Following Donald Trump's trail of dirty money: No "smoking gun," but plenty of sleaze

Forbes editor Dan Alexander sees no hidden Russia connection — because Trump's corruption is out in the open

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 2, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

A portrait of US President Donald Trump burns during a demonstration (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
A portrait of US President Donald Trump burns during a demonstration (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump is the leader of a political crime family. As president, he abused the power and influence of the office to personally enrich himself, his family and his inner circle. Much of Trump's apparent extortion, self-dealing, influence-peddling, and outright blackmail was done in plain sight. One such scheme, in which Trump attempted to extort the president of Ukraine into launching a phony investigation of Joe Biden, resulted in his impeachment (that is, for the first time).

Trump's blatant disregard for the law is part of his brand as a billionaire reality-TV star turned president and (until last month) the most powerful person on the planet. Although investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, New York Times reporters and others have poked holes in Trump's claims to be a billionaire — he is likely not nearly as wealthy as he claims — he still maintains a reputation as a financial titan and business mastermind among his followers and fans both in the United States and around the world.

But now that Trump is longer president, he is vulnerable to the consequences of his apparent lawlessness. The Southern District of New York continues its investigation of Donald Trump for various crimes, which may include tax evasion or other types of fraud. It's even possible that the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, may prosecute Trump for the crime of election fraud, related to his efforts to manipulate and manufacture fake votes as part of his coup plot.

If the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress conduct a thorough investigation of the crimes and other misdeeds of the Trump presidency, it's conceivable that the former president may face criminal and civil prosecution. Trump also faces the practical challenge that hundreds of millions in bank loans to his business are now apparently coming due — loans he personally guaranteed and can no longer use the presidency to shield himself from.

Although he was voted out of office and eventually, begrudgingly left the White House, Trump's authoritarian and kleptocratic plotting continues. He raised at least $30 million from his political cult members in the weeks after Election Day, money that was ostensibly intended to finance his effort to nullify the 2020 presidential election and overturn Joe Biden's victory. Much of that money has not yet been spent, and Trump can use it for a wide range of purposes, such as financing his shadow presidency and insurgency against American democracy. Trump may also find a way to combine those millions with the hundreds of millions more raised by the Republican National Committee in recent months to start his own TV network or engage in other political ventures, such as playing kingmaker by financing the campaigns of Republican candidates who display total subservience to him.

For all Trump's greed, avarice and evident moral deficits, there is no clear "smoking gun" that definitively accounts for his corruption, or explains why he consistently betrayed his presidential oath of office and made choices that damaged America's interests and helped the nation's enemies.

Thus, the still lingering question: If we follow Donald Trump's money, where does it lead? Dan Alexander's recent book "White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency into a Business," attempts to answer that question. Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes, where he directs the magazine's coverage of money and politics.

In this conversation with Salon, Alexander argues that, contrary to much of the conventional wisdom, Donald Trump is in fact extremely wealthy. He also suggests it is unlikely that Trump ran for president in 2016 as a money-making venture or as part of a long con, given that Trump has lost considerable sums of money by going into politics.

Alexander cautions that we may never see substantive evidence that directly connects Trump to Russian bankers and oligarchs, as so many observers in the news media and among Trump's critics have repeatedly suggested. But that doesn't mean there's no evidence of apparent corruption: Both in his book and in this conversation, Alexander offers compelling evidence that Trump's otherwise inexplicable foreign policy decisions may often have been shaped by venal interests, He even shares a provocative anecdote about an empty San Francisco office suite rented by the Qatari government that may have changed Trump's relationship to that Gulf emirate.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling? There has been a torrent of information about Trump and his finances in the latter part of his term, from the New York Times and other sources. Your book "White House, Inc." was released in the midst of all that. Yet there are still many unanswered questions about Trump and his finances.

My responsibility is just to keep my narrow focus on Trump's businesses. The story is never done. Those businesses never stop operating and never stop moving. So the stories and the conflicts and intrigue do not stop either. And you just get to keep watching it as it unfolds.

Trump never seemed to be held accountable. There was all the anticipation that some new "revelation" would have brought him down. It never happened.

Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, was also discussed as being a type of "Teflon guy," where nothing ever really stuck to him but there's all this controversy. Eventually it did stick, and he was convicted and sentenced to prison. So the legal system moves slowly. We'll see down the line what the legal effects are of all of the financial information about Donald Trump being made public.

Trump's following — let's remember that he received more votes in 2020 than in 2016 — was largely drawn to him by his brand. As a politician and businessman he is, on the most basic level, selling an image and a lifestyle and all the emotions that go along with it. For many millions of Americans (and others around the world), Trump the brand remains very compelling.

Trump has two brands. There is the business brand and the political brand. The business brand was fading but still in good shape in 2015, when Trump announced that he was going to run for president. He was still making some money from "The Apprentice," but not as much as before. Trump was still throwing his name up on licensing deals and hotels and buildings around the world. He was still licensing lots of products. But if one looks at what's happened to Trump's branding business, it's all fallen apart. Federal rules prohibited him from having his own TV show. He immediately couldn't be on "The Apprentice." That was gone because he decided to run for president.

Then on the first day that he announces his campaign, Trump says, "Mexicans are coming over the border. They're rapists. And some of them I assume, are good people." Corporate America finds it so offensive that Trump loses a lot of his partnership deals right at the start of the 2016 campaign.

Shortly before Trump takes office in 2016, he makes a promise that he's not going to do any new foreign deals. But of course, he ends up doing them. But Trump is not doing the large, "put his name on top of a skyscraper" deals. There were all these discussions of new branding deals in the United States after he took office, but nothing ever came of them. The hotel and building licensing part of his brand fell apart too.

Trump lost many opportunities. From that perspective, Trump's business brand is in really rough shape. Trump's political brand was doing just fine in 2016, because he won the election just as the business brand was failing.

You have extensively researched Trump's finances and businesses. One of the dominant narratives about Trump is that he used the presidency as a type of con job to make money, and that ultimately, he never really wanted the job. What do we know about this?

That is certainly conjecture. There has been no reporting beyond the speculative that examines the state of the business and seeing what Trump did and when. If that was his plan, to make money on the presidential run in 2016, it was a bad plan and it did not work. Donald Trump ended up spending $66 million of his own money on his initial run. We estimate that his cash pile at present is about $160 million, out of a $2.5 billion fortune. $66 million is a large percentage of that money. We know this from the federal records. It is real. It's not good for his business. Trump certainly became more famous, but his businesses did not do any better. There are huge cash streams that just have withered away to practically nothing.

In terms of Trump's hard assets, the Trump National Doral being the clearest example — in 2015, the revenues at that golf resort are in the area of $92 million, and the profits were $13 million or so. The next year, in 2016 when he wins the presidential election, as his popularity in politics is increasing, Trump National Doral revenues dropped to $87 million. Because it is a nice place, it's hard to cut costs. The profits fall faster than the revenues as a percentage. Trump's profits drop to $12 million and change.

Then the next year, in 2017, his first year in office, the revenues fall to $75 million, and profits fall to $4.3 million. That is a huge, huge plunge. The reason for such a decline was that his brand had become so radioactive and polarizing. I was directly told that Doral lost 100,000 booked rooms after Trump won the election. That is five months of business just gone.

What of the revelations that, like most very rich people, Trump basically pays no taxes?

The New York Times story shows Trump paying $750 in taxes and yet living his luxurious lifestyle. One of the first misunderstandings about the Times story is that some people declared Trump to be poor. He's not. Look at his massive and very valuable building in the middle of Manhattan.

Would you trade the money in your bank account to own all of that building? Of course you would. These are real assets, and they generate real money. The income is documented with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That is not Trump just claiming that his building makes a lot of money. It is documented to be true. If that, information is not correct, then there is fraud. Looking at Trump's portfolio his 40 Wall Street building makes $18 million in net operating income a year. Trump Tower makes $13 million in net operating income a year.

The question that remains is: How can Trump's profits be so large and his taxable income look so small? That is where the Times' reporting was so revelatory.  

Some of the ways that Trump did this are pretty standard. Trump admitted as much. He takes a lot of depreciation. Trump also takes a lot of interest deductions, because he holds over a billion dollars in debt against his assets. That is totally legal.

There are also the aggressive accounting tricks that it appears Trump is using. That is a bit of a hazier zone. What does one file on their taxes when they have a large business? In those gray areas, some people will always play it safe because they do not want the embarrassment of the IRS coming after them. Others will be super-aggressive. Trump and his accountants are in the latter category. There are things described in the New York Times story that certainly will raise the eyebrows of investigators.

There has been this long-running narrative — and hope, for many — that some "smoking gun" would show that Trump is in debt to bankers or oligarchs in Russia or some other foreign country, thus explaining some of his strange behavior as president. What did you find?

People sometimes forget what is already known about his connections to Russia. For example, Trump was actively pursuing a business deal in secret in Russia, that required approval from Russian government officials, while he was running for president of the United States. Trump did not tell the American people this while he was running for office. The Russian government knew that he did that while the American people did not — it is the definition of compromising material.

The Saudis, sometime between the end of 2016 and the start of 2017, spent $270,000 at Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump's first trip overseas was to Saudi Arabia. I do not know that is why he took his first trip overseas to Saudi Arabia.

Part of the problem here is that normally the public would not have to speculate. Normally one would not have to think about a president's financial interests impacting government policy. Here is another example: The UAE, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, was leasing space inside Trump Tower. That deal ended early in Trump's presidency. But nonetheless, it existed.

The Chinese government, or rather the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which is at least 70% owned by the Chinese government still rents space inside Trump Tower. It looks like they renegotiated it in the middle of Trump's term. But if we just take those first two years, they were paying about $1.9 million of rent per year.

Trump said that he was going to donate all of his profits from foreign governments. If you do the math on that $1.9 million per year, and then you multiply it by the margins in Trump Tower, which are about 42%, and then you multiply it by the 70%, at least, that the Chinese government controls, you get to three times as much money as the Trump Organization donated which it said were all its profits from foreign governments. That is just one deal. None of this even includes Trump's D.C. hotel or other properties.

Something that I uncovered, and which I found shocking, was this deal involving the Qatar Investment Authority. It's a small deal. They rent office space in 555 California Street in San Francisco, a building where Trump owns a 30% stake. It's his most valuable holding. You don't hear about it much, but it's the most valuable thing Trump owns. They had this secret deal for space on the 43rd floor of the building.

I went to the building to check it out. I had found a document, but I didn't know whether to trust it because they didn't list anything on the website. There was no indication that this had happened. Nobody had reported it. So I went to the building, and the directory did not list the Qatar Investment Authority as a tenant. But when you go upstairs, there it is. This beautiful office space, which says Qatar Investment Authority on the back wall. And the strangest thing is that there's nobody there, no one working in the office. There's a plant on the reception desk, and it was totally brown. It doesn't look like anybody's watered the thing for a year. I went back the next day at a different time to see if perhaps they were not in the office when I first went there. Same thing, nobody was there. This was in December 2019 before the coronavirus. I ended up talking to somebody in the building, and he told me that after construction he never once saw anybody go in or out of that office space.

Connecting the dots: We've got Donald Trump's most valuable property. We've got the Qatar Investment Authority, which is a sovereign wealth fund that acts as an arm of the Qatar government, renting space. There doesn't seem to be any business purpose for this rental. Nobody knows that this rental exists. So then your next natural question is, what is actually going on between the United States and Qatar?

So now we see that at the start of the administration the first trip that Trump takes is to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are feuding with the Qataris. Both of them are U.S. allies. The Saudis tell Trump that the Qataris are funding terrorists. Trump comes back to the United States and echoes the Saudi line, saying that the Qataris are funding terrorists.

Then if you fast forward a few months, sometime after February of 2018, the Qataris started renting that office space in San Francisco. After that, Trump invites back the emir of Qatar to the White House. Trump's sitting there with him and he says the exact opposite of the thing that he had said before. Now he commends the Qatari leader for all the work he's doing to fight terrorism. Trump did a total 180. And again, it's one of these cases where you can't get inside somebody's head. We can't say for sure that U.S. policy towards Qatar was changed because of a leasing deal. But you can't rule it out either. And that's not a position that the American people are used to being in.

What do we know about the loans that are coming due and Trump's supposed connections to Russian banks and oligarchs?

There is no documentation that anyone has shown proving that Russians are lending money to Donald Trump. There is a lot of speculation about it, and there are legitimate questions to be asked about after those initial loans [to Trump] were made, regarding whether somebody else came in and purchased the debt. Those are important questions to ask. But no one has documented for sure that the Russians are lending Donald Trump money. We know that the initial lenders are not Vladimir Putin.

What specific areas of Donald Trump and his family's finances do you see as being most vulnerable to criminal exposure and investigation? 

At the federal level, Trump is no longer protected by the Office of Legal Counsel's opinion saying presidents cannot be indicted while in office. That could be problematic for him, especially given the material already uncovered in the hush-money case and the Mueller report. But I would not be surprised if the Biden administration elects not to reopen those wounds. Regardless, the investigations by the Manhattan DA and the New York State attorney general will remain serious threats. Presidential pardons will not impede those matters, and the officials overseeing them are responsive to left-leaning constituencies.

How does Trump's attempted coup on Jan. 6 and the attack on the Capitol complicate his future finances and business opportunities?

The riot on Jan. 6 certainly complicated the picture for Trump's business. Most of the fallout so far has been to small income streams. The bigger question is whether large tenants will decide they want to get out of their leases or leave them when they expire. Of course, Trump will still have opportunities to make money in new ways because of the election loss. But it may turn out that his reaction to that loss, which prompted the riot, will end up canceling out the benefits of those new opportunities. At this point, it's still too early to tell whether the benefits will outweigh the costs of the riot, or whether the effects of the riot will outweigh the benefits. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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