Even now, with the economy eroding in the wake of efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Trump is reverting to this perception of his strengths and sacrifices. As Congress debates a massive bailout aimed at holding the economy steady until the pandemic threat recedes, Trump on Sunday declined to rule out seeing his own businesses benefiting from the federal investment. He dismissed concerns about whether he or his family had benefited from forewarning about the emergence of the pandemic by misrepresenting the toll his presidency has already had on his bottom line. His response to questions about how he might benefit were predicated on the same mythology that powered his campaign in the first place.
So it's worth evaluating the components of that narrative.
Trump doesn’t take a salary — but he does benefit from the presidency.
A reporter at the daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday asked Trump if he would commit to his businesses not receiving money from a proposed fund under consideration by the Senate that would allow the Treasury Department to bolster hard-hit businesses at its discretion. Trump said he wouldn’t make such a commitment.
“You know, every time I do it, like, for instance, I committed publicly that I wouldn't take the $450,000 salary. It's a lot of money. Whether you're rich or not, it's a lot of money. And I did it,” Trump said. “Nobody cared. Nobody — nobody said thank you. Nobody said thank you very much."
“Now, I didn’t commit legally. I just said I don’t want it,” he continued. “I don’t want my salary. I work for zero. I don’t want my salary. Nobody said, ‘Oh, thank you very much.’ But I guarantee you, if I ever took it, you would go out after me — you in particular would go out after me like crazy.”
There are a few reasons no one besides his supporters says “thank you” to Trump for declining his salary. The first is it’s obviously a political move, made so that Trump can trumpet his own net worth and the sacrifices he makes for the country — exactly as he did on Sunday. The second is the effect is negligible in the scale of federal spending.
Of course there’s the fact that Trump has made up a big chunk of that salary in other ways. His frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago alone — 30 so far as president — probably have resulted in nearly $2 million in revenue going to that particular property, more than Trump’s salary. The Post’s David Fahrenthold and Joshua Partlow documented more than $600,000 in spending at Trump properties (including Mar-a-Lago) since Trump became president.
Each time Trump visits one of his properties, government money flows to the property and, indirectly, to Trump himself. Trump has spent all or part of a day at one of his properties on 358 occasions since becoming president, according to a Post analysis.
Trump doesn’t own stock.
After it was revealed last week that a couple of senators sold stock after receiving briefings about the likely effects of the pandemic, Trump was asked on Sunday whether he’d made similar moves.
“Mr. President," a reporter asked, “did you or your family sell stocks?"
“I don’t have stock," Trump replied. “I own things.”
This was accurate as of Trump’s most recently filed financial disclosure. One of the few steps Trump took before being inaugurated was to liquidate his stock holdings. Instead, his income derives from the property he owns, a massive web of limited-liability corporations that shunt money around to minimize Trump’s tax bill.
The presidency probably isn’t the primary reason Trump has lost money in recent years.
"Did you make any alternate investments in advance of this?" the same reporter asked.
"No, I don't even think about it," Trump replied. "You know, it's very interesting that you ask a question like that. You know, nasty question and yet it deserves to be asked, I guess."
“What I’ve done by deciding to run — and I knew this. I knew this. The first day, I said, ‘If I win it’s going to cost me a lot of money,’” Trump continued. “It cost me billions of dollars to become president — to be president of the United States.”
He argued that political opposition to his administration had hurt his businesses — as had the legal fees he has paid to fight lawsuits and, presumably, various investigations.
"I will say that it cost me billions of dollars to be president, and especially with all the money I could have made for the last three, four years," Trump added later. "And I didn't because I was being president, I have no interest in it. I'm allowed to, you know, I don't know if you know, George Washington? They say he was a rich man, supposedly, relatively rich. And he ran the presidency and he also ran his business. They say he had two desks. Nobody complained until I came along. I got elected as a rich person, but nobody complained until I came along."
This thing about Washington’s desks isn’t true, according to his estate. Washington did continue to have his personal business as president, because his business was his large estate in Virginia. Trump’s business is significantly different in nature and scale.
When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he claimed to be worth “in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS.” Given that much of that worth was held in his intangible personal brand and given that Trump had in the past admitted his net worth depended on how he felt on a given day, it was worth taking that figure with a grain of salt.
Bloomberg estimated his net worth at the time as a bit over $3 billion. Now, it’s a bit under. The difference was driven to a significant extent by the decline of commercial rent values in Manhattan, where most of Trump’s real estate holdings are located.
His properties have felt some effects from his political career, as The Post has reported. Resorts and properties in blue states such as California and New York have experienced declining revenue and even, in some cases, his name being removed from buildings to protect property values. In states where he’s popular, though? That effect has been different.
Again, a decline from $3.02 billion on Election Day 2016 (according to Bloomberg) to $2.97 billion as of last month is not a big hit. A drop from $10 BILLION to whatever Trump might have been feeling about his net worth on Sunday afternoon, though, could exact a much larger emotional toll on the president.
The decline, really, wasn’t in net worth but in perception. Trump came into the presidency as the helicopter-riding, boardroom-occupying “Apprentice” president. There was an almost tangible wistfulness in his responses Sunday for the previous iteration of his life. But Trump wasn’t about to let anyone think his presidency was anything less than a massive success that came at immense personal cost.
“It costs me billions and billions of dollars to be president,” Trump said. “And I am so happy that I did it.”