This article has been updated.
As soon as the applause started during his rally in Huntsville, Ala., a year ago, President Trump knew he had a winning issue.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now,” Trump said during a riff on protests by football players during the national anthem. “Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Usually misrepresented as being against the flag or the country instead of against racial injustice, the protests became a favorite subject of Trump’s. It’s the sort of cultural issue that he knows plays well with his base, so he has returned to it time and again. In July, during the offseason, he declared that the issue was “alive and well,” offering a new range of proposed penalties for players who choose to kneel during the anthem: “First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”
When Nike announced this week that it would center an advertising campaign around Colin Kaepernick, the football player responsible for starting the protests, it seemed (to use another sports analogy) as though the company was setting the issue on a tee at Trump National Golf Club. How could the president resist offering criticism once Nike elevated the face of the NFL protests to a new position of influence?
Trump demurred. By Wednesday morning, he hadn’t offered any public critique of the decision or of Nike — even though a change of the conversation away from Bob Woodward’s new book might be useful to him.
In an interview with the Daily Caller on Tuesday, Trump explained his hands-off approach.
“I think it’s a terrible message,” he said. “Nike is a tenant of mine. They pay a lot of rent.”
He went on to say that the hiring was “a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent.” But it’s hard not to fixate on the immediate qualification Trump offered for his thoughts: Nike gives him money.
It’s possible that this response was simply Trump being Trump. Remember that his first comments about the death of Aretha Franklin included the cryptic claim that she had “worked for” him. Trump seems to like to qualify conversations with any links to him personally.
But in this case, Trump made a point of noting that Nike pays a lot of rent to the Trump Organization — meaning, as Trump said, indirectly to Trump, given that he never severed ties with his business interests. Forbes estimated earlier this year that the amount Nike pays for its retail space on the ground floor of Trump Tower is probably $13 million a year. Because the Trump Organization is a private business — and because Trump has offered repeated excuses to avoid releasing his tax returns — it’s not clear how much his company earns from Nike.
Or, earned. Last year, Nike announced that, in anticipation of opening a new flagship store a bit farther south on Fifth Avenue, it was closing its Trump Tower store on 57th Street. (Trump’s politics played a “minor role” in the decision to move, according to two employees who spoke with Forbes.) As of March, the Trump Tower space was empty. The largest commercial tenant in the building is Gucci, which has a first-floor shop on Fifth Avenue. The second-largest, according to a 2012 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, is the government-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which operates from a floor in the tower.
It’s not clear whether Nike’s lease with the Trump Organization, renewed for five years in mid-2017, mandates that the company keep paying rent despite having left the space. In other words, it’s not clear whether Nike still “pay[s] a lot of rent,” in Trump’s description.
Update: Actually, it is. Bloomberg reported in May that the company’s new landlord would cover its rent at Trump Tower, meaning that the Nike lease will still generate income for the Trump Organization — though not from Nike.
Trump does release an annual disclosure outlining his income, but that document doesn’t mention Nike. That’s because Nike doesn’t pay Trump directly: It pays the Trump Organization. Most of Trump’s annual filing is made up of scores of similarly-named LLCs that serve as controlling companies for various real estate interests. Trump’s disclosure also doesn’t name ICBC as indirectly paying him money, but Trump hasn’t been shy about making that relationship public. (During the speech launching his campaign in 2015, Trump said, “I love China. The biggest bank in the world is from China. You know where their United States headquarters is located? In this building, in Trump Tower.”)
All of this raises a few additional questions. For one, does Nike still pay rent to Trump? And, more important, is that business relationship the reason Trump has decided not to attack Nike directly for its embrace of Kaepernick? That raises another question: Who else pays rent to Trump? Some of those relationships are public: We know Gucci does because it’s right there on Fifth Avenue. (In the extremely unlikely event of Gucci coming out in support of the NFL protests, we’ll see how Trump responds.) Many more are private, obscured by the normal business practices of the Trump Organization, largely a black box through which money flows indirectly to the president.
Maybe, as we speculated at the outset, Trump’s comment about Nike was just Trump talking about things the way Trump does. But that he linked his response as president to his relationship with Nike as a businessman necessarily draws new scrutiny to where a wall has been erected between those two roles — and where that wall has gaps.
Something kept Trump from attacking Nike and scoring points with his base (a base that, we’ll note, was so incensed at Nike that people were burning their shoes). Trump told the Daily Caller that Nike’s decision “is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do.” Nike’s choice to highlight Kaepernick was, in other words, Nike’s freedom of speech.
Of course, Trump also told the Daily Caller that protesters should be banned at the public hearings for his Supreme Court nominee. It’s unclear whether any of those protesters were tenants at Trump properties.
Update: Shortly after this post was published, Trump weighed in on Nike’s decision on Twitter. Instead of criticizing the company, he emphasized the purported fallout of its decision.