. presidents because much of the legal scrutiny he faces today stems from actions before he became president, said Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“The fact that Trump thought he could run for president and be president with potential clear irregularities in his financial background and not be discovered, that’s the most surprising part to me,” he said. “It reinforces that he did not fully appreciate what it meant to be president.”

With Mr. Trump in the White House, the Trump Organization said it has put foreign deal-making on hold. But Eric Trump said in an interview this summer that growing internationally would be a key focus when his father left office.

Polls suggest that Mr. Trump’s strident nationalism and trade protectionism made him unpopular in many countries, including China, where he previously sought to benefit from the country’s growth.

Victor Gao, a well-known Chinese expert in international business and diplomacy, said that some Chinese business people might be wary if Mr. Trump tried to expand there. On the other hand, he said, China’s government wouldn’t block Mr. Trump from doing business there, and instead may see an opportunity to make him an ally.

“If he really makes some money out of China, that’s not a problem. He can be a positive example to show that there is no use to become an enemy of China,” he said.

The Trump Organization says it is confident in its ability to expand internationally. It says it has “no doubt that when and if we decide to expand again internationally, there will be no shortage of opportunities.”

The Trump Organization recently lost a series of legal battles over the exclusive use of the Trump name in the European Union’s 27 countries. The continuing trademark challenges could complicate the Trump Organization’s ability to use the Trump brand across a variety of business areas, including real-estate development, gambling, golf equipment and alcohol.

The dispute pitted the Trump Organization against Belgian entrepreneur Axel Goethals, who convinced the European Union Intellectual Property Office that Mr. Trump’s limited business in Europe didn’t justify him maintaining an array of trademarks.

“This will have absolutely no impact on our ability to do any business going forward,” said Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the Trump Organization spent more than $100 million to buy and renovate the Trump Turnberry golf resort. That property hasn’t turned a profit since Mr. Trump bought it in 2014, records show. This summer, around 70 staffers at Turnberry were cut, say former employees.

The Trump Organization said it has been investing heavily in Turnberry to make it one of the world’s top golf resorts.

Those challenges notwithstanding, the Trump family says it believes the president’s supporters will stick with them. For example, Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., will still be a draw, said member Whitney Schneider. “People will always want to see Mar-a-Lago and they’ll always want to see where the president lives,” she said.

Courtesy/Source: WSJ