The moment Trump transformed from a businessman to a brand

The implication of a commerce secretary.
The implication of a commerce secretary.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Wilbur Ross is one of the key people Donald Trump has relied upon to reach the White House. That’s because nearly three decades ago, Ross intervened to save one of Trump’s failing businesses—and in doing so helped recast the real-estate mogul into a full-fledged brand name.

As Trump continues his 12-day trip to Asia, he leaves behind the simmering domestic controversy over his US presidential campaign’s possible collusion with Russia that most recently has implicated Ross, now his  commerce secretary.

The casino mess that preserved Trump’s name

Trump and Ross are inextricably connected—perhaps more than anyone else in the Trump cabinet. Without Ross, Trump might never have been in a position to run for president. That’s because Trump’s appeal to voters rested mightily on his ability to pitch himself first and foremost as a successful businessman.

It would have been a tough case to make had Ross and billionaire Carl Icahn not saved Trump in 1990-91 from tipping over the brink of financial disaster. Together, the two men rescued one of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, the Taj Mahal, from foreclosure after Trump had missed an interest payment on bonds. Ross would later acknowledge the importance of his handiwork to the New York Post.

“We could have foreclosed [on the Trump Taj Mahal], and he would have been gone,” Ross told the paper last year. Trump was allowed to keep a 25-percent share of  the Taj. The bondholders took half. And as the Post reported, “To outsiders it seemed Trump was still running the casino.”

Ross received further credit from Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, who told the BBC: “Wilbur Ross was a key negotiator in Donald Trump not having to go through bankruptcy and not being swept into the dustbin of history because he saw the value in the Trump name.”

Where the brand resides

The Trump Organization, the president’s family company, survived and now describes itself as “the world’s only global luxury real estate super-brand.” We would all come to live in a world of Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka and buildings that bear the Trump name on their facades but perhaps not on their deeds of ownership.

Because Ross and Icahn came to the rescue, Trump survived, his brand retained a certain luster, and his “art of the deal” reputation remained intact. All of which would be useful years later when Trump would run for president on the grounds that he was a Washington outsider and a savvy businessman.

And after he was elected on Nov. 9, 2016, he would later tap Ross to be his commerce secretary.

Now Ross is the one who may need a hand

Ross insists there was nothing improper about his stake in a Russian shipping company that also has close ties to oil and gas companies connected to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The problem is that Ross did not tell lawmakers the details of his investments during his confirmation proceedings, according to the Paradise Papers, the trove of leaked documents detailing the offshore accounts of the super wealthy.

Disclosure rules didn’t require Ross list his overseas interests, yet his omission has created a cloud of suspicion in Washington given the political context in which they were discovered.