Donald Trump's argument for his candidacy is based on his personal success. This is a guy who turned "Trump" into a household name, after all, building a personal empire that spans the globe and spills over into any number of industries. He's a billionaire at some level -- and that's his promise to America. America will be rich again, as he put it in a press release this week, and America will be great again.
But Trump's business record isn't flawless. Hillary Clinton schlepped to Atlantic City on Wednesday to make that point in a not particularly subtle way. Trump's casinos in the New Jersey town were some of the first major businesses that became symbols of Trump's success. The "Art of the Deal" came out in 1987; he bought the Trump Taj Mahal a year later. His track record in the industry, though, was shaky, with several bankruptcies and eventual closures of properties that he owned.
The question, though, is where the blame lies. Was this an example of Trump's failings as a businessman? Or was it a function of Atlantic City's decline pulling Trump down with it?
Standing outside the abandoned Trump Plaza casino on Wednesday, Clinton argued that it was the former.
"His businesses were failing long before the rest of the town was struggling," Clinton said, according to a transcript sent to the press. "In fact, other businesses here did worse because Donald Trump acted so irresponsibly. He calls himself the 'King of Debt,' and he earned that title right here in A.C. His bad decisions hurt the whole city."
To evaluate that claim, we built a timeline.
Trump first got his casino license in New Jersey in 1982. Trump was hired that year by Harrah's to build a casino which he then bought in 1986 -- that was the Trump Plaza. In 1985, Trump opened Trump Castle, later Trump Marina. Then, in 1988, he bought the Taj Mahal, which eventually became a billion-dollar project that would serve as his crown jewel in the city.
Only the Taj Mahal is still open.
We can overlap what happened next with economic data for the region published by the Federal Reserve.
In July of 1991, a year after it opened, the Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. The next year, Trump Castle/Marina filed along with Trump Plaza. In 1995, Trump's remaining casinos (including ones outside of Atlantic City) were rolled into a company that went public. In 1996, he opened Trump's World Fair in the city, a property that he'd owned from 1989 to 1992, operating it as Trump Regency. World's Fair closed in 1999. The public company that owned his other properties filed for bankruptcy twice, in 2004 and 2009. In 2011 the public company sold Castle/Marina, and in 2014 it shuttered Trump Plaza.
Trump's involvement in the public company ended in 2009, shortly before the second bankruptcy. In 2014, he sued to have his name removed from the Plaza and Taj Mahal, arguing that they were too run-down to reflect his personal brand.
So how does this compare to the regional economy? It's tricky.
You can see that the bankruptcies of the Taj Mahal and Trump Castle followed the recession of 1990-1991 and came late in a spike in the unemployment rate in the region. To Clinton's point, those happened "before the rest of the town was struggling" in the sense that the big collapse in employment didn't happen until about a decade later. The second bankruptcy of the publicly-traded company came during the Great Recession, and the sale of Trump Castle and the Plaza's closure came as hospitality employment was plummeting and the unemployment rate was still high.
Of course, the closure of Trump-branded properties contributed to the drop in employment and the spike in people out of work. When the Plaza closed in 2014, it put 1,000 people out of work -- a big chunk of those in that industry. Again, though, this was after Trump owned it.
The publicly traded company (first called Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts and then Trump Entertainment Resorts) performed poorly compared to the rest of the stock market, as MarketWatch reported last July. Given how tied up in Atlantic City the company was, though, that's not too surprising.
(Last month, The Post explained how Trump once again profited from the faltering public company.)
Clinton's argument on Wednesday didn't really center on how Trump's businesses did versus Atlantic City on the whole. Instead she focused on Trump's use of debt to build and operate his casinos shunted the risk onto other people -- shareholders, employees -- and used bankruptcy to avoid paying his bills. The Post explained how the Taj Mahal was driven into bankruptcy by Trump's debt practices. When Atlantic City really began to tumble, though, Trump was already gone.
The statement in which Trump pledged to make America rich again defended how he ran his businesses.
"Out of the hundreds of businesses I have owned over the decades, and hundreds of deals and transactions, I have used the chapter laws of our country in four instances, much as many of our country’s elite business people do (but nobody cares about)," the statement reads. "It is an effective and commonly used practice in business to use bankruptcy proceedings to restructure a business and ultimately save jobs."
That last point is certainly true. It's also true that Trump got while the getting was good. How voters will read that spectral "TRUMP" on the side of the empty Plaza casino depends on where they place the blame. Some will read it as a reminder that Trump was savvy enough to bail out before everything fell apart -- and to keep making money from the use of his name while it did. Others, like Clinton, will see it more starkly: A reminder that one of the first success stories in Trump's life now amounts to little more than 300-foot-tall tombstones.