NEW YORK - Donald Trump, the developer and would-be presidential candidate, portrays himself as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, shrewder and tougher than any politician, who would use his billionaire's skills to restore discipline to a bloated and bankrupt federal government.
In his near-constant denigration of big government, however, Trump glances over an expensive irony: He built his empire in part through government largesse and connections.
From his first high-profile project in New York City in the 1970s to his recent campaigns to reduce taxes on property he owns around the United States, Trump has displayed a consistent pattern. He courted public officials, sought their backing for government tax breaks under extraordinarily beneficial terms and aggressively countered any resistance to deals he negotiated.
He has boasted of manipulating government agencies, misleading officials in one case into believing he had an exclusive agreement to develop a property and then retroactively changing the development's accounting practices to shrink his tax bill. In New York, Trump was the first developer to receive a public subsidy for commercial projects under programs initially reserved for improving slum neighborhoods. Incentives he pioneered have now become the norm in the powerful New York real estate community.
Karen Burstein, a former auditor general of New York City, reviewed a major Trump project in the 1980s and concluded he had "cheated" the city out of nearly $2.9 million. Decades later, Burstein said she is still appalled at the way Trump operated. "It's extraordinary to me that we elevated someone to this position of public importance who has openly admitted that he has used government's incompetence as a wedge to increase his private fortune," she said in a recent interview.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., fought Trump over hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that the developer wanted for a luxury apartment complex in Nadler's district.
"He sought to abuse the taxpayer and stretch the law," Nadler said. "He said he ought to get a massive government subsidy. I said, 'Listen, Mr. Trump, if you think this is a good project, you spend the money.'"
In a phone interview last week, Trump was unapologetic about pressing for government tax breaks, noting that he had used them not only for his own profit but to spur development in foundering parts of the city.
Referring to how he managed to win a 40-year tax abatement for rebuilding a crumbling hotel at Grand Central Station - a deal that in the first decade cost taxpayers $60 million - Trump said, "Someone said, 'How come you got 40 years?' I said, 'Because I didn't ask for 50.'"
He said his success at manipulating city and state governments was itself an argument for his presidential candidacy. "When I work for myself, I try to make the maximum profit," he said. "If I run (for president) and if I win, I will no longer care about myself. I'll be doing the same kind of things for this country."
It is difficult to assess how much of Trump's complex empire has been built with the help of government munificence. But a close look at several projects indicates that when he could, Trump benefited substantially from government programs.
He has also curried favor with elected officials through campaign contributions and lucrative job offers. In the last election cycle, Trump contributed to individual campaigns and wrote large checks to political groups, including $170,000 to the Republican Governors Association, $50,000 to the GOP-supporting American Crossroads PAC and $116,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization.
His giving has long been carefully targeted. A 1980s study by Newsday found that Trump had donated more than anyone else to members of the New York City Board of Estimate, which at the time approved all land use development. A recent study by New York's Public Interest Research Group showed that since 1999, Trump has donated $595,638 to the state's lawmakers.
Trump, 64, was launched into the world of million-dollar deals by his father, Fred C. Trump, who left a $250 million estate based partly on building government-backed housing for middle-income tenants in Brooklyn and Queens. Early in his career, Donald Trump abandoned his father's formula and instead made a name for himself developing luxury hotels and apartments in Manhattan. But like his father, he continued to rely on government tax incentives.
Trump's aggressive tactics have played out in a somewhat different, but no less profitable, way in other parts of the country.
Trump has fought for lower tax bills in Florida, where he won a reduction in the 1980s for Mar-A-Lago, his 118-room mansion, and in Atlantic City, N.J., where he filed 19 petitions seeking a lower tax bill for casinos and other properties. He eventually settled for a $34 million reduction.
In Las Vegas, Trump's goal was to lower the taxable value of the recently constructed Trump International Hotel and Tower. His team, which included the former chairman of the county Board of Equalization - the agency that decides tax matters - won a reduction last year in the taxable value from $180 million to just $8.6 million.
In his appraisal to the board, former Chairman Timothy Morse noted the region's sour economy, and said Trump's glittering 64-story tower, wrapped in 24-karat-gold infused glass, needed more time "to establish itself within a highly competitive market."
But Nevada economist Bill Robinson said the tax breaks provided to Trump and other developers last year seem out of line. "Homeowners haven't gotten anything like that kind of a break," Robinson said. "It's not in the public interest for the county to be giving people larger-than-normal tax breaks."