Wednesday, February 28, 2018 1:20 pm
Fact check: President Trump's Cincinnati 'success'
Meg Kelly | The Washington Post
"I'm here in the beautiful Cincinnati. I'll tell you, you know I was here -- I worked here for a long time. People don't know; most people don't know. Swifton Village, long time ago. Really? Oh, you know Swifton. . . . Came here a long time ago. I had a great success with my father. I was a young success. And, you know, if I didn't have a success, maybe I would have gone and just done something else. Who knows? But I spent a lot of time in this state and a lot of time in Cincinnati, and I love it. . . . I worked here. I was here. I lived here. I mean, it was great." -- President Donald Trump, in remarks on tax restructuring, Feb. 5, 2018
Trump's emphatic references to his time in Ohio and his "great success" there caught our ear -- after all, the Trump name is synonymous with New York, but Ohio?
After a little digging, we found that a young Donald Trump did spend some time in Ohio.
As far back as "The Art of the Deal," Ohio -- specifically Cincinnati -- became part of Trump's personal lore. In a chapter called "The Cincinnati Kid," Trump gave himself credit for identifying Swifton Village as an investment property. "In college, while my friends were reading the comics and the sports pages of newspapers, I was reading the listings of FHA foreclosures," Trump claimed. "And that's how I found out about Swifton Village." He claimed that the property sold for $12 million and that there was little debt left on the property, meaning the Trump Organization made at least $6 million on the deal.
But in true Trumpian form, many of the book's details were exaggerated. "More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true," the book's ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, told the New Yorker in 2016. (Schwartz declined to comment for this fact check, saying he will no longer discuss Trump.)
That got us wondering, just what happened in Cincinnati? Did a young Donald Trump really live there? Was his business venture "a great success"? Let's take a look.
The tale of Trump and Ohio begins at a foreclosure auction in 1964, when Donald Trump was a senior in high school. It was Fred Trump, the president's father, who purchased Swifton Village for just less than $5.7 million -- a fraction of what it had cost to build a decade earlier. The 1,168-unit apartment complex, once the largest in Cincinnati, had fallen into disrepair. It was riddled with vacancies and by all accounts was dilapidated.
But Fred Trump liked a challenge. Reports say he took out a mortgage of $5.75 million to cover the purchase cost and the renovations required to entice residents back, particularly those who were willing to pay more in rent. On Tuesdays, he would fly to Cincinnati, inspect the week's progress and then fly back to New York in time for dinner.
According to "Trump Revealed" by our colleagues Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, Donald Trump worked at Swifton Village for the summer between high school and college "for a week at a time to take care of menial tasks." Roy Knight, a Swifton maintenance man remembered, "He'd get in there and work with us. He wasn't skilled, but he'd do yardwork and cleanup -- whatever needed to be done." Once he started college, he'd occasionally join his father's Tuesday excursions.
Reports suggest that the younger Trump was progressively more involved with the property as he got older, but it's unclear how often he visited. We didn't find evidence he ever lived in Cincinnati. When we asked Trump biographer Gwenda Blair about the possibility, she laughed. We reached out to the Trump Organization and the White House for clarification on this point, but they did not respond.
Built as part of a postwar plan, the multistory garden apartments were intended to house people of limited means. In "The Art of the Deal," Trump paints Swifton Village as a "very troubled place," where residents skipped out on rent and were "very poor," having come down from the "hills of Kentucky." He describes evicting existing residents to attract "a better element." Alongside the physical renovations, a 1969 lawsuit alleged the Swifton Land Corp., which was run by the Trumps, employed racial quotas.
A young African-American couple filed a class-action lawsuit, a year after the Fair Housing Act was passed, describing the complex's discriminatory rental practices as pervasive. The suit listed only two couples, which led the judge to wonder whether that was a sufficient number of people to justify a class action.
The suit, which did not name either Trump personally, was quietly settled at Fred Trump's direction before the class-action issue could be resolved. Afterward, the Trumps put advertisements in African-American newspapers.
Only four years later, though, Trump Management was charged by federal prosecutors with similar discriminatory practices at its New York properties.
When the elder Trump bought Swifton Village, the surrounding neighborhood, Bond Hill, began to experience a radical racial demographic shift, which Fred Trump's makeover could not hold off. Despite his best efforts, vacancy was on the rise and it was clear the time had come to sell. So, three years after the lawsuit, in 1972, the Trumps sold Swifton Village to Prudent Real Estate Investment for a reported $6.75 million in cash.
Beyond the mortgage, it is unclear how much the Trumps invested in the property's renovation and operations, as well as taxes. And without that, the cost of their legal fees and the amount they raised from renters, it is difficult to pin down just how much profit, if any, they may have made. Setting aside those factors and others, just subtracting the mortgage ($5.75 million) from the sale price ($6.75 million), the Trumps would have cleared only a million dollars, far from the $6 million windfall cited in "The Art of the Deal."
While the younger Trump, then 26, was formally involved with his father's real estate company by this time, reports have suggested it was Fred Trump who was the force behind this deal, not his son. That being said, Trump biographer Blair does credit Donald Trump with sealing the deal.
The Pinocchio test
Success is relative. Did the apprentice Donald Trump learn things from his time working at and around Swifton Village? Most likely. Did the Trumps make $6 million? Almost certainly not. Of course, without knowing the final cost of repairs or legal expenses and the rental income, there is no way to be sure. Setting profit aside, it is a stretch for the president to claim his personal run in Ohio as "a great success." Even if there was some profit at the end, it was not incredible.
Undoubtedly, a young Donald Trump spent time at the property: People who worked there have spoken about it, but none of their quotes or stories suggest that he was solely in charge or that he ever lived in Cincinnati. For his faux Midwestern memories, the president earns Three Pinocchios.