Fortune interviews the GOP frontrunner.
The following is a transcript of an interview Fortune conducted with Republican presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump on Tuesday, April 19, the night of the New York primary, in his office at Trump Tower on 5th Ave. in Manhattan. Fortune reached out to Trump’s campaign three weeks before our publication date, seeking an interview about his business career. After originally agreeing to meet, Trump’s team canceled the interview and said the GOP frontrunner would not participate in Fortune’s article, which can be found here: Business the Trump Way.
But just four days before the deadline for our May issue, Trump agreed to sit for the following discussion:
Donald Trump: I looked at the numbers that you are giving Hope [Hicks, director of communications for Trump’s campaign] and they are totally wrong. I mean they are so far off.
Fortune: I didn’t give the numbers to Hope. Right now the plan is there are two articles. There’s one . . .
This is Alan Weisselberg, chief financial officer.
Weisselberg: Hello. How are you?
There’s the article that some other Fortune writers have been working on for a while and there’s this Q&A, which is your say on who you are as a businessman and a politician.
But how could they be working on an article about me and my private company—and you can put this in my Q&A or before my Q&A—which has hundreds of deals under negotiation all over the world and taking in tremendous amounts of money that they have no idea about because these are private deals.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this. But—
Well it’s an important point. I looked at your numbers and your numbers are ridiculous.
So another person at Fortune reached out as part of that article.
I never heard about.
OK. Well I don’t know. So I reached out to you because again we had the relationship when I covered New York real estate for Crain’s New York [Business] and thought you might be willing to talk to me.
Your article is going to be fine because it’s question and answer and that’s fair. But I don’t know how another group could be doing an article about a private real estate company that has hundreds of deals under negotiation and in many cases licensing deals. There’s no investment [coming from The Trump Organization]. The name [Trump] is the hottest it’s ever been right now. Fortune is a magazine I respect by the way. In fact, your sister magazine [TIME] I have been on the cover of quite a few times in the last few months.
Do you respect them [TIME] this week?
I respect them this week, and I hope I will respect them even more next week, because I think maybe they are doing another one. Let’s see what happens. They [Fortune reporters] don’t know anything about my company. We have an unbelievable company. We have very little debt. We have some of the most iconic assets in the world. We have a tremendous cashflow. We have the kind of assets that sell like a great painting would sell.
I think they have done the best job they can based on the fact that you weren’t cooperating. But let’s move on.
Read more Fortune coverage of Trump as business:
- The Fortune Donald Trump Cover Story: Business the Donald Trump Way
- What Trump Does Have to Teach Leaders: What You Need to Know About Donald Trump
- The Donald Trump Fortune Interview Greatest Hits: Donald Trump on Atlantic City, China, and Sanders
- Video: Here’s What You Need to Know About Trump’s Business Failures
- Donald Trump on the Fed: Why Donald Trump Loves Low Interest Rates, But Won’t Reappoint Janet Yellen
- Why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Are More Similar Than You Think
What makes a businessman great?
Proper instinct—so important. Knowing the limits that they can go. Imagination, so important.
Do the things that make a businessman great make a president great?
They help—but it’s another step. You have to have a lot of different skills in addition to those of a businessman. You need great communication skills, which a businessman does not need. I have friends of mine who are tremendously successful but they don’t communicate well. But they have other assets. You do need a lot of heart; businessmen don’t necessarily need heart.
One difference between running a business and running a company: You said you currently have very little leverage. But over your career you have used leverage on your buildings.
I have had it both ways. I like this way better.
Particularly when you were running the casino company you had a lot of debt, more than $2 billion connected to it. Is there a difference? Should someone think about running a company and leverage, and the country and leverage differently.
Yes. They are different. But with the casino company, what many people don’t know, but what the very good businessmen do know very well, is that Atlantic City was a tremendous deal for me. I started in Atlantic City with one building and a partner. The partner was Holiday Inn. Holiday Inn put up all the money and I owned half. I then bought them out for very little and ended up own a casino for very little money.
I then bought another casino not for $565 million as you say, but for $400 million. That was called Trump’s Castle, that later became Trump Marina. And then the third one was the Taj Majal, where I bought a company, and then sold it to Merv Griffin for a tremendous amount of money. That was a deal that was a very expensive deal for Merv Griffin and he ended up taking it into bankruptcy. But I bought the company Resorts because I wanted to get the Taj Mahal, which was half built, and I got to keep it. Made a lot of money on that deal.
You made a lot of money off of the gaming license of the Marina. You had a license and Hilton didn’t.
What happened was that Hilton was unable to get licensed because they used lawyers that were I guess inappropriate according to gaming commissions, even though those same lawyers were used by people who had licenses. I think Hilton wasn’t well represented. But Hilton was not treated fairly in Atlantic City in my opinion. They were forced to sell Marina at a firesale. I got it for $400 million. I got 100% of financing by Manufacturers Hanover Trust, the head of whom was a great guy—John McGillicutty. I said to John, give me 100% of the financing. But I also said when junk bond market comes around I’ll finance it out. I financed it out, I had no money—I bought it for nothing. Same thing with the [Trump] Plaza [casino], even better than that because I was in for so little money because Holiday Inn had put up all the money, and then Holiday Inn had the big problem and I was able to buy them out for very little money. So there’s my foray into Atlantic City.
The thing I think people struggle with about your time in Atlantic City is that when your company went public in 1994—
No, no. I hadn’t taken it public yet.
You hadn’t taken it public yet?
No, I’m not public yet.
I then refinanced, like you would do your house, but with junk bonds to take money out. And ultimately I took it public and took money out. After it was public I was not very involved. Here’s the problem with AC: The politicians years ago made terrible decisions. They built a convention center in the wrong location. It was too far away from the hotels. I said, ‘You are making a terrible mistake.’ Then they built the airport and they did a terrible job, and I said ‘Folks, essentially mentally I’m going to go onto other things,’ and I did. I went to Manhattan projects that were very successful.
Let me tell you. Just so you know. Atlantic City was phenomenal for me.
Right. But so—
Nobody knows it.
But let me say—
Except for the smart people.
Perhaps people struggle with your description of how you did in Atlantic City because when the finances were public, the company never made any money. And after the company went public, the stock went up a little bit to $45, but then pretty much dove straight down to zero and into the bankruptcy.
But just so you know, if you look at Atlantic City now, 75% of all the casinos in Atlantic City have gone bankrupt, or are in big trouble. And Caesars czr is bankrupt. They are all bankrupt. It’s a disaster. I got out seven years ago. My timing was incredible. I get a lot of credit for that.
But your casino company starting turning down years before the mass problems started for Atlantic City. The public numbers—
Because what happened is the bond holders came to me and said why don’t you put on debt. And I said, ‘Let me look at it,’ and they offered me so much debt, and I said, ‘This is too much debt for the company.’ Then they wanted me to take it public. All of those things were good as an individual, but I said to them [his bankers] ‘Will it be a good thing or bad thing for people?’ And they said to me, ‘Oh, no, the market is going to grow. Everything is going to grow.’ I said, ‘Well what happens if gaming happens in Pennsylvania. You have 30% of Atlantic City’s market comes from Pennsylvania.’ And they all said, ‘It won’t affect the Atlantic City market.’ I said, ‘I think it will.’ I was right. But by that time, I had largely left Atlantic City. I wasn’t involved very much with Atlantic City. But I called it. What killed Atlantic City, beside the bad decision making from the politicians, was gaming in Pennsylvania. And I was able to say that that was going to happen. The point is that Atlantic City for me as an individual was a very good thing.
You’ve said you plan to pay off the country’s debt in 10 years. How’s that possible?
No, I didn’t say 10 years. First of all, with low interest rates, you can think in terms of refinancings, and get it down. I believe you can do certain things to pay off the debt more quickly. The most important thing is to make sure the economy stays strong. You can do it in smaller chunks. You can do it in larger chunks. And you can do it in refinancings.
How much of the debt could you pay off in 10 years?
You could pay off a percentage of it.
It depends on how aggressive you want to be. I’d rather not be so aggressive. Don’t forget: We have to rebuild the infrastructure of our country. We have to rebuild our military, which is being decimated by bad decisions. We have to do a lot of things. We have to reduce our debt, and the best thing we have going now is that interest rates are so low that lots of good things can be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.
So you like the fact that interest rates are low? Some of the candidates have said that’s wrong. Do you think interest rates should be as low as they are?
I always like low interest rates, certainly as a developer. The problem with low interest rates is it’s unfair that people who’ve led the American way of life—the true American way of life—that have saved every penny, that have paid off their mortgages, that have done everything they were supposed to do, and they were going to retire with their beautiful nest egg, and they were going to get interest on their money, and now they’re getting one-eighth of 1%. I think that’s unfair to those people, who have led their lives in the way they were supposed to.
Should the Fed be raising interest rates? Has the Fed and Janet Yellen done a good job?
People think the Fed should be raising rates. What’s a scary prospect is if you start raising rates and you have to borrow money as a country, and if the rates, instead of where they are now, the rates are substantially higher, where the rates are 3% and 4%, or whatever it may end up being. That is a very scary prospect for this country. When you start adding that kind of number to an already reasonably crippled economy, certainly in terms of what we produce, that number is a very scary number for a lot of people to be looking at. And if you notice they don’t look at it. Because they want to keep interest rates down. A frightening scenario is that interest rates go up and we have to refinance the debt at higher rates, as apposed to paying very little like we are now.
Do you think Janet Yellen is doing a good job?
I think she’s doing a serviceable job. But you never know if they’re doing a good job until about five years after they leave office.
Would you reappoint her?
I don’t want to comment on reappointments. I would be more inclined to put other people in.
Are you for the audit the Fed movement, that the Congress would be able to audit the Fed’s decisions?
A lot of business people do believe having debt is a good thing. Higher leverage leads to higher returnns. And you have talked about wiping out the debt. Why is it bad for the U.S. to have debt?
Oh, I would rather not have debt. But we are stuck with it. If I had a choice of taking over debt free or having $19 trillion dollars—which, by the way, is going up to $21 trillion soon, because of the omnibus budget, which is a disaster—I’ll take no debt every time. I can look at myself. I have lived a life where I have a lot of debt and like now I have very, very little debt and I’ll tell you it’s more pleasant with very little debt.
But you may take over this country where some people think we have a lot of debt.
No, where everybody thinks—every sane person thinks we have a lot of debt.
Some people have called you a bully. Are you?
I don’t think so at all, no.
But you’ve also talked about your tough negotiating skills?
I don’t talk about them. Other people talk about them. I don’t say that I am tough. I say that I know how to negotiate. I’m a smart person. I look at the deals our country has made. This Iran deal is one of the worst negotiations I’ve ever seen of any kind. Our trade deals are horrendous. Carl Icahn endorsed me. Many other people endorsed me. Great business people endorsed me. I would use our great businesspeople to negotiate those deals. Right now we have political hacks doing it. And they are negotiating the biggest deals in the world. Deals with China and Japan. And deals with Mexico. We have people who don’t have any ability, who don’t have business instinct negotiating these deals. I would use the best business minds, and we have the best in the world. I would use our best people to negotiate those deals, many of which have endorsed me.
The hard business tactics, the tough negotiations, the brinksmanship in hostile M&A deals for instance, that happen in business, would that work in politics. As an example, you have said that you would impose 45% tariffs on China. Is that what you really want or is that an negotiating tactic?
First of all I never said that. I made a statement to the New York Times to the editorial board. And that was not said. Something different was said. I would talk to China and probably be able to get them to do what to do what they should be doing. China has zero respect for our country. They have zero respect for our president and our leadership. I would tell China that the devaluation [of the Chinese yuan] is destroying our businesses. We are losing tremendous amounts of business. Not only China. You look at what Japan is doing with the yen. You look at what others countries are doing with the devaluation and manipulation of their currencies. Something of which our leaders have no idea what’s happening. And they are systematically. I just left upstate New York, You look at Pennsylvania and Indiana where carrier just left for Mexico. I would tell China that either you start playing by the rules, or we will be imposing tariffs on your products coming in. That doesn’t mean I am doing it, because in my opinion if they believe it they are going to play by the rules. But they have to believe it.
But does tough negotiations like that, where you are risking a trade war with China, does that work?
What’s a trade war? How are we losing? We already have hundreds of billions of dollars of trade deficit. So we have massive trade deficit with China.
Similar, saying we will pull out of NATO, is that a negotiating tactic. And if so, does that work?
I never said we were going to pull out of NATO. You have 28 countries in NATO, it’s 68 yrs old. It’s obsolete. Right now we have to be focusing on terror. It was set up for the Soviet Union. Russia’s still a problem, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. NATO is obsolete and the problem is we’re carrying NATO. You have many countries, known fact, that can afford to but they have decided not to pay their way. We’re protecting countries within NATO and they’re not paying their way. And I’ve said, they have to pay their way. If they don’t pay way their way, we’re not going to be protecting them. They wil pay their way if said to them in the right manner.
That’s not said in a touch manner or a soft manner. It’s just said. They owe us a great deal of money from delinquencies and past payments that haven’t been made. In many cases, the only reason they haven’t made ‘em in many cases is they have no respect for our country. They have no respect for our leadership.
But many of the NATO countries are not carrying their weight. This is a known fact. When I said NATO is obsolete and when I said the second part about not carrying their weight financially, at first there was an uproar and then if you notice a lot of people are saying, ‘You know, Trump is right,’ and I’ve gotten a lot of credit for saying it.
There’s been reported times in your career where you have turned down deals that would take your name off buildings. The example is the Marina with the Rank Group. They wanted to make it the Hard Rock Cafe Casino, and you wanted it the Hard Rock Cafe Casino by Trump. It was reported that the negotiations broke down over the fact that you weren’t willing to take your name off the casino.
That’s false. I know nothing about the Rank Group. I don’t even know what you are talking about.
But you know you were in negotiations to sell Marina to the group that owned the Hard Rock Cafe.
Well, not really because by that time I was pretty much out—
No, this was well before [you got out of Atlantic City], even before you changed the name to the Trump Marina. There was a deal to change then Trump’s Castle to the Hard Rock Cafe?
It was a long time ago, I really don’t remember.
OK. It was widely reported that you walked away from the deal. But there have been other times where negotiations have broken down because your name wouldn’t be on the project.
I would like you to name one.
You mean in all of these years, you are bringing up one deal that didn’t go anywhere, I guess, because I don’t even know about the deal. So out of all these years and all of these hundreds of buildings you bringing up one deal, and that’s the only deal you can think of.
Well that one was well reported.
I know nothing about it. The name wasn’t change. Ultimately, seven years ago, I left Atlantic City, and my timing was, as they say, incredible.
So as a business man you have made the deals that were the best ones for you. As president of the United States how do you transition to putting the people of the country first and not Mr. Trump. How should people know you’ll do that?
The country will always be first. I built a great company. You don’t know anything about my company. I built a company that is worth a tremendous amount of money, has a tremendous amount of cashflow—its a never ending cashflow. But it is a business that is very unimportant to me if I won the presidency. My executives and my children will run the co and they’ll run it well. It’s not a hard company to run. We are dealing now with over 121 deals world wide for licensing. Tell him about the hotels, Eric.
Eric Trump: We are opening up four this year. The remainder of the year we are opening up Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Ave. [in Washington, D.C.]. We are opening up the tallest building in Vancouver, which is 100% sold out, and the highest price ever seen in Vancouver. We are opening up at Turnberry in Scotland, and we are opening up in Rio right before the Olympics. We are also working on two deals that are in the hotel pipeline in Bally and Jakarta. And we’ve got a million others.
You’re so good at being a real estate developer, and running hotels, and buying properties. Why haven’t you stuck to that over your career? Why get into the airplane business, or do the steaks, or all the others stuff?
You are right. But I make a lot of money. Like the water company, I make a lot of money with the water company. But more importantly I supply water to all my facilities. Steaks and all of this. It’s just auxiliary. It’s simple, but it works well with my company.
But is it right to say that you haven’t been as good at those other things as you have been at being a real estate developer.
I do them largely for my own company, so it all fits together. Like water, it’s not a big deal for me, one way or another, but we sell it to the company. Steaks, which we do branded steaks, but it’s not a big deal.
Eric Trump: How about the wine. We are now the largest winery on the East Coast of the United States. We sell 45,000 cases of wine a year. We just won double gold in San Francisco, so we beat every other Californian winery there. So there is lots we do ancillary to company and our main core which is build buildings like this that are enormously successful. [Fortune note: It has been widely reported that Donald Trump no longer owns Trump Winery. It is now owned by Eric Trump.] Look at the Apprentice. We ran one of the most longest running reality TV show in history. That’s the ancillary business.
Donald Trump: Still running. They wanted me to do two more seasons but I said, “I can’t do it,” because I am running for president.
Do you know what you don’t do as well as other things? Do you know where you are not as strong as in other areas?
No. I think I’m good in areas where I want to focus. In my life, where I want to do something I’ve done it well. I started this company with one million loan, and the company is worth much more than $10 billion right now.
As president, do you think you will know what you don’t do as well to other things, and will get advisors, and lean on them?
Totally. I believe in getting great people and getting people who are the absolute best. As an examples for negotiating trade deals, some of the people who you interview are the right people to get. But unfortunately, we don’t use in many cases those people. We use people with absolutely no ability. When China comes at us, they come with groups of 20 and everyone one of those people is trained to take every penny out of the United States that you can take.
How you lined up people to be your advisors in different areas?
I have a lot of people who’ve supported me—people like Carl Icahn and others.
Anyone you can name besides Carl Icahn?
Numerous. I am going to put out a list in the next three or four weeks. We have tremendous endorsements from the business community.
Have you made a decision of who you would lean on for economic policy?
I have made the decision but I haven’t, no—there’s not one person. When it comes to economic policy I would listen to many people and ultimately make a decision. But there’s not one person.
Eventually, you will have to pick someone to be the Defense Secretary, and the Secretary of the Treasury.
Sure. I’m a big believer in talent and a big believer in getting the absolute best talent. We will have the best talent ever to run this country, that I can tell you. It’s a very important thing. It’s ultimately one of the most important thing.
But you haven’t made the decision of who those people are?
I have people in mind, but it’s too early. First, I want to get the nom, then I want to win the election. At some point probably in between there I’ll be bringing out certain names, but there is no reason to bring them out yet.
What current Fortune 500 CEO do you admire?
I don’t want to say because I know so many of them, and they’re friends. Some who do a great job and some who don’t, frankly. But I’d rather not say because I’ll create such problems for myself. But I have great respect for many of them and some I like, but they don’t do as good a job. If I give you a name of three, there are going to be 30 that are not going to be exactly be happy with me.
I’ve got time for a few more questions. I’m enjoying it.
Thanks. Switching to economics, you have won a lot of support of workers who feel like the have been left behind by politicians, globalization, and trade deals. How do you propose to bring the jobs back?
Good strong trade negotiation. I propose to bring the jobs back by not letting companies leave, and by frankly using the threat of taxation. We’re talking about free markets but the problem is, we’re open, but the rest of the world isn’t. The only way you’re going to get jobs back into this country is, No. 1, they cannot devalue their currencies, which they’re killing us with. No. 2—and very importantly—we’re going to have to use the threat of taxation in order to keep jobs here and also in order to get jobs back.
We have to be treated fairly by other countries. We are not being treated fairly. We are being run over by other countries, through monetary manipulation, through devaluation of their currencies, and, very importantly, through taxation. Other countries tax us and we don’t tax them. I believe in free market. But we are not being treated fairly. And frankly to a large extent it’s our fault not their fault because we allow them to get away with it.
On the tariffs that you have brought up between China and Mexico. Mark Zandi, an economist at Moody’s Economy.com, has run your proposal through his model and said that it would cost us as many as 8 million jobs.
It’s not going to cost us jobs. It’s going to bring jobs back. China charges us tariffs. We don’t charge. And anything we do is very minor by comparison.
Ok. Give me one more question. Let’s go.
If you get to the convention and you don’t have enough delegates and it looks like there are moves to deny you the nomination, how far do you plan to go. What is your strategy?
I have a strong strategy to get the 1,237. I think we will. We are on track to do it. A lot will depend on tonight [the New York primary]. We should have a good victory tonight, and we will see what happens.
What happens if you get to the convention and you don’t have the delegates?
I can only see what happens. Many different circumstances could cause things to go both good and bad.
You used to have a catch phrase on the show [The Apprentice], “You’re fired.” Right?
I also have a catch phrase, “Make American Great Again.”
You do. But before that you were known for that other catch phrase. Have you fired anyone in this campaign?
Why not? Isn’t that part of being a good manager? Culling talent?
I started off with a small group of people. Most people said he’ll never run. OK. I’m now by far the leading Republican candidate. I’m leading by more than 200 delegates and more than 2 million votes. I’m very happy with my people. Now we’re evolving into a larger operation because it’s become a very large campaign. I started off with just a few people. Other people started off with hundreds and they’re gone. You look at the kind of money that was squandered and waisted. I spent less than virtually every other candidate and I am in first place. That’s what the American people like.
What’s dirtier: Business or politics?
If you get the nomination, would you self fund in the general election?
I haven’t made a determination of that yet. Haven’t really looked at it yet. I am totally self funding my primary campaign. I have not made that determination.
You have a high unfavorable rating for a front runner. Do you have a plan to re-brand the Mr. Trump brand in the minds of voters.
I’m not going to rebrand.
Can you make yourself likable?
In poll after poll when you look at the numbers it will show, and starting to already that I will beat Hillary. Or as I call her, ‘Crooked Hillary. I will do very well. I’ve had 55,000 negative ads against me. Other people like Kasich and Cruz have had virtually no negative ads, and despite that they can’t beat me and despite that I will beat Hillary. And I will beat her very easily.
Ok. But that’s enough questions.
You don’t have a computer in here, in your office? Do you use a computer?
Yes. I do. They bring one in.
What kind of smartphone do you have?
Um. This. [Trump holds up a Samsung that is on his desk.] And I have both. I have an i[Phone] and I have a Samsung.
Do you text mostly from your phone?
Sometimes from my phone. Why do you ask these questions?
You don’t stop. Do you?
People have said that you have similar supporters to Bernie Sanders. You tap into the same type of frustration that people have. Do you have a plan to appeal to Bernie’s supporters?
One thing we have in common is trade. We both know the U.S. is getting ripped off by trade. The difference is I can do something about it and he can’t. Ok. Thanks.
Good job, Steve.
A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Q&A: the Donald Speaks.”