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Trump's businesses and brand still suffering from his polarizing rhetoric

Trump Tower's new wine and whiskey bar, 45, includes enormous pictures of the former president, in and around the White House.
Trump Tower's new wine and whiskey bar, 45, includes enormous pictures of the former president, in and around the White House.

Once, Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was a bustling indoor mall, with floors and floors of retail, a pink marble atrium and an indoor waterfall. On a recent visit, the waterfall and the pink marble were still there, but the escalator going up from the first floor was roped off, a currency exchange was closed, and small ground-level shops had been converted to display windows for Trump-branded merchandise.

There is something new: a wine and whiskey bar, called 45. Its logo, ringed with stars, looks kind of like a presidential seal. Inside, there are enormous pictures of the former president, in and around the White House.

Trump Tower embodies the contradictions of Donald Trump's business, post-presidency. There's a cachet to sell, but also an extremely polarizing brand. Trump's continued espousal of lies about the 2020 election have driven away potential partners; after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, associates from Deutsche Bank to the Professional Golf Association pulled back.

There's an ongoing criminal fraud case by the Manhattan district attorney against the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. The New York attorney general and the Westchester district attorney are also investigating. Trump, his company and the CFO have denied wrongdoing.

Donald Trump did not put his name back on many company documents after his presidency; Weisselberg, who was indicted for 15 felonies, removed his own name from some corporate documents; only Donald Trump Jr.'s and Eric Trump's names remain on many management filings.

Even without all the brand challenges, Trump is heavily tied up in businesses such as office rentals and retail that are struggling post-pandemic. Just this month, Forbes took the former president off its tally of the 400 richest people. Had Trump sold off his assets and invested in markets while he was president — which ethics experts advised him to do — he would have been $4.5 billion richer today, Forbes said.

"What sorts of businesses would you want to be invested in, in 2021?" asked Dan Alexander, the senior editor at Forbes who calculated Trump's wealth. "Not many people would pick large office buildings and big fancy hotels located in urban areas."

The New York State Comptroller earlier this month issued a report showing the value of Manhattan office buildings dropped $28 billion since the onset of the pandemic. Tourism and retail shopping also plummeted.

"The impact has been really negative in what we call the brick-and-mortar economy," said Kathy Wylde of the New York City Partnership, a business group.

Neither the Trump Organization nor spokespeople for the former president responded to requests for comment.

Though there's millions of dollars of debt, Trump still has steady income

Trump's problems extend beyond New York City. In the years before he became president, Trump went on a spree of buying up golf resorts. Though golfing spiked in popularity as a result of the pandemic, Trump resorts from Doral, Fla., to Doonbeg, Ireland, have faced a loss of conference and tourism clientele. Trump's brand licensing business is largely stagnant. His hotel in Washington lost $74 million while he was president, Congress recently reported.

On a recent day at Trump Tower, the escalator going up from the first floor was roped off and small ground-level shops had been converted to display windows for Trump-branded merchandise.
Andrea Bernstein / NPR
On a recent day at Trump Tower, the escalator going up from the first floor was roped off and small ground-level shops had been converted to display windows for Trump-branded merchandise.

To be sure, while Trump disclosed hundreds of millions of dollars of debt while he was president, his company still owns valuable assets. He gets a steady income from commercial real estate properties that don't bear his name in New York and San Francisco.

"I don't think it's as doomed as a lot of people think it is," Forbes' Alexander said of Trump's business.

But the Trump brand's troubles are easy to find. At Trump Tower in Manhattan recently, tourists going in and out of the building reacted not just to the property they'd seen, but to the man.

"I like Trump Tower. I like Trump. He did some pretty cool stuff," said Augustin Trustin, an entrepreneur from Buenos Aires, Argentina. But Gail Norwood, a retiree from Alabama who had just shopped with her granddaughter at the Gucci store that rents ground floor retail space on Fifth Avenue, refused to go into the main building.

"I won't enter the floors. I will not even walk on the ground. I feel that strongly," Norwood said. She said she didn't know the Gucci store was in Trump Tower. "I did not know that. I might've waited out here and sent her in."

Some don't see that as an insurmountable hurdle.

"It doesn't matter if it's a former president or a former shah or a former dignitary, there are always backstories to the real estate world, especially in New York City," said Adelaide Polsinelli, the vice chair of Compass Realty. She said that in 30 years, she has been through five real estate cycles. "They all end the same way — with New York City coming back stronger than before at levels no one expected, at pricing higher than the last cycle."

Trump is still trying new things. In mid-October, he announced a new, publicly traded company: Trump Media & Technology Group. Its future is uncertain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.