In February of this year, President Trump’s administration granted Trump Vineyard Estates LLC an H-2A visa for immigrant labor. But major media outlets covering the winery (notably NPR, CNN, and The Washington Post) stopped their investigation a little short when they saw a seemingly contradictory legal disclaimer on Trump Winery’s website: “Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates.”
That’s intentionally misleading: Eric Trump did indeed own Trump Winery (despite his dad claiming to own it “100%” last year), but Donald Trump owns and, as president, profits from the vineyard the winery sits on, “Trump Vineyard Estates LLC,” which is registered to the Trump Organization and apparently worth between $5 million and $25 million dead presidents. Funnily enough, Trump apparently charges his son rent (per Trump’s financial disclosure form last year) because ET’s winery is on Trump Vineyard land. He’d also, I imagine, charge him for growing grapes there.
First, you’re right: we can indeed call bullshit right off the bat. Of course the winery is affiliated with the Trump Organization. The Trump family intentionally tries to make this stuff impossible to understand. And that’s the idea I’m going to explore here, because it’s really fucking weird that no one in the world agrees on exactly how much the President of the United States is actually worth.
It’s complicated, but if we just look at one asset, Trump Vineyards, we can get a feel for just how big and perilous Donald Trump’s global debt scam might actually be. I’ll do my best to lay it out simply—with visuals too—if you’ll stick it out with me for a couple of paragraphs first.
And if you stick with me until the end, I promise that Dave Matthews, of all people, will make a heroic cameo.
1. It’s important to understand that even though President Trump resigned from the Trump Organization, he hasn’t divested himself, and that’s the company his business empire is under—Trump Tower, Trump International Hotel, Mar-a-Lago, etc. This means Mr. Trump is still making all of that money. He’s also closely involved in the company and takes reports at least quarterly, as his son ET intelligently told Forbes some months back. In February, the Trump Organization quietly changed the president’s contract so that he can withdraw money from his businesses at any time without telling anyone. Really.
2. I want to be totally clear: the H-2A immigrant labor visas granted this February went to Trump Vineyard Estates LLC, which President Trump owns (Trump Org), and not to Trump Winery, which Eric Trump owns. This is a conflict of interest: Trump granted himself dozens of hard-to-get migrant worker visas, which will help him further enrich himself ever so slightly on the backs of about 30 non-American workers. Not only that, but Mr. Buy American, Hire American hasn’t threatened to do anything to restrict the number of migrants who can come into the country to work on H-2A visas, which he coincidentally profits from. He is, though, making it harder to get H-1B visas, which are for skilled tech workers and the like, from which Trump doesn’t profit.
Anyway, that’s where most of the reporting about the vineyard has stopped and where I will pick it up. Or, where I would have, had I not seen something perhaps even weirder: the money is looking shady. Here come the pictures.
The story of Trump Vineyards is a damn dazzling one. Mr. Trump bought Trump Vineyards—a sprawl of billowing green hills in my old haunt of Charlottesville, Virginia—from an heiress of the outrageously wealthy Kluge family. The Kluges initially wanted about $100 million for the vineyard and estate, but Mr. Trump eventually got the vineyard for $6.2 million and a little while later—for another $6.7 million—he got the prize: the mansion, now a luxury hotel. The deals involved a series of lawsuits and countersuits, lies, betrayals, broken friendships and mass unmarked graves of hawks and owls and other birds of prey, as well as your standard accusations of fraud and Trump stiffing his lawyers and welching on a contract and so on. You can and should read the full story here.
Anyway, as I was revising my big piece over the weekend, I found something had changed on the Trump Winery website. Here are some screen shots. At the bottom of the first shot, notice that tricky disclaimer (the one that says Trump Winery is owned by ET and not affiliated with the Trump Organization) that other journalists and I had seen months ago. The weird thing is you used to be able to access this page—the one with the URL ending in /legal—from within the winery’s website. But the website had received a makeover since I’d last visited and now those links are gone. You now have to enter the URL (/legal) to get to it. For what it’s worth, Brad Parscale—the Trump campaign’s chief data/IT man—designed this new site. The U.S. Congress is keen to talk with Parscale about his role in the campaign as it relates to Russian interference.
Here’s that original Trump Winery disclaimer page. As of this writing (evening of June 19), it’s still up.
I then clicked and scrolled around a bit and noticed a fairly recent update on the Winery website: the terms of service. These terms of service seem to make it quite clear that Trump Winery is now somehow part of the Trump Organization. That is, the winery is indeed now owned by the President. The site says that these terms were apparently updated March 2, 2017. I’m no expert, but here’s a screenshot of the introduction. Seems to make it pretty clear that the Winery is now in Trump Org territory:
And down the rabbit hole we go. I pushed a little further and found that these same terms of service are pulled seemingly verbatim from the Trump Hotel website. What’s more, the terms of service on the Trump Hotel site were updated on the exact same date (3/2/2017) that they were on the winery site. Trump Hotels, as you remember, is owned by the Trump Org, i.e., by the President of the United States.
But now get this: The Trump Winery website also links to / advertises for the new luxury hotel (called Albemarle House) that Trump built on his property. According to Trump’s recent financial disclosure form, Donald Trump/Trump Org owns this as “Trump Virginia Acquisitions LLC.”
What’s more, the Trump Winery website (Eric Trump) calls Albemarle House “our hotel.” (Doubled its revenue last year, baby!) You can see that “Our Hotel” line and the convenient booking form in some of the screengrabs above. But those links take you away from the Trump Winery site to the Trump Hotel site. This means there’s at least cross-pollination between Donald and Eric.
And for your enjoyment and personal improvement, here’s all of Trump’s vineyard-related financial disclosure stuff, which he voluntarily (how transparent!) released last week:
To my untrained eye, several lines are blurred here at once.
First take: it appears Trump Org might have taken over Trump Winery on March 2 of this year. Ah, but Trump Winery isn’t listed anywhere on Trump’s financial disclosure form. But it’s also possible that the Trump Org took over the winery after the financial disclosure form was signed. That is, sometime in the last week.
A company called “Trump Wine Marks” is on Trump’s form, but that’s listed as dormant/inactive (that’s what the (3) next to the name means). Trump Wine Marks was also listed as “inactive” on Trump’s 2016 form.
Okay, take two: the Trump Org did not take over Trump Winery, yet Trump Winery is maybe doing business as or with Trump Org, or cross-promoting or something. This would violate ET’s disclaimer, though. “Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates.”
Of course, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that was just a PR stunt all along.
One last important thing to note in this section because it will lead us into the next part: This whole vineyard deal for Trump was never about wine. It was only about the real estate. When Trump bought the rolling green vineyard in 2012 from heiress Patricia Kluge, he said, “I’m really interested in good real estate, not so much in wine.” (Trump, who lost a brother to alcoholism, doesn’t drink.) “This place had a $28 million mortgage on it, and I bought it for $6.2 million. It’s a Trump deal!”
Indeed, today Mr. Trump lists the value of his vineyard land far above what he paid. But, as his 1995 tax records showed us, Trump loves to use real estate as debt collateral. He’ll leverage one property to prop up another. The value of real estate isn’t fixed; it’s always in flux, depending on the market and on who’s buying. This means real estate value is like a balloon Trump can inflate and deflate at will. This is why Trump gave the winery to his son but kept the land it was on.
Until recently, that is.
Isn’t it just a little weird to you that no one can seem to agree on how much money Mr. Trump is actually worth? While researching this piece, I came across assessments that ranged from “broke” to “perhaps as high as many billions.” He says he’s worth ten fucking billion, which is impossible according to everyone but him.
As you’ve just seen, his Federal Election Commission financial disclosure forms aren’t helpful either. They don’t require him to list all of his assets or all of his debts, just assets he fully owns and personal debts. He has a lot of debt on some marquee properties he’s partnered up in. What’s more, the forms require no specific values. Hell, experts can’t even figure out if he’s got a massive $50 million loan to a mystery person.
I mean, the forms don’t even ask for profits! Just revenue. That is, money made before paying costs such as labor and equipment.
I’m no expert, but if no one in the world can agree on how much you’re worth because you’ve purposefully made it impossible to figure it out, I’d say there’s something really wrong somewhere. And it’s bound to crack.
But Trump is ready for it. If you’ll notice, he splits almost everything he owns into an independent company. That means each of his assets has its own legal entity. Trump Vineyard Estates LLC, for instance, as compared to a separate asset owned by Trump Vineyard Estates Lot 3 Owner LLC. This means that Trump’s other assets—and, to an extent, Trump himself—are more or less immune to catastrophic chain-reaction failure. See, if one company fails, all Trump has to do is sell it off and shut it down. Every other asset is completely sealed off. And it gets crazier. Check this out:
A bunch of different entities holding different portions of different assets. Trump Vineyard Estates LLC, for example, is 99% owned by DJT Holdings LLC, which itself is owned by another company called DJT Holdings Corporation. Trump owns 30% of the shares of DJT Holdings Corporation, and the other 60% is owned by Trump Family Associates LLC and the Trump Family Trust, where Mr. Trump is one of 13 trustees.
Again, this is all just for a vineyard. Not the most complex asset on here by a long shot. You can imagine how quickly this can scale, and how someone working fast enough and loud enough on a big enough stage could blow smoke all over the place. And what’s smoke? An impression of something when there’s nothing. And that’s why Trump isn’t afraid to release this thing instead of his taxes. It’s not about what these forms show us. It’s about what they don’t show us.
That is, we see Trump properties, but we can’t see all of his properties: just the ones in which Trump is the sole owner. More importantly: we don’t see how Trump is using these properties.
Even though Trump has disclosed how much he makes from his assets and has given them a range of value, he doesn’t say whether or how much he’s used them for collateral: that is, whether he’s taken out loans against these assets, or how much he owes on some of the “other” unnamed assets that themselves might be backing up still more loans, his or others. And we can’t see whether he’s putting properties up as collateral for more loans, then spreading that around from one to the other in a sort of self-inflicted Ponzi scheme of debt. Like this report says:
“[E]ven as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.
Mr. Trump created his business empire using what the economist Hyman Minsky called Ponzi financing. In that arrangement, debt is supported by rising asset prices; when those prices come down—in Mr. Trump’s case, the value of real estate—then creditors discover that the debt will not be repaid.
...Bankruptcy has been the building block for Mr. Trump’s wealth accumulation. Indeed, looked at in light of the presidency, Mr. Trump’s record in real estate development is almost entirely based on financing methods that are contrary to the laws governing the nation’s debt.
And guess what? When you use debt for collateral, the interest is… wait for it…
So with all this bullshit now fouling up our minds, let’s ask some final questions to try to make things clear again.
1. Why didn’t Mr. Trump divest from his company?
2. Why is Mr. Trump taking his Presidential salary when he said repeatedly he wouldn’t?
3. Why won’t Mr. Trump release his tax returns?
4. Why is Mr. Trump taking quarterly reports from his son?
5. And perhaps most importantly: why did the Trump Organization quietly change the President’s contract so that he can withdraw money from his businesses at any time without telling anyone?
That said, Trump’s latest financial disclosure form shows his companies and properties are doing well. Mar-a-Lago—the “Winter White House”—for instance, made $8 million more this go-around than it did in last year’s disclosure. It also doubled its membership rate after Trump got elected. And the revenue from his airplane company, which he used to shuttle around the country during his campaign, more than doubled to $7.7 million. Trump International Hotel in D.C. has raked in a cool $20 million since opening in September. And Albemarle House doubled its revenue, too.
But these aren’t profits. This is only revenue. Not the bottom line.
1. Not knowing how any of this has been moved around;
2. Not knowing what Trump’s taxes are;
3. Not knowing what Trump’s real profits are;
4. Not knowing how and where he’s leveraging his assets;
5. And seeing how hard Mr. Trump works to make it impossible to know any of those things:
It’s not insane to think the president is, if enough creditors come a-calling, damn near broke. Cash poor. Perhaps he literally can’t afford to let go of his real estate and brand collateral, and he needs the Trump Organization’s assets should his creditors come knocking at the White House gates.
In other words, this form is pretty much useless. So naturally, I wondered who could take him to court.
If you wanted to sue Trump over his vineyard/winery operations, you’d first need standing (a legit reason). It seems reasonable that a competing Charlottesville-area vineyard affected by Trump Vineyard’s advantages might be able to prove standing. And it turns out that Donald Trump isn’t the only celebrity running a vineyard in Charlottesville. In fact, he isn’t the only celebrity with a vineyard within a mile: just down the road is Blenheim Vineyards, run by Dave Matthews.
And so, Dave Matthews, if you’re out there, I loved your first two-and-a-half records. Could you please do the world a favor and elevate Donald Trump’s hypocritical, deceitful, greedy, petty, tiny, covetous heart up to the light of justice by taking his lyin’ “Buy American, Hire American” ass to court?
I’ll admit I could be wrong about a lot of how I read these details. But at least I know now that it seems that Donald Trump, the self-professed billionaire President of the United States of America, who won’t even pay his taxes, makes his own son pay him rent to run a business that Mr. Trump owns.
And if that doesn’t make sense to you, if none of this makes sense to you, if you’re overwhelmed by all the pettiness, that’s my point: “Trump” isn’t about being the biggest at all. That’s a deflection, a distraction away from his real secret: it’s about the smalls. Billions and billions of smalls. Pointillism, Ponzi style.
Because at the end of the day, the real sin here is that with all this overwhelming, suffocating smallness, the truly big things seem small, and they go forgotten. The thing I was so set on writing this piece about, the very thing that sparked it, has disappeared in the enormity of all this nothingness, and I’m to blame for that, for losing sight of the bent backs of 30 hardworking people Mr. Trump doesn’t want in his country unless they’re saving him a few bucks an hour.
Roger Sollenberger is a writer and musician living in Austin, TX. Follow and then unfollow him a little while later on Twitter.