The adult sons of President Trump showed up at the State of the Union address Feb. 5 wearing beards worthy of the 19th century. Don Jr.’s was so dark and satiny it looked like a mink was dozing on his face; Eric’s gave him the tawny approachability of a gospel singer in Branson, Mo. (Son-in-law Jared Kushner can join the club when — if? — his peach fuzz sprouts.)
Why the new looks? Considering the trajectory of the family business they run, maybe the boys are trying to go incognito. Or maybe, like the hirsute Smith Brothers, they are hoping to diversify into cough drops. News goes from bad to worse for the Trump Organization, whose founder embarked on a novel brand-building exercise in 2015 — he called it “running for president” — and turned it into a 10-car pileup of canceled partnerships, red ink, government investigations and lawsuits.
The latest wreck may be the most humiliating so far. Citing the toxic political climate that has so unfairly attached to his race-baiting, conspiracy-mongering, dictator-coddling, deficit-spending dad, Eric Trump announced this week that the company is bailing out of its only active U.S. initiative — the un-Trumpian development of a few modest hotels in the eternally struggling Mississippi Delta.
Not that there’s anything wrong with limited ventures in scrappy communities. These projects, free now of unsightly presidential baggage, are admirable, and risky, efforts to build the local economies of places such as Cleveland and Greenville in the heart of historic blues country.
The Trump Organization’s erstwhile partners are brothers also, raised like the Trumps in an entrepreneurial family. Dinesh and Suresh Chawla were brought to the United States by their refugee father, and like many others in the Indian diaspora, the family plunged into the hard work of small-town hospitality. It’s a low-margin, labor-intensive, glitz-free line of honorable work, which has made some folks wonder how the Trumps stumbled into it.
As the younger Trumps explained shortly after Dad’s unplanned victory, the idea was to make some dough in regions of the country where the Trump name remained popular. At the time, residents of Trump-branded condos in New York were demanding the removal of the family name from their buildings, and partner hotels from SoHo to Toronto to Panama City to Rio de Janeiro were cutting loose from the man who got the world talking about “American carnage.”
Yet the boys steered clear of the Trump brand even in MAGA country. They chose the name “Scion” for their mid-market, boutique-style property in Cleveland, Miss., where Delta State University and a museum dedicated to the Grammys have not been enough to prevent a 20 percent decline in population since 1990. For their budget hotels, they dreamed up the name “American Idea.” Even so, the Trump connection evidently proved poisonous to their partnership with the Chawlas.
“We live in a climate where everything will be used against us, whether by the fake news or by Democrats who are only interested in Presidential harassment and wasting everyone’s time,” Eric Trump said in a prepared statement announcing the end of the family’s participation.
Hard data on the family-owned Trump Organization is difficult to come by — though congressional committees, federal prosecutors and citizen lawsuits are all ferreting furiously. By all accounts, the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is doing big business down the street from the Oval Office, catering to groups hopeful of impressing the president. But anecdotal evidence from elsewhere suggests a cloudy picture.
In Indonesia, where a local media mogul is building Trump-brand resorts on Java and Bali, the Muslim majority has been outraged by the president’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “It’s becoming a political liability to have closer relations with Trump,” former Indonesian ambassador to the United States. Dino Djalal told Bloomberg Businessweek. In Scotland — his mother’s native country — Trump is wildly unpopular, which may explain why his golf development northwest of Aberdeen has been downscaled, and his resort at Turnberry is deep in the red.
“When politics are over, we will resume doing what we do best, which is building the best and most luxurious properties in the world,” Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement, adding that “the interest in the Trump brand has never been stronger.” But the interest that his father has stirred up is unlikely to settle any time soon.
President Trump has forever altered his brand. It no longer stands for luxury or opulence; it represents wedge issues and incitement. His daily assaults on his enemies, real and imagined, ensure that for Trump, politics will never be over. And for his heirs, business will never resume as before.
Days after the State of the Union, news broke that the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan — Donald Trump’s first real estate triumph — is headed for the scrap heap, set to be torn down. His empire may be bound in the same direction.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.