L.A. Times Examines Trump’s Gold-Plated Corporate Welfare

How do you handle covering a candidacy that’s primarily a publicity stunt by a crazed ego and presshound—one with approximately zero chance of success—without lending undue credit to it?

The Los Angeles Times shows one way today with a smart angle: Donald Trump’s rich history of milking taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars for his gold-plated skyscrapers.

This is a really good lede:

Donald Trump, the developer and would-be presidential candidate, portrays himself as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, shrewder and tougher than any politician, who would use his billionaire’s skills to restore discipline to the federal government.

In his disdain of big government, however, Trump glances over an expensive irony: He built his empire in part through government largesse and connections.

Well, having covered the real estate business for a few years, I can assure you there’s no such thing as a developer who has built an empire without government largesse and connections. That probably should have been a “to be sure” here.

But the LAT shows that Trump has been particularly egregious, not to mention indiscreet, about it, bragging about misleading public officials to get deals.

First, we’d have never heard of Donald Trump if he hadn’t inherited the $250 million fortune his father built off government-subsidized housing. But the Times points out that his first big Manhattan deal was to renovate the Hyatt at Grand Central Station. For that project, he got a forty-year fullproperty-tax incentive, which cost taxpayers $60 million (presumably not adjusted for inflation) in the first ten years alone, according to the paper.

The LAT details how Trump has also won benefits that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Florida. If anything, it feels like the paper should have found more examples of sweetheart deals that benefited Trump and his wealthy tenants at the expense of the public. It says up high that “many of his projects remain shielded from view,” but is that really true? I’ve never known a Trump anything to be “shielded from view.” At the least, the Times should have explained what it means here a bit more.

Trump is undeniably newsworthy right now early in the 2012 race, where he has pulled near 20 percent of GOP primary voters in some early polls and led the race. But he’s always been an irrestistible character for the press—a throwback to the time before the ascendance of public relations, before the ascendance of public relations muted color and tycoons weren’t yet trained in the art of talking to reporters while really saying nothing. This quote, for instance, is simply great copy:

Referring to how he managed to win a 40-year tax abatement for rebuilding a crumbling hotel at Grand Central Station — a deal that in the first decade cost taxpayers $60 million — Trump said, “Someone said, ‘How come you got 40 years.’ I said, ‘Because I didn’t ask for 50.’ “

This quote is chuckle-worthy, too:

“When I work for myself, I try to make the maximum profit,” he said. “If I run [for president] and if I win, I will no longer care about myself. I’ll be doing the same kind of things for this country.”

Unfortunately, the paper does a poor job of promoting the story on its website. This is a good piece of enterprise reporting, surely more important (not to mention maybe more clickable) than two of the top three stories on the home page right now, which are “Cannes is living up to the hype this year” and “Lohan pleads no contest to jewelry theft.” It’s not even on the business section’s landing page. I wouldn’t have seen it if not for Twitter.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,