What We Still Don’t Know About Donald Trump

A list of mysteries that will not be solved before Election Day.

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For the first time in decades, Americans will likely hit the voting booths on Election Day without being able to review the tax returns of one of the major presidential nominees. Though Donald Trump previously vowed to release his taxes—as all top nominees since Richard Nixon have done—he reneged on that promise and for months fiercely refused to make this basic information public, offering shifting excuses. Trump did submit the public financial disclosure form that all federal candidates must fill out, but that does not cover all the fundamentals of his finances. By withholding his tax information, Trump has ensured that the American public cannot see how much income (if any) he pocketed, how much money (if any) he paid in taxes, and how much money (if any) he donated to charities. Without his tax returns, voters are in the dark about important details regarding his sources of income and his debts.

There are many more questions about Trump’s finances and business operations that remain as the 2016 presidential campaign slouches toward its end. Trump is the owner of a private business empire with elements that have been structured in Byzantine fashion. He is a proliferate user of shell companies, as many developers are. He has tried to broker deals around the world with assorted financial players with their own agendas. He has taken on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. There is a great deal publicly unknown about many of his ventures. Much of his deal-making—probably most—is not transparent. He is asking Americans to vote for a man who has not revealed basic information about his wide-ranging endeavors and associations.

Here is a list of Trump mysteries that will not be solved before Election Day.

* His partners: Trump lists about 500 business entities on his financial disclosure form. Many are shell companies, and if any of them have partners, there is no telling with whom Trump is in business. There is also no way to know if this is an accurate list reflecting all his dealings domestically and overseas. (These disclosures are not vetted by forensic accountants.) These entities would allow anyone seeking to gain favor with Trump to funnel investments and money to him and his family without public disclosure. As Newsweek put it, “Any government wanting to seek future influence with President Trump could do so by arranging for a partnership with the Trump Organization, feeding money directly to the family or simply stashing it away inside the company for their use once Trump is out of the White House…The partnerships are struck with some of the more than 500 entities disclosed in Trump’s financial disclosure forms; each of those entities has its own records that would have to be revealed for a full accounting of all of Trump’s foreign entanglements to be made public.” The magazine added, “The dealings of the Trump Organization reach into so many countries that it is impossible to detail all the conflicts they present in a single issue of this magazine.”

Trump’s personal financial disclosure form hints that he has international business deals in the works that are still under wraps. There are corporations listed that indicate he may be planning hotels (with or without partners) in China and Saudi Arabia—projects which he has not publicly discussed.

* Huge loans from foreign banks: After Trump’s near-crash-and-burn bankruptcies of the 1990s, major US banks stopped doing business with him. But foreign banks picked up the slack, most notably the private banking arm of Deutsche Bank, which Trump owes more than $300 million. His cozy relationship with Deutsche Bank has never been explained. A bank spokeswoman would not talk about how it came to be.

The bond between Trump and this bank poses several problems. The bank in recent months has been in trouble and compelled to sell assets. If it is forced to sell Trump’s loans—or has done so already—the public may not find out immediately (or at all). So it is possible that Trump could be secretly in hock to some overseas person or entity. Also, the Justice Department has demanded that the gigantic German bank pay $14 billion to settle claims regarding its sale of bad mortgage-backed securities in the the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. The bank is battling this case. Were Trump to become president, he would be heading a government trying to squeeze a gargantuan fine out of a bank that has underwritten a big chunk of his business empire. That’s a super-sized conflict of interest.

Moreover, a New York Times investigation “into the financial maze of Mr. Trump’s real estate holdings” found that “companies he owns have at least $650 million in debt”—about twice the amount listed on his financial disclosure form. A portion of all this debt, the newspaper reported, is held by the Bank of China, posing another set of possible conflicts of interest. But, the Times noted, it is nearly impossible to figure out from publicly available information what Trump owes and to whom: “The full terms of Mr. Trump’s limited partnerships are not known. The current value of the loans connected to them is roughly $1.95 billion, according to various public documents.”

* His creditors: At the first presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Trump about his finances: “Don’t Americans have a right to know if there are any conflicts of interest?” Trump replied, “I could give you a list of banks. I would—if that would help you, I would give you a list of banks. These are very fine institutions, very fine banks. I could do that very quickly.”

Trump has not produced such a list. Why is this list necessary? His personal financial disclosure report offers an incomplete view of his finances. Filed in May, the form lists 16 loans that are valued in vague ranges that make it impossible to determine the total amount he owes. And it does not cover some of the loans mentioned above—such as the Bank of China debt—that are held by companies in which he is deeply invested.

Also, Trump’s most recent financial disclosure is out of date. For instance, Trump reported in May that he owed UBS Real Estate, a subsidiary of the Swiss banking giant, between $5 million and $25 million in connection with a loan for commercial property at New York City’s Trump International Hotel and Tower. Yet public records show that this $7 million loan was paid off with a new $7 million loan from a smaller lender called Ladder Capital Finance. According to public documents, Trump currently owes Ladder Capital at least $275 million. Ladder Capital specializes in packaging loans into larger portfolios that are eventually sold off to other lenders. So where might Trump’s Ladder loans end up? It would be important to know his ultimate creditors. His financial disclosure form also lists a puzzling loan of more than $50 million that comes from one of his own entities. There has been no public explanation of this act of financial acrobatics and what it means for his complete debt picture and financial stability.  

* Trump University: There are three pending cases alleging fraud on the part of Trump’s for-profit school. One, in San Diego, is scheduled to begin trial on November 28. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman accused Trump University of “repeatedly” deceiving “students into thinking that they were attending a legally chartered ‘university.'” Schneiderman’s lawsuit maintains that students were misled about the instructors. A former salesman for Trump University provided an affidavit in which he testified that “while Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could.” The affidavit notes, “Based upon my personal experience and employment, I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.” In June, The New Yorker asked, “Will one of the world’s leading democracies elect as its President a businessman who founded and operated a for-profit learning annex that some of its own employees regarded as a giant ripoff, and that the highest legal officer in New York State has described as a classic bait-and-switch scheme?” The election will occur before questions about Trump University are resolved.

* His lawsuits: Throughout the campaign, Trump has frequently threatened to sue the media and others (including the women who have accused him of sexual assault). But, as USA Today reported, Trump is already engaged in dozens of lawsuits beyond the Trump University cases that remain open. As the paper noted, “Trump faces significant open litigation tied to his businesses: angry members at his Jupiter, Fla. golf course say they were cheated out of refunds on their dues and a former employee at the same club claims she was fired after reporting sexual harassment…Trump is also defending lawsuits tied to his campaign. A disgruntled GOP political consultant sued for $4 million saying Trump defamed her. Another suit, a class action, says the campaign violated consumer protection laws by sending unsolicited text messages. If elected, the open lawsuits will tag along with Trump. He would not be entitled to immunity, and could be required to give depositions or even testify in open court. That could chew up time and expose a litany of uncomfortable private and business dealings to the public.”

The paper pointed out that at least 60 lawsuits and hundreds of liens and judgments have “documented cases where people accused Trump and his businesses of failing to pay them what they were owed for their work.” Many of these have not received full press coverage during the campaign. USA Today also reported: “In at least 20 separate lawsuits, plaintiffs accused Trump and managers at his companies of discriminating against women, ignoring sexual harassment complaints and even participating in the harassment themselves. Women in those disputes have testified they were fired for complaining.”

* His net worth and income: Trump has claimed he’s worth $10 billion. With the records publicly available, this is impossible to confirm. A net worth calculation is meaningless if it does not take debts into account, and his total indebtedness cannot be determined on the basis of public documents. And Trump has a history of inflating his net worth. A decade ago, he sued a reporter who quoted experts saying Trump was worth only $200 million to $300 million, not the $2 billion to $5 billion Trump claimed at the time. (Trump lost.) At the first presidential debate, Trump insisted his 2015 income was $694 million, but a Mother Jones investigation found that Trump had greatly exaggerated his income from golf courses, calling into question that whopping amount. The New York Times recently reported that an examination of property tax appeals and other financial records showed that Trump likely overstated his income: “After expenses, some of his businesses make a small fraction of what he reported on his disclosure forms, or actually lose money. In fact, it is virtually impossible to determine from the forms just how much he is earning in any year.” Ultimately, it may not matter whether Trump has all the wealth and income he insists he possesses—but his truthfulness is at stake with his net worth and income claims.

There is a large amount of information that Trump has not released during the campaign, even after vowing to do so. It’s not just his tax returns. He promised to release evidence that he was under audit by the IRS (the supposed reason he has not released his tax returns). But he put out only a letter from his own lawyer. He said that his wife, Melania—whose past immigration status was questioned in media reports that suggested she might have once worked illegally as a model in the United States—would hold a press conference to set the matter straight. She did not; instead, a Trump lawyer issued a letter without any corroborating documentation. Trump pledged to release “full reports” regarding his health. Those never came.

Other than the tax returns, perhaps the most important information Trump has not produced is how he would separate himself from his businesses, were he to win the White House. His entanglements—which likely include publicly unknown partnerships, investors, and creditors—are extensive and complex. Trump has produced no plan for how he could run the government and be free of all the conflicts of interest posed by his business interests. He is the least transparent presidential candidate in modern times.

Sixteen months of campaign reporting has not revealed all the nooks and crannies of a business empire that is purposefully structured to be impervious to scrutiny. It would have taken a team of forensic accountants to develop a clear picture of Trump’s finances. He did not help by withholding his tax returns and fudging parts of his financial disclosure form. And that was the point. Trump, who is aiming to be perhaps the most powerful man in the world, wanted to keep much of his life secret before Americans voted. He succeeded in doing so.


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