Trump's business continues to suffer losses: fewer tenants, lost government contracts, bailing business partners. But some observers say things aren't as dire as they seem for the former president.



Former President Donald Trump's real estate and hospitality businesses are struggling. Since he lost last November, Trump has repeated his lies about the results of the 2020 election that has made a polarizing brand even more polarizing. Andrea Bernstein has this report from New York, the longtime headquarters of his financial empire.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: On the ground floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan, there is a new wine and whiskey bar getting ready to open. It's called 45, and it's marked by a logo ringed with stars that looks kind of like the presidential seal. Around the corner on Fifth Avenue, some tourists are going in and out of a building, like Augustin Trustin, an entrepreneur from Buenos Aires.

AUGUSTIN TRUSTIN: I like Trump Tower. I like Trump, yeah. He did some pretty cool stuff.

BERNSTEIN: Gail Norwood from Alabama and her granddaughter walk out of the Gucci store, which rents space on the ground floor. Norwood wouldn't go in the main doorway.

GAIL NORWOOD: I won't enter the floors. I will not even walk on the ground. I feel that strongly.

BERNSTEIN: Did you know the Gucci building they're renting from - in Trump Tower?

NORWOOD: I did not know that. I might have waited out here and sent her in (laughter).

BERNSTEIN: A pair of former residents had just had lunch at the cafe inside.

How was it?

LEONARD: Terrific.

BERNSTEIN: How did it feel like compared to when you used to live there?

CAROL: Well, it's much less crowded, but they had first opened up the cafes I think a couple of weeks ago so...

LEONARD: And we also were here a long time, so everybody knows us. It feels like home away from home.

BERNSTEIN: Carol and Leonard didn't want us to use their last names because they worry about harassment. They'd suffered it in the past from protesters outside.

LEONARD: I used to walk out there. They used to scream at me.

BERNSTEIN: Such is the challenge for the former president and the business named after him. To invoke his name is to invite strong reactions. After the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, business associates from Deutsche Bank to the Professional Golf Association walked away. New York City cancelled leases for a golf course and an ice skating rink. Trump's business faces challenges across the globe. Just this month, Forbes took former President Trump off its tally of the 400 richest. His namesake business that he wholly owns is listing.

DAN ALEXANDER: Compared to other businesses, it's in trouble.

BERNSTEIN: Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes. He says the combination of a polarizing brand and brick-and-mortar real estate has been a bad bet.

ALEXANDER: What sorts of businesses would you want to be invested in in 2021? Not many people would pick large office buildings and big fancy hotels located in urban areas.

BERNSTEIN: If Trump had sold off his assets and put the money in the markets while he was president, Alexander says, Trump would have been a lot richer.

ALEXANDER: That's a $4.5 billion mistake.

BERNSTEIN: We go inside. Once, you could ride the escalator up five floors.

ALEXANDER: This is no longer an indoor mall. I mean, it's basically a monument to Trump.

BERNSTEIN: Now higher floors are roped off. The shops on the first floor are now just window displays and the escalator - you know the escalator - takes you down to the cafe, a sweet shop and two stores where you can buy golf balls and Trump 2024 caps.

ALEXANDER: This isn't a big money generator down here.

BERNSTEIN: In the next couple of years, 65,000 square feet of retail space will come up for rent in an era when, because of the pandemic, people have gotten really comfortable with shopping online.

ALEXANDER: Who wants to do that and pay Donald Trump where you're going to have a headline the next day that says, you know, X company signs lease to pay Donald Trump estimated, you know, $15 million a year, or whatever it is? And so some of your customers might say, wait a second.

BERNSTEIN: To be sure, Alexander notes, properties like this one are still worth a lot of money, more than the hundreds of millions of dollars in debt Trump disclosed while he was president.

ALEXANDER: I don't think that it's as doomed as a lot of people think it is.

BERNSTEIN: The former president is still getting cash income streams from office buildings that don't bear his name. Donald Trump did not put himself back on many company documents after he left the White House, and one of the people he left running the company, Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, is now charged with 15 felonies. Weisselberg, who pleaded not guilty, has removed himself as an officer from a number of corporate entities, leaving them to Eric and Donald Trump Jr. The Trump Organization didn't respond to requests for comment.

ADELAIDE POLSINELLI: Every real estate, no matter who owns it, is challenged.

BERNSTEIN: Adelaide Polsinelli of Compass Realty.

POLSINELLI: Doesn't matter if it's a former president or a former Shaw or a former dignitary, there are always back stories to the real estate world, especially in New York City.

BERNSTEIN: She says, in 30 years, she's been through five real estate cycles.

POLSINELLI: They all end the same way, with New York City coming back stronger than before at levels that no one expected, at pricing higher than the last cycle.

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

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Bernstein in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.