When Donald Trump signed a deal to star in The Apprentice in 2004, the New York Times’ latest bombshell report on his tax returns shows, he was among the worst businessmen in the United States.
Tax documents obtained by the New York Times show how Trump squandered a $413m inheritance in a series of losing plays in real estate and casinos. On his tax return in 2004, he declared $89.9m in net losses from core businesses the previous year.
The story of how The Apprentice made Trump a household name, burnishing his personal myth as a successful businessman and ultimately paving his way to the White House, is well documented. But on Tuesday, the Times exposed just how false that myth was, and how far into the red Trump had sunk when he was approached by Mark Burnett, a British-born reality TV producer known for the genre’s first mega-hit, Survivor.
The New York Times report also exploded the image of Trump as a businessman with a reality TV career on the side. Taken together, the documents “demonstrate that he was far more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life”, the Times said.
As the first presidential debate approached, a White House spokesperson did not dispute any specific facts in the New York Times report but dismissed it as “fake news” and “yet another politically motivated hit piece full of inaccurate smears”.
Trump’s tax documents reveal that he netted $427m in earnings, endorsements and licensing from 14 seasons of The Apprentice, a sum which worked to cover the losses of the real estate and hospitality concerns that made up his business “empire”.
On TV, Trump played a billionaire who judged young entrepreneurs hoping to make the big time, testily firing them one by one. Without the role, his earnings would have been basically flat from 2000 to 2018, his tax documents show – potentially leaving him unable to service debts incurred from his disastrous casino projects.
Now, as Trump nears the end of his first term as president, facing a long-shot re-election bid, even the Apprentice money appears to be gone, sunk in a series of golf resorts which appear once again to have delivered him to the brink of financial disaster.
In the last eight years, the tax documents show, Trump has borrowed $100m against Trump Tower in Manhattan, $160m on his hotel in Washington and $148m on the Doral golf resort in Miami, where he wanted to host the G7 summit. A significant portion of those loans appear to be coming due in the next four years. It is unclear how Trump will service them.
Trump’s base earnings from The Apprentice were nearly $200m, but he made even more, about $230m, through an aggressive pursuit of licensing and endorsement deals. Those deals included real estate developments around the world, including projects in Azerbaijan, Brazil and Mexico, where a failed Baja condo resort exploded in a giant fraud lawsuit after $32.5m deposited by prospective buyers, mostly from California, disappeared.
At home, Trump signed deals to market Double Stuf Oreos, Domino’s Pizza, All laundry detergent, get-rich-quick seminars, steaks, vodka, cologne and the McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty burger. The Serta mattress company paid him $15.3m for the right to reach out to “consumers interested in experiencing the Trump lifestyle at an affordable price”, his tax documents show.
Other deals drew accusations of fraud. These included a “Trump University”, which ended in a $25m payout to settle lawsuits, and a multi-level marketing scheme that promised people they could make money by working from home, a privilege that cost the overwhelming majority more to learn about than they ever could recoup.
In 2004, the season finale of The Apprentice attracted more young viewers than any other entertainment program, except the Oscars and a premiere of Survivor directly after the Super Bowl. More than 40 million tuned in for the show’s climax, driving a flood of advertising dollars to NBC and huge paydays for Trump and Burnett.
But as the show aged its ratings sank, diminishing Trump’s income stream and dulling his marketing luster. Former intimates of Trump have said he ran for president in 2016 not because he expected to win or even wanted to, but because he saw an opportunity to reinvigorate his brand at a time when he needed to find a new payday.
The bid did not work out as planned.