Donald Trump’s supporters are tired of excuses. Real leaders are accountable for their actions, they say. They like the Donald’s own counsel, from February 2013: “Take responsibility for yourself — it’s a very empowering attitude.”
Except Trump has never followed his own advice. Donald Trump’s professional life is a chronicle of excuse-making for his own misjudgment and malfeasance.
Start with Trump’s first major failure, the demise of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals — and the league itself, in 1986. The USFL, which boasted future National Football League greats such as quarterback Doug Flutie and running back Herschel Walker, played its season in the spring. Trump didn’t like that. “If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” Trump said at the time. At his urging, the league voted to move its season — inadvertently setting up a war for primetime with the NFL, which at the time was featured on all three major networks.
In The Art of the Deal, Trump excused what followed this way: “Even if we cut our losses in the spring, there was no foreseeable chance of making a profit, and a lot of our weaker owners couldn’t afford to lose another dime. We needed to take radical action.” So, Trump spearheaded an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL won — but the court decided that the USFL’s own reckless management was as much to blame for its injury as the NFL was. A jury awarded the league $3.
The USFL promptly folded, after only four years. In the 2009 ESPN documentary Small Potatoes, Flutie said he thought the league “could have continued on” if Trump had not attempted to “rush” its development. Actor Burt Reynolds, then a partner in Tampa Bay’s team, concurred: “I still feel and will always feel that his ambitions — his personal ambitions — were what sunk the league.” Trump, meanwhile, blamed “owners that couldn’t pay their bills,” and declared: “I think without me, the league would have folded a lot sooner.”
#share#Fast-forward two decades. In April 2006, just two years before the housing market would go belly-up, Donald Trump declared on CNBC: “I think it’s a great time to start a mortgage company.” “The real-estate market,” he forecast, “is going to be very strong for a long time to come.” At 40 Wall Street, the Trump Organization devoted a floor to a new enterprise: Trump Mortgage LLC, which Trump confidently predicted would be a “terrific” company.
Trump was nothing if not sanguine. Eight months earlier, in a blog he kept as “chairman of Trump University,” he had dismissed warnings of a “housing bubble” as “doom and gloom”:
With housing prices continuing to rise into the far reaches of the stratosphere, there’s a lot of talk about a housing bubble on the brink of bursting. Scared at the possibility, industry watchers have been preaching impending doom, warning house shoppers to be wary of the real estate market. . . .
Obviously, good things don’t last forever. But in a competitive business environment, you have to be willing to take chances. You can’t always live in fear.
It was a wild misjudgment on the part of the much-feted real-estate mogul. So, when Trump Mortgage closed its doors in 2007, Trump naturally blamed its failure on the people he had hired: “We weren’t happy with them and we terminated them based on the fact they were not doing what they said they were going to do,” he told a New York–based real-estate publication in September 2007.
Trump’s failure to heed the warning signs of the coming real-estate bubble occasioned another boondoggle of his own making. In 2005, Deutsche Bank had loaned Donald Trump $640 million to aid the construction of the 92-storey Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. Three years later, Trump was experiencing unexpected cash-flow problems, and he tried to wriggle out of paying $40 million due on the loan’s outstanding balance. Deutsche Bank sued. Trump, unsurprisingly, countersued, but on surprising grounds: Buyers had stopped purchasing high-priced condominiums in his new building because of “the current financial crisis”; the financial crisis was caused by bankers; ergo Deutsche Bank owed him $3 billion.
The legal claim here was . . . creative. Trump cited in his favor the lending agreement’s “force majeure” clause, which permitted postponement of construction in the occasion of floods, riots, or “any other event or circumstance not within the reasonable control of the borrower.” As he told an interviewer: “Would you consider the biggest depression we have had had in this country since 1929 to be such an event? I would.” Of course, hampering Trump’s claim was the fact that construction itself never ended — just Trump’s willingness to pay his construction-related debts.
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And other cases abound: Trump excuses four bankruptcies, for example, by saying, as he did on the debate stage in August, that he has “used the laws of this country just like the greatest people that you read about every day in business have used the laws of this country, the chapter laws, to do a great job for my company, for myself, for my employees, for my family, et cetera.” Conveniently, he ignored the part where he managed those companies into bankruptcy in the first place. Presumably the 1,100 employees who lost their jobs when Trump Entertainment Resorts went under in 2009 do not feel that Trump’s use of Chapter 11 laws was “great” for them.
#related#Predictably, this sort of “accountability” is now prevailing on the campaign trail, where Trump has blamed a “very bad earpiece” for his failure to denounce David Duke and white supremacists — despite having repeated Duke’s name and the words “white supremacists” back to CNN host Jake Tapper. And there is no question that similar excuses will prevail in the White House, if he were to end up there.
Conservatives have long bemoaned Barack Obama’s refusal to take responsibility for his mistakes and failures. If Donald Trump’s supporters wanted a real leader, they would demand accountability from Trump. But it seems they simply want their own Obama.
— Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.