Kurtz: The Trump Backlash

Donald Trump speaks at a Tea Party rally in Boca Raton, Florida on April 16, 2011. Joe Skipper / Reuters-Landov

As Donald Trump tries to leverage his brand with a reality-show campaign for president, surging to the top of the 2012 GOP polls, the past is coming back to bite him. The media establishment has been treating him more as colorful sideshow than serious candidate. But now that it seems The Donald might actually run, it’s time to take a closer look at the darker corners of his empire.

Take John Robbins. When the retired Army officer heard Trump, in a music-filled tent, talk of putting up the tallest building in Tampa, Fla., he wanted in—“because of the Trump name.” But Robbins lost half his $150,000 down payment when the condo project went bankrupt and was “floored” to learn that Trump had merely licensed his gold-plated moniker: “I just don’t see Trump fitting the role of commander in chief. Somebody has to stand up to Mr. Trump.”

Hamed Hoshyarsar invested $54,000 in a condo at the Trump Ocean Resort Baja for one reason: he was a fan of The Apprentice. He lost every dime when the project was never built. “I want to throw up every time I see him,” says the Los Angeles accountant. “I see all these people talking about him being president, and I would never vote for that guy.”

Trump, who exudes a blustery charm, doesn’t miss a beat. “What about the 50 deals that worked out great—are you going to cover that too?” he asks me. Let the record show he has built some fabulous properties—but has also filed for corporate bankruptcy four times, most recently with his casino unit. “I do play with the bankruptcy laws—they’re very good for me” as a way of cutting debt, Trump says.

He says he’s not responsible in lawsuits over the two failed condo projects because his partners were the actual builders—and, his attorney says, such confidential licensing agreements are standard. Besides, says Trump, the buyers are “lucky” because they would have lost more money in a tanking market had the projects been built.

Another venture, Trump University, had to change its name after New York authorities ruled it wasn’t properly licensed; the school is also under scrutiny in Texas, where officials are examining possibly deceptive practices. Tarla Makaeff spent $35,000 to “Learn from the Master,” as a brochure put it, but the marketer says she didn’t get much beyond two “mentors” who were barely available after showing her some properties needing rehab. “I’m just disgusted by their greed,” says Makaeff, who is suing the school.

But Trump, who is countersuing, has a tape of Makaeff calling two staffers “awesome.” “This is really bullshit stuff,” he says, citing customer surveys that rate the school highly.

Trump sells himself as a head-banging businessman who can shake up a dysfunctional Beltway culture. But as pundits belatedly put him under the microscope, they’ll find him all over the political map. While Mitt Romney is typecast as a flip-flopper, Trump declared in 2000 that “we must have universal health care”; now he says Obamacare is unconstitutional. He once pronounced himself “strongly pro-choice” but recently discovered that, guess what, he’s pro-life. Obama was “amazing” and “phenomenal,” Trump wrote in 2009; now, not so much. And while Newt Gingrich is branded an adulterer, Trump conducted a tabloid-frenzy affair with Marla Maples, the second of his three wives.

For now, the press has pushed back hardest on Trump’s strange decision to peddle the birther nonsense. But he knows his customers: polls show roughly half of Republicans don’t believe Obama is a citizen.

Trump is suddenly inescapable, all over the networks, which love Trump because he’s good for ratings and the field is dull. Remember Sarah Palin? Her spokeswoman chided news outlets on Twitter for largely ignoring her last speech.

Trump may be giving his rivals cover by dominating the stage, but if reporters keep turning over rocks, the master showman might be glad he hung onto his day job.

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