Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. This article has been updated to reflect the latest news.
Former President Donald Trump has been ditched by his accounting firm Mazars, which now says no one should rely on a decade’s worth of financial statements it prepared for the business mogul. Meanwhile, Trump is selling his flagship Washington hotel. Add to this his monetizing his post-presidency in every imaginable way, and Trump looks like a man who has entered his desperate hours.
Mazars’ announcement, which could clash with Trump’s favorite refrain – that he is “very rich” – is a dagger at the heart of his identity, As Trump critic and prominent Washington lawyer George Conway told CNN, the letter means Mazars is “pointing fingers” at him and is no longer “on team Trump” as prosecutors in New York examine his business practices.
Throughout his life, Trump has promoted himself as super wealthy as he sold products, hotel stays, golf club memberships and himself as a candidate for president. But since his Trump Organization has operated mainly as a private business, no independent audit confirmed his claims. When journalist Tim O’Brien published a book that indicated Trump was worth a fraction of what he has claimed, Trump sued. He lost, and ever since, his claims about his wealth should have been considered with an asterisk, which is what record keepers use to indicate a controversy in a baseball player’s stats.
Baseball, or rather, the retired Yankee great Alex Rodriguez, comes into play in another sign of Trump’s financial scramble: the sale of his Washington, DC hotel.
Once a jewel in his collection of properties, the hotel is being sold to a group that includes the ballplayer, who Trump once gleefully insulted – “He does not deserve to wear the pinstripes” – during a scandal over performance-enhancing drugs. A-Rod, as he’s known, was suspended for a year as punishment for using the drugs.
Meanwhile, the former President has been as busy as a bee, selling fans everything from drinking straws to brag-worthy photo ops. For $10,000 you could have joined him at a Christmas party where you were guaranteed to have your picture taken with him. Too pricey? No worries. If you’re in New York, you can stop by the Trump Tower bar, renamed “The 45 Wine and Whisky Bar” and get a signature drink, a Diet Coke, and two beef sliders, for $45. Still too much? On the former President’s website you’ll find all sorts of merch including a 10-pack of plastic straws “laser engraved” with the name “Trump.” It costs $15.
A little more than a year into his post-presidency, Trump is cashing in at a remarkable rate that suggests he’s as focused on money as he is on politics. Right now, he has revenue pouring into a political organization that can fund his personal expenses, with very few limits, though, notably the funds cannot be used as financing for a presidential campaign. (In July, the count was $100 million.) At the same time he is pocketing profits on goods and services branded with his name.
The financial magic Trump is performing is enough to impress anyone with an interest in how to profit from OPM, also known as other people’s money. In one of the easy-to-grasp methods, money is sent by donors to the Make America Great Again political action committee. The PAC pays $37,551.67 per month rent for space the former President owns at Trump Tower. As of June, the Washington Post reported, just three employees worked there, and sometimes even they didn’t show up.
There’s nothing illegal in Trump using money donated to his PAC to pay for space at a property he owns. There’s also nothing illegal in his PAC touting his $75 picture book at his rallies. Rallygoers might believe their purchase would support the Make America Great Again mission when royalties actually go into the former President’s pocket. But do you think they care? If I had to guess, I’d say they are as much fans of Trump the performer as supporters of a political cause and they are happy to pay for stuff that makes them feel closer to their man. Like other consumers, they are investing in a lifestyle brand like, say, Nike or Red Bull, which signals allegiance to certain ideals.
While the one-by-one retail sales of books, MAGA hats, and other branded items add up, much bigger sums can be shifted from the OPM flow to Trump’s political activities to his businesses. As the New York Times reported, candidates who have received donations from Trump’s political organizations have turned around and paid for events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The Trump PAC donated to the campaign of Herschel Walker, who’s running for Senate in Georgia. Walker spent more than $135,000 on an event at Mar-a-Lago.
Whether this means that Trump found a way to turn PAC money – and his endorsement of a candidate – into business revenue is in the eye of the beholder. But it is apparently perfectly legal.
She is also selling tickets to an upcoming high tea – $50,000 is the top price. She has said some of the proceeds will go to a charity – but that charity, Huffington Post reported, doesn’t yet seem to exist. Officials in Florida are investigating.
Considered altogether, the Trump money-making initiatives suggest a return to the days pre-presidency, when the family pursued every available dollar. The difference now is that prosecutors are examining their past dealings and Trump’s status as a former President adds the color of politics to every deal.