Column: Is the Trump Organization a mirage? At best, it’s a rat’s nest of hundreds of mini-companies
We barely know what the company was, back when it was Donald Trump’s leading phantom achievement.
That was in its heyday when the president’s son Eric, who now runs the Trump Organization with his brother Donald Jr., was still part of the Donald J. Trump Foundation — before the foundation dissolved after being accused of engaging in a “shocking pattern of illegality.”
That was in the days when Allen Weisselberg, the company’s venerable chief financial officer, was not yet under criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney.
That was way back when George Sorial, another Trump Organization executive, was still defending the fraudulent Trump University, which was dissolved several years after a previous New York attorney general called it a classic “bait-and-switch scheme.”
And that was way, way back when warhorse accountant Jack Mitnick devised a scheme in the Trump Organization to help Trump dodge more than $500 million in gift and inheritance taxes, before Mitnick was thrown off the Trump accounting team amid allegations of fraud and malpractice.
Now that New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James’ investigation into the Trump Organization is heating up, we run into a deeply existential question.
Is the Trump Organization a mirage?
“There is no Trump Organization,” Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, which handles the Trump Organization’s regular financial disclosures. “It’s just a loose umbrella term that vaguely refers to his many businesses,” he told me Wednesday.
According to its 2019 financial disclosure, the company is without a doubt less than rock solid. It’s a rat’s nest of hundreds of ambiguous limited liability companies — and woe betide anyone who tries to figure out what THC Central Reservations LLC and DT BALI Technical Services Manager LLC do.
Many of the mini-companies appear to barely exist, reporting “earnings” of less than $1,001 a year.
The president’s total assets are regularly given on financial disclosure forms as around $1.35 billion, and most of the assets are in the Trump Organization, which is loosely centered on brand licensing and real estate management. Of course, Trump is not, as he often claims, a “builder.” Instead, the Trump Organization manages properties and lends out the Trump brand and personal profile — a profile raised inestimably when he became president.
Some of these LLCs are run by Trump’s kids. Some have been run by Weisselberg. And at least one (an “aerospace” company) has been nominally headed by Matthew Calamari, Trump’s onetime bodyguard whom Trump hired because he spontaneously clobbered a heckler who disrupted a tennis game.
But over the years the Trump Organization has also held weirder companies, including Trump Drinks Israel, maker of kosher energy drinks, and Trump Ice, a bottled water company.
Trump Drinks Israel — pause on that name — is evidently now defunct, and if any rabbis were involved in koshering the sugary beverages, they’ve presumably been laid off. Trump Ice likewise seems to have gone under. The old Trump Ice link now leads to the online Trump Store (“Welcome to the World of Trump!”), which sells bath salts, a $140 citrus mango gift set with robe, and a metallic lip moisturizer ball.
The Trump Organization also used to make money from Trump’s speaking gigs. Among other speeches, he gave three in 2014 and 2015 for $450,000 each for ACN, a multilevel marketing company that has been accused of being a marketing pyramid scheme. Trump is being sued in New York by four people who allege that they were hoodwinked into investing in the company because of his endorsement.
Since Trump became president, many Trump-branded properties, including posh hotels in New York City, Toronto and Panama City, have removed the Trump stigma — that is, the Trump name. Others have shut down entirely.
And then came the pandemic. Restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus led the Trump Organization to close six of its most profitable clubs and hotels.
So with the university, the foundation, the kosher drinks, the speaking gigs, much of the real estate and the water dried up, what in the world is left of the Trump Organization?
“It’s a web of shell companies upon shell companies that are interlinked in some ways and not in others,” Shaub told me.
One thing the Trump Organization could be seen as is a creaky but hard-charging machine for fraud.
The New York state attorney general is investigating whether Trump and his organization improperly manipulated the value of Trump’s assets to score loans, economic advantage and tax benefits.
Atty. Gen. James also seeks to compel the Trump Organization to release financial information. She has further moved to force Eric Trump to testify since he has been left holding the bag at the Trump Organization as Donald Jr. campaigns for their father’s reelection.
If an organization’s chief assets include its leadership, it seems Eric Trump has suffered a devaluation akin to that of defunct Trump properties and disgraced Trump Organization executives, including, of course, President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is under house arrest for various crimes, including five counts of tax evasion.
Welcome to the World of Trump! Not exactly a citrus mango gift set.
When Trump refused to divest from his empire in 2017 and put his money somewhere freer of conflicts, like a diversified mutual fund, Shaub said he believes Trump made an unethical decision.
Maybe it wasn’t a good financial one, either. As the brand wears thin, seems like the Trump Organization is a heap of unemployable crooks and broken-down LLCs. Trump might have done better with mutual funds.
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