Donald Trump was thundering about a minority group, linking its members to murderers and what he predicted would be an epic crime wave in America. His opponents raged in response — some slamming him as a racist — but Trump dismissed them as blind, ignorant of the real world.
No, this is not a scene from a recent rally in which the Republican nominee for president stoked fears of violence from immigrants or Muslims. The year was 1993, and his target was Native Americans, particularly those running casinos who, Trump was telling a congressional hearing, were sucking up to criminals.
Trump, who at the time was a major casino operator, appeared before a panel on Indian gaming with a prepared statement that was level-headed and raised regulatory concerns in a mature way. But, in his opening words, Trump announced that his written speech was boring, so he went off-script, even questioning the heritage of some Native American casino operators, saying they "don't look like Indians" and launching into a tirade about "rampant" criminal activities on reservations.
"If [Indian gaming] continues as a threat, it is my opinion that it will blow. It will blow sky high. It will be the biggest scandal ever or one of the biggest scandals since Al Capone," Trump said. "That an Indian chief is going to tell [mobster] Joey Killer to please get off his reservation is almost unbelievable to me."
His words were, as is so often the case, incendiary. Lawmakers, latching onto his claim to know more than law enforcement about ongoing criminal activity at Indian casinos, challenged Trump to bring his information to the FBI. One attacked Trump's argument as the most "irresponsible testimony" he had ever heard. Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr., whom Trump had praised in his testimony, responded by calling him a "dirtbag" and a bigot; Trump immediately changed his mind about the governor, proclaiming Weicker to be a "fat slob who couldn't get elected dog catcher in Connecticut."
For opponents of Trump's presidential run, this contretemps about American Indians might seem like a distant but familiar echo of the racism charges that have dogged his campaign, including his repeated taunting of Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas" because she claims native ancestry. But, in this case, there was more to it than that: Trump, through his offensive tantrum, was throwing away financial opportunities, yet another reminder that, for all his boasting of his acumen and flaunting of his wealth, the self-proclaimed billionaire has often been a lousy businessman.
As Trump was denigrating Native Americans before Congress, other casino magnates were striking management agreements with them. Trump knew the business was there even when he was testifying; despite denying under oath that he had ever tried to arrange deals with Indian casinos, he had done just that a few months earlier, according to an affidavit from Richard Milanovich, the official from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians who met with Trump, letters from the Trump Organization and phone records. The deal for the Agua Caliente casino instead went to Caesars World. (In 2000, Trump won a contract to manage the casino for the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, but after Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts declared bankruptcy in 2004, the tribe paid Trump $6 million to go away.) And in his purposeless, false, and inflammatory statements before Congress, Trump alienated politicians from around the country, including some who had the power to influence construction contracts — problems that could have been avoided if he had simply read his prepared speech rather than ad-libbing.
Lost contracts, bankruptcies, defaults, deceptions, and indifference to investors — Trump's business career is a long, long list of such troubles, according to regulatory, corporate and court records, as well as sworn testimony and government investigative reports. Call it the art of the bad deal, one created by the arrogance and recklessness of a businessman whose main talent is self-promotion.
He is also pretty good at self-deception, and plain old deception. Trump is willing to claim success even when it is not there, according to his own statements. "I'm just telling you, you wouldn't say that you're failing," he said in a 2007 deposition when asked to explain why he would give an upbeat assessment of his business even if it was in trouble. "If somebody said, 'How you doing?' you're going to say you're doing good." Perhaps such dissembling is fine in polite cocktail party conversation, but in the business world it's called lying.
And while Trump is quick to boast that his purported billions prove his business acumen, his net worth is almost unknowable given the loose standards and numerous outright misrepresentations he has made over the years. In that 2007 deposition, Trump said he based estimates of his net worth at times on "psychology" and "my own feelings." But those feelings are often wrong — in 2004, he presented unaudited financials to Deutsche Bank while seeking a loan, claiming he was worth $3.5 billion. The bank concluded Trump was, to say the least, puffing; it put his net worth at $788 million, records show. (Trump personally guaranteed $40 million of the loan to his company, so Deutsche coughed up the money. He later defaulted on that commitment.)
Trump's many misrepresentations of his successes and his failures matter — a lot. As a man who has never held so much as a city council seat, there is little voters can examine to determine if he is competent to hold office. He has no voting record and presents few details about specific policies. Instead, he sells himself as qualified to run the country because he is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and his financial dealings are the only part of his background available to assess his competence to lead the country. And while Trump has had a few successes in business, most of his ventures have been disasters.