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Can Trump's Business Prowess Help Him Mend The U.S. Economy?


This is a moment to reset what we know about the Republican candidate for president. Donald Trump is a candidate unlike any other. He's preparing for a convention unlike any other. And it all started with Trump's oversized image as a business success, a self-proclaimed billionaire. So this morning, we'll hear from a reporter who has explored that success for years. Back in 2011, Michael Isikoff was working for NBC, and he asked Donald Trump about Atlantic City hotels and casinos that went bankrupt. Trump said he had little to do with it.


DONALD TRUMP: So I had a relatively small piece of the company. And what happened is Philadelphia...

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Wait a second.

TRUMP: Excuse me.

ISIKOFF: You were chairman of the board.

TRUMP: Excuse me.

ISIKOFF: You were chairman of the board.

TRUMP: I was chairman. But I didn't run the company. I had nothing to do with running the company. Management ran the company.

ISIKOFF: You were paid $2 million dollars a year.

TRUMP: Excuse me. I didn't run the company. I'm just telling you.

ISIKOFF: So what were you paid $2 million a year for?

TRUMP: Now let me explain something. Excuse me. Because of my genius, OK?

INSKEEP: That was one famous episode in a long career of famous episodes. Michael Isikoff came to our studios to talk about Trump.

What is the image, business image, that this man has run on for the past year?

ISIKOFF: That he's a fantastically successful businessman who has made a lot of money and developed big projects and conveys excellence and affluence.

INSKEEP: He says he's a billionaire.

ISIKOFF: He does. And this is a big question mark that continues to hover over him.

INSKEEP: He's even said he's maybe worth $10 billion. Is there evidence?

ISIKOFF: He has said $10 billion dollars. He's released the financial disclosure form that, in some respects, mixes up revenues with income, so it's really hard to say. What he hasn't done is release his tax returns, which is really extraordinary for a presidential nominee. Every presidential candidate, going back to Richard Nixon, has released their tax returns. Donald Trump has refused to do so so far. So all these questions about how much is he really worth are continuing to linger because we haven't seen those tax returns.

INSKEEP: Haven't there been writers over the years who've attempted to estimate his net worth? And they've come up way short of a billion dollars.

ISIKOFF: Yes, they have. And Trump is so sensitive about this issue that he has actually gone to court over it. He sued a New York Times reporter, Tim O'Brien, for defamation because O'Brien had the audacity to report that Trump was not the billionaire that he claimed, but only a multimillionaire. And Trump viewed that as defaming his image. He sued O'Brien in court. It lasted for years.

INSKEEP: But he's never actually proved that he is right - that Trump is right about his net worth.

ISIKOFF: He has not because his tax returns, which had to be turned over in the course of that case, were sealed. He could, of course, have released them at any time, just as he could release his tax returns now. And he has not done so.

INSKEEP: OK. But let's be fair. What's indisputable about this man's wealth, his possessions, his holdings? Got a lot of real estate, right?

ISIKOFF: He's got a lot of real estate. He's built a lot of hotels. He's built a lot of properties and developments. But you have to say, when you look at the totality of his career, it's fairly checkered. He's had multiple bankruptcies in Atlantic City, high debt loads that he couldn't pay back. He's been sued multiple times. There are three outstanding lawsuits now over Trump University. And another striking thing is he's due in court. One of these lawsuits has been scheduled for trial in November after the election. So if Donald Trump is elected president, one of the first things he's going to have to do is sit in a courtroom as a defendant in a civil trial accusing him of fraud.

INSKEEP: What has happened with some of the apartment complexes, condo complexes that have had Trump's name on them that you've investigated?

ISIKOFF: A lot of them were never built. They fell victim to the real estate crisis of the late 2000s. There were a lot of people who bought condos in Trump projects that were never built. So a lot of people look at some of this and when they hear Trump talking about how successful he's been and how much money he's made, they have some real questions about that because they got stiffed.

INSKEEP: One specific claim that Trump has made on the campaign trail is that he knows about China, that he's done business with China. He can beat China. He can beat China in trade negotiations. What's he done in China?

ISIKOFF: Well, what he's done is marketed his brand - for shirts, for ties, for accessories - that are actually manufactured by others in China. So that's...

INSKEEP: He licensed his name?

ISIKOFF: He licenses his name. This is what Trump does more than anything. He licenses that brand, his name, to others who can then use it because he's marketed himself as this fantastically successful businessman. So this, if anything, is the true genius of Donald Trump, of being able to market himself.

INSKEEP: Surely, someone who is sympathetic to Donald Trump and is listening to you might think - well, Donald Trump says that he's tough, and he's a tough negotiator. All these examples you've given, Michael Isikoff, may make him look bad in cases. But he sounds pretty tough and like he got a good deal for himself.

ISIKOFF: Well, that's clearly a big part of his appeal. There's no denying that. Conveying the impression of toughness, conveying the impression that he does not back down, that he doesn't settle lawsuits...

INSKEEP: Although he does sometimes settle lawsuits.

ISIKOFF: Although he actually has settled many lawsuits. But he conveys this impression of somebody who will stand up to his adversaries. And that's been a big part of his business career. And he's clearly trying to translate that into the world of politics and government.

INSKEEP: Have you heard back from him when you have reported on his business career?

ISIKOFF: Actually, the interview I did with him back in 2011, which was quite contentious - and he didn't appreciate it at the time. In fact, he said - after the interview, he went on CNBC and called me the worst reporter in America. I actually ran into him during the New Hampshire primary. I ran into him this year up in New Hampshire at a restaurant, and we talked about it. And he said, well, you really were right about that, which I thought was quite unexpected to hear from him.

INSKEEP: Right about which part of the interview?

ISIKOFF: Well, he didn't parse it for me, and I left it at that.

INSKEEP: He just acknowledged that you were OK to push him.

ISIKOFF: Yeah. He seemed to have respected the fact that I did push back on some of what he had to say.

INSKEEP: Michael Isikoff, thanks very much.

ISIKOFF: Sure enough.

INSKEEP: He's now the chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo News, helping us to reset the basics of Donald Trump's career. Now, tomorrow, we'll reset another part of the Republican's appeal, his attack on political correctness. By the way, we invited Mr. Trump to take our questions this week. He declined, but we'll keep making invitations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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