Candidate Donald Trump’s biggest selling point was that he was supposedly a successful self-made entrepreneur who would use his private-sector know-how to “run government like a business.”
Many of us scoffed. After all, even if you believed he was a successful businessman — one who hadn’t, ahem, lost a billion dollars — managing a private company is nothing like helming a government.
But in retrospect, we doubters were wrong. Trump’s business practices turn out to have told us a lot about how he would serve as president, and not only because in both settings he surrounded himself with sycophants and family members. In fact, many of the practices that benefited him as a private businessman seem to be serving Trump himself — if not exactly the country — quite well as president.
At least in the near term, anyway.
On Monday, for instance, the Trump administration declared it would not provide the president’s tax documents to the House Ways and Means Committee, despite a nearly century-old law explicitly stating that the treasury secretary “shall furnish” any tax documents that this committee’s chair requests. House Democrats are deciding whether to challenge this decision (as well as other administration stonewalling) in court, a process that could drag on for months, if not years.
Nothing about this should surprise. The administration’s strategy here echoes Trump’s entire private-sector career.
To Trump, clearly, the law is merely an opening offer in any negotiation, in response to which he assembles an army of lawyers and uses the threat of exhausting and expensive litigation to pressure the other side to cede ground. He’s shown this in his 100-plus disputes over his tax obligations, as well as hundreds of other lawsuits over his reneging on legally binding contracts.
Or — speaking of tax disclosures — consider some of the findings in the New York Times’s recent blockbuster report on Trump’s tax records.
The reporters explain how in the late 1980s, Trump made millions in the stock market by borrowing money to buy shares in a company, publicly suggesting he was about to take over that company, and then quietly selling on the resulting rally. Eventually, however, other investors began to recognize that these takeover claims were a ruse. In 1990, the Times found, he lost $35 million on short-term trades, equivalent to about half of what he gained in such transactions over the previous four years.
One might argue that, as president, Trump has attempted a similar pump-and-dump-style scheme involving the overall economy.
After all, Trump has borrowed $2 trillion to pump the economy with a short-term tax-cut-and-spending-hike fiscal stimulus. He’s counting on that stimulus to get him through the next election. He does not appear to realize that even if his scheme works, at some point the impact of the stimulus will fade, the economy will turn, and the government will have no credible ammunition left.
Maybe he’s assuming he’ll be gone by then. Or maybe the threat of a downturn on his watch explains why he’s already begun applying another strategy that served him well in the private sector: When the numbers aren’t in your favor, simply invent new numbers.
As a private businessman, when Trump’s net worth wasn’t as high as he wanted, he changed the formula for calculating his net worth. Specifically, he plucked, seemingly out of thin air, a suspiciously round and dubiously large additional asset to add to his balance sheet: his “brand value.” According to a financial statement that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen gave Congress, and that Cohen said was provided to private lenders and Forbes magazine, Trump assessed the value of his “brand” at $4 billion — nearly half his newly inflated net worth.
The Trump administration has developed a similar strategy on the economy.
This week, the administration proposed a change to how the government sets the official poverty line. That line, for those unfamiliar, is an income threshold that determines eligibility cut-offs for various safety-net programs, such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid.
The administration has proposed changing the formula used to adjust the poverty threshold for inflation each year so that the income cutoff rises more slowly. Over time, this would reduce the number of people who count as “poor” and who are therefore eligible to receive Medicaid or food stamps — not because their living standards have actually improved but because the administration has arbitrarily altered its math.
Just as then-private-businessman Trump tried to redefine how we measure his wealth, now-president Trump is working to redefine how we measure others’ poverty.
There’s a theme lurking in all this Trumpian trickery. It’s that, in both business and politics, reality is often overrated. With enough hot air, even an obvious fraud can stay afloat — for longer than many of us ever expected.