On Tuesday, in a transparent bid to prevent ordinary Americans — and especially private businesses — from feeling the effects of the government shutdown, Donald Trump ordered tens of thousands of federal employees to return to work with no pay and no immediate hope of getting paid.
These are not the employees deemed “essential” because of the public safety or health concerns of their jobs. Those being forced to work without pay are clearly chosen to keep Republican voters, the only voters Trump cares about, from losing government services. IRS employees are being forced to process tax returns. Interior Department employees are being forced to process oil and gas leases, so wealthy conservative businessmen don’t lose out on profit opportunities.
It’s sadly no surprise that Trump is willing to force so many people to work without pay. Getting people to work for him and refusing to pay them was a major component of Trump’s business operations. As USA Today documented during the 2016 campaign, literally hundreds of contractors had horror stories about Trump stiffing them, in some cases so badly that it ruined their businesses. He hired contractors to do expensive work and then refused to pay them, usually using some BS excuse that the work was somehow flawed, knowing that most of them simply couldn’t afford the legal fees that would be required to force him to pay up what he owed in court. He also, as the same story reported, had been cited 24 times by the federal government since 2005 for failure to pay employees overtime or minimum wage.
Trump himself has bragged about how he swindles contractors, saying, “I fight like hell to pay as little as possible,” and portraying it as a smart business practice — which is dubious, as he’s also spent a fortune on lawyers to get out of paying contractors. Instead, the practice likely speaks to Trump’s well-documented love of bullying and his sense of entitlement, in this case to extract quality work from contractors without paying for it.
As president, Trump now has a power he never had as a grifting real estate developer: The ability to force people to work for him for free. No tricks or expensive lawyers are necessary.
Trump ran for president by promising voters he would run the government like he ran his business. Problem is, the voters who bought that line either didn’t know the truth or didn’t want to believe it: Trump ran his business operations into the ground repeatedly, as evidenced by his at least six bankruptcies. Now he is doing the same thing to the federal government.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the Trump administration is admitting that the negative economic impact is twice what it had initially claimed. That likely means it’s far worse than that, especially, as New York Times reporters pointed out, in light of other damage Trump is doing to the economy with massive tax cuts for the wealthy and a pointless trade war with China.
This shifting story on the shutdown’s impact should also be no surprise to anyone familiar with Trump’s shady history as a businessman. His tendency to wildly underestimate the cost of doing business played a major role in his repeated bankruptcies, which eventually led to most banks cutting him off from lending. (Which in turn explains why he turned to shady Russian sources of money, which likely played a role in the other ongoing Trump-centric crisis.)
Simply put, Trump talked investors out of millions to fund his casinos, but never got close to making the profits he promised them. He used his father’s massive wealth as leverage to bilk more money out of the banks. He lied to regulators and deceived investors in order to get more money to toss into the financial black hole that was his casinos. He used bankruptcy laws and the threat of total ruin to bondholders in order to avoid paying his debts in full.
Now Trump is trying to play the same game with the border wall that he played with his casinos: Tell a bunch of lies about what it will cost, in the hope that he can extract more money from the suckers down the road.
The $5.7 billion Trump has demanded for the wall falls far short of what the wall he promised would actually cost, which has been estimated to be anywhere between $25 billion and $70 billion. Those numbers don’t even include the maintenance costs or potential staffing that would be needed to police the wall.
It seems as if Trump, who is nothing like the competent negotiator he played on “The Apprentice,” is trying to employ his failed business strategies in the casino business to the wall-building enterprise. In the past, he would rope lenders and investors in with big promises, and when he inevitably started to fail would persuade them to throw good money after bad in an effort to keep the business afloat rather than watch their initial investment go up in smoke.
He clearly thinks the wall will work the same way: Get enough money to start construction and then, when the money runs out, he can then use the threat that the project will be left unfinished to extract vastly larger sums of money from Congress.
In fairness, Trump has been pretty open about his belief that this is his best strategy. He keeps using language like “initial down payment” and insinuating that once the process of building the wall starts, the rest of the money will somehow magically appear to finish it. In some cases, he has even suggested that once construction is underway, that will somehow create the leverage necessary to force Mexico to finish paying for it. But his more recent comments suggest he now thinks that as long as he can get ground broken for this ludicrous and unnecessary project, Congress will be forced to pony up and complete it.
Of course, that’s not how any of this works. For better or worse, banks and investors used to give Trump money because they believed they’d get a decent return on it. When it became clear that they were better off setting the money on fire, they stopped financing him altogether.
Trump can make no convincing argument that the wall is an “investment” that will yield returns for our government — much less Mexico’s government. He’s trying to claim that, of course, spinning out silly tales about how the wall “pays for itself,” which no one seems particularly interested in buying.
Conservative chatter about running government “like a business” has always been ridiculous. Government is not a profit-making enterprise and cannot effectively be run like one. But even if it were like a business, Trump was always the wrong kind of businessman to run it. He’s a fraud, a swindler, a liar and incompetent to boot. And now he’s in way over his head, just as he was with every casino and hotel he ran into bankruptcy.