There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the end game of this presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded.”
We are now in the end stages of the Trump presidency.” What is it that’s gone on in the last few weeks or months that’s made you think this?
Adam Davidson: For a year and a half now, I’m one of several reporters who’ve been studying intently Donald Trump’s businesses, his relationships with people around the world. And as a rule, this group of reporters finds it increasingly shocking just how flagrant the Trump Organization was in dealing with some of the shadiest—frankly, in cases, purely evil—people who made their money in wildly illegal and corrupt ways.
I do think most Americans, including Trump’s hardcore supporters, have a general sense that this is a guy who isn’t going to be a stickler for the rules, and has probably done some sort of technically illegal things or shady things. But I don’t think the full lawless and also kind of pathetic and lame nature of the Trump business has entered the national narrative in the way I think it should... I’m suspecting, but I can’t say for sure—that Michael Cohen will have recordings or emails that show that the Trump Organization knew they were basically helping fairly evil people continue their crimes by putting the Trump brand on their projects so as to make them less suspicious, I think we’re going find it very hard for an awful lot of Republicans to support... Do you think Donald Trump is a good businessman, as a businessman, setting aside ethics?
No, definitely not.
He has, in sort of financial terms, either lost money or certainly barely made money over the course of his career. So if you start with control of $200 million of your father’s money, and one alternative is you just invest that safely in the stock market, and the other alternative is you do whatever business you do, he has lost compared to that sort of benchmark, at least for much of the time frame that he’s been in business.
So that is just a sign of, “OK, he’s a rich man,” but it’s different to start as a rich man and end up as sort of roughly exactly as rich. That’s less impressive to real business people.
.. The other thing is, especially in the real estate industry, you want to see someone amassing wealth—that over time, their holdings, their empire, is bigger, not smaller, and they’re not going to be taking as wild a risk as they were when they were younger because they’ve been able to amass a kind of sustainable wealth, a bundle of assets that are really worth something.
We certainly see that. There’s certainly plenty of people in New York real estate who, over the course of Trump’s career, have done exactly that. He hasn’t. He’s this brash guy doing big, loud projects in the 1970s, and he’s a brash guy doing less big, less loud projects in the 2000s, and by 2010, he’s basically a failed real estate guy who then starts a new career as, basically, a pitchman.
.. he’s richer than I am, and I know his followers seem to see that as really relevant. But if you look at his peers, if you look at any sensible benchmark, this is not a guy who’s really impressing a lot of people.
.. Regardless of how many bankruptcies he had, or how he’s compared to other real estate developers, he made himself into a universally recognized brand. It seems to me that even most of us who were given $200 million of our father’s money could not do that, so I’m wondering what you think that is and how you think that fits or doesn’t fit with what you say is his not-very-good business sense.
.. Over the course of Donald Trump’s life, branding has become much more central to how American businesses strategize, how they measure their success, etc. To say the obvious thing that everyone points to, Coca-Cola is sugar water that has the Coca-Cola brand on it. But even Boeing and others are very aware of the brand as a central part of their value, and we’ve learned a lot about how to manage brand.
Brands are a new thing. They’re commonly understood to have started probably with Ivory soap, maybe 130 years ago—1879, I think—and have developed into one of the central tools of American business. I think there’s been a dramatic sea-change over the course of the ’70s and ’80s and how we manage brands, how we think about brands.
If the test is simply, “Have people heard of it?” then I guess a lot of people have heard of him. But if the test is, “Has he been able to monetize that brand? Has he been able to turn that into real brand value and sustaining brand value and growing brand value, so that each year the brand itself is worth more?” that is not the case... There are, I think, 14 Trump hotels in the world, and that’s a fairly stable number. When you look at the projects that he’s been doing over the last decade, there was an attempt at a Trump Baku, Azerbaijan, an attempt at a Trump Mumbai, an attempt at a Trump Uruguay. It’s nothing like the incredible expansion of Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.
From a branding standpoint, it’s a pretty pathetic business, and we saw that in the just throwing his name on anything, no matter how peripheral or lousy the product is. I think one of the many things we can learn from Trump support is that a lot of people conflate fame with success, and trappings of wealth with actual wealth.
.. [Michael Cohen’s ] main job was not as a lawyer of any kind. His main job was as a deal-maker, as a guy who would travel the country and the world looking for possible projects, looking for partners who might want to get the Trump name on their hotel or buildings.
Within the Trump Organization, that was a very clearly distinct role—the deal-maker versus the lawyer role—and that was his primary role. So the reason I think he’s so significant is there’s this period of very rapid expansion into these overseas licensing deals. It’s sort of remarkable. Between 2006 and then really speeding up in 2010, ’11, ’12, into 2016, they’re just going all over the world. By “they,” I mean three people—Don Jr., Ivanka, and Michael Cohen—and they are signing deals with really famously corrupt people in famously corrupt parts of the world, doing virtually no due diligence that we can tell or that they can claim, and taking some enormous legal risks, all the while saying, “Well, we didn’t know they were bad. We didn’t know the details,” etc., etc... So he will have the email traffic that will tell us what, exactly, is happening. What, exactly, did they know about these partners? How aware were they of these partners’ illegality? Or how careful were they to not know? Because in an American law, being deliberately … it’s called willful blindness. So if I do business with you, and you constantly show up with all the telltale signs of a notorious criminal, and I never ask you, and I ask everyone not to tell me, that’s deliberate ignorance. That’s willful blindness and that’s, essentially, legally the same as actually knowing.
.. We know the role Michael Cohen played in trying to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow several years ago. You’ve been looking at the Russia story and at the Trump business story, and earlier you referred to journalists who are on the beat of the Trump business story. To what degree do you think that these are going to eventually meld and become the same story?
.. I think the bigger story is the Trump business story, and the Russia stuff is a subset of that. Look, Donald Trump is somebody who’s been trying to score big through business since the 1970s or 1960s. He’s a guy who’s been trying to make it politically for a couple years. So I’m pretty sympathetic to the argument that this really was not a presidential run. This was an effort to burnish his brand, to sell more properties around the world, and specifically to get a Trump Tower Moscow. I think that was a major, major goal for Donald Trump for reasons that still don’t quite make a lot of sense.
.. When the Paul Manafort charges broke and it became clear how much illegal activity he was engaged in, separately from his work on the Trump campaign, it was pretty striking that a guy like this could go around, and commit this many financial crimes overseas, and still be a lobbyist and work in Washington. Have you been shocked at how much white-collar crime seems to go unprosecuted or investigated until it is closely examined?
Yeah. It’s been really upsetting. I think one of the key lessons of all of this is just how little we prosecute white-collar crime in general, and particularly international white-collar crime
.. I will say, even in that Trump is an outlier, that the Trump Organization took risks, did work with partners that very few Americans would ever consider working with. So I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just run-of-the-mill, he’s just like everybody else, because that’s something I hear a lot, and that always drives me crazy. He’s not.
.. That’s not because, necessarily, all business people are moral. It’s because business people are supposed to be good at balancing risk and return. Take the Mammadovs that he did this deal in Azerbaijan with. As far as we can tell, Trump made $5 million or so from that deal. If he had done his due diligence and if he had learned, as he would have, that they were likely to be money laundering partners of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, he faced a life-changing amount of fines and potential criminal liability. If you’re a billionaire, as he claims, then you shouldn’t do that for $5 million. It’s an absurd risk to take. It makes no sense at all, and we see him taking such risks again and again and again. So he really is an outlier. He’s not like everybody.
Jennifer Sclafani, a linguist at Georgetown University, says President Trump is a “unique” politician because he doesn’t speak like one. Subscribe to The Washington Post on YouTube: http://bit.ly/2qiJ4dy
Why had she stayed mute for so many days about the torment her father was inflicting on thousands of immigrant children? What will happen to her if Michael Cohen flips?
.. doomed never to return to her privileged perch as a Manhattan society darling?
.. “It’s really easy for someone whose sole job in the White House is women and children to issue a statement — even Melania did it,”
.. “It just shows how fake Ivanka is,” Fox continued. “She’s crafted this whole image of herself that’s not actually her. And the real her is cooler, slightly more interesting, funnier. She curses like a sailor. She partied a lot when she was younger. She flashed a hot dog vendor when she was in eighth grade. She chain-smoked. Which is so opposite of the image she put out there.
.. “What you’re seeing now is the unmasking. She can’t control the narrative anymore because she’s so inauthentic. It has really come back to bite her.”
.. as the echoes of sobbing children snatched from parents fleeing violence collided with images of a whining, pampered child-president bragging about his crowd size and his bank account, all while he callously used helpless kids as hostages to get his wall.
.. Which means the first lady is like her husband in one unfortunate respect: In times of national turmoil, she makes it about herself.
.. “She was infatuated with the Kennedys,” Fox said.
.. She tried to present her brand as luminous, caring and classy — a champion of women and children with a carefully curated image over the years on Instagram, in a blog and in books.
Amid the dark hailstorm of her father, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, she sold herself as the sunny morning — the one who would temper her father’s retrogressive and sometimes wretched moves.
.. Introducing him at the 2016 Republican convention, Ivanka assured the crowd that he had “empathy and generosity,” as well as “kindness and compassion.”
.. it seemed like fan fiction.
.. a former top Trump administration official recently told me, “Donald Trump is the meanest man I’ve ever met.”
.. After her panic when he left her mother for Marla Maples — Ivanka worried she wouldn’t be able to keep the Trump name, and called him constantly — she spent her life fashioning herself, “Vertigo”-style, into his ideal.
.. no matter how hard Ivanka tried, Donald Trump thought she could be even more ideal. When she was a model, Fox writes, her father “suggested to friends that breast implants might help her along.
.. Maryanne Trump, Donald’s sister, urging him to talk Donald out of letting her get plastic surgery that young.
.. When his friend confronted him about it, he denied that she was getting implants. At the end of the call, he asked, ‘Why not, though?’”
.. Ivanka succeeded in being a Mini-Me. By 16, she trademarked her name with the intention of using it for everything from bras to brow liner to scrub masks. “There is a distinct genetic quality to Ivanka’s preternatural ability to self-promote,”
.. Ivanka ran into split-screen trouble with her gauzy and glam mommy-of-the-year Instagram posts during the refugee ban, the migrant crisis and the Palestinians dying at the Israeli border during her visit to the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
.. Her father is the all-consuming maw, what Fox calls “an infinite pit of need — a time-sucking vampire who fed off those around him to sustain his own vanity.”
.. Ivanka backed up the president’s fake narrative that it was Congress’s fault. When Daddy finally ended the pitiless policy that he imposed, she congratulated him on Twitter for white knighting it
.. The Trump family, of course, was seeing the problem as optics, not as a barbaric flouting of American values.
.. Donald and Ivanka are consumed with protecting their own brands. America’s? Not so much.
we talk a lot about the “post-war capital-labor accord” and the golden age of the 1940s-1970s. In these years, inequality went down, unions flourished, civil rights laws were passed along with LBJ’s Great Society programs like Medicare, etc. Corporations saw themselves as not just profit-seeking nexuses-of-contracts but also as institutions with duties to their stakeholders – employees, local community organizations, etc.
.. Then everything went to hell in the 1970s. Oil shocks, poor economic performance, large increases in foreign competition, an overheated economy created by the meeting of increased social spending and increased military spending, all combined to create massive inflation and other sorts of economic upheaval.
.. union contracts were blamed for causing inflation and big business began to push for
regulatory changes (to fight the hated EPA and OSHA, along with unions) and increased layoffs.
Institutional investors, growing rapidly in size in part *because* of the prosperity of the “golden age” (e.g. the massive pension funds like CALPERS and TIAA-CREF), began to demand discipline from corporations unused to having to listen to anyone
.. Changes in financial regulations and institutions made possible the junk bond market and, in turn, a more active market for corporate control – suddenly, large firms that were used to making acquisitions became targets.
.. by the mid-1980s, the golden age had ended along with the capital-labor accord and something new had begun – perhaps we can call it the “neoliberal era
.. This era’s hallmarks include the dramatic decline in unions, massive increases in the share of wealth going to the top 1% and .1% (cf. Piketty and Saez), massive increases in the share of profits going to finance (cf. Krippner 2005), and an overall change in the way that corporations perceived themselves.
.. No longer institutions with obligations beyond profit-seeking, corporations became (thought of as) legal fictions that served the sole purpose of maximizing shareholder value
.. The old dominant strategy of firms was to “retain and reinvest”, the new mantra was to “downsize and distribute”
.. The old model of the firm was GM – a massive, vertically integrated institution that dominated a market and did everything in-house. The new model was the “Original Equipment Manufacturer” (OEM), a firm like Nike that designs a product and markets it but outsources and off-shores as much of the actual producing, distributing, etc. The firm is now a brand, an identity demarcating a certain set of contracts, whose value is more about intangibles than men and machines.
.. Okun’s Law is an economic relationship between the magnitude of an economic downturn (in terms of real GDP) and increases in unemployment
.. if GDP (production and incomes, that is) rises or falls two percent due to the business cycle, the unemployment rate will rise or fall by one percent. The magnitude of swings in unemployment will always be half or nearly half the magnitude of swings in GDP.
.. The last downturns – 1991ish, 2001ish and the current moment – have all been characterized by “jobless recoveries” or, more broadly, much larger decreases and much smaller increases in unemployment than would be predicted by Okun’s law.
.. “businesses will tend to “hoard labor” in recessions, keeping useful workers around and on the payroll even when there is temporarily nothing for them to do”.
.. Manufacturing firms used to think that their most important asset was skilled workers. Hence they hung onto them, “hoarding labor” in recessions. And they especially did not want to let go of their prime productive asset when the recovery began. Skilled workers were the franchise. Now, by contrast, it looks as though firms think that their workers are much more disposable—that it’s their brands or their machines or their procedures and organizations that are key assets.
.. The 1980s saw a reordering of the world – a transition from a period governed by one set of rules that privileged the relationship between businesses and their employees to one that privileged (relatively speaking, in ideology anyway) shareholders.
.. What variables should we care about, if GDP seems to be connected less to welfare than it used to be?
.. the neoliberal period is marked by dramatic, mind-boggling increases in executive compensation without, as far as I know, any signs of better performance or increased shareholder value.