by Mike McIntire, Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig.
With his penchant for using what he called “truthful hyperbole” to play on people’s desires, Mr. Trump had always skated close to the edge of fraud. Soon, he would be accused of crossing the line completely.
In his zeal to squeeze ever more dollars out of Mr. Burnett’s golden goose, Mr. Trump signed on to an array of questionable products and services, including some that claimed to sell insights into his business expertise. The first year of “The Apprentice” was barely over when Mr. Trump pocketed $300,000 to speak at an event in Dayton, Ohio, where attendees paid $2,995 to learn the secrets of instant wealth from a company that was later accused in a lawsuit of running a Ponzi scheme.
In his monologues, he made a virtue of his first round of casino failures, portraying himself as a victim whose grit and intelligence saved the day. People ate it up.
“His presence gives me reassurance,” Lillie Moss, who raided her retirement fund to buy an investment kit at the Dayton event, said of Mr. Trump.
The tax records show that another series of speaking engagements, sponsored by the Learning Annex, paid Mr. Trump $7.3 million for events with titles like “Real Estate Wealth Expo: One Weekend Can Make You a Millionaire.” A book he co-wrote with the Annex’s founder, “Think Big and Kick Ass: In Business and Life,” earned him royalties of $1.4 million.
Unmentioned in the mythologizing were the millions in bailout money from his father or the losses he was reporting to the I.R.S. Nor was there any sense of the gigantic payday — revealed only through an examination of the tax data — that Mr. Trump was enjoying in exchange for lending his imprimatur to an increasingly cynical array of business ventures.
As the years went on, and the success of “The Apprentice” made Mr. Trump a household name far beyond New York, the chasm between truth and hyperbole widened. It was one thing to bray about his late mother — a multimillionaire with a maid and a Rolls-Royce — using All laundry detergent. Now, he was flogging things that could hurt people economically.
In what would be his most lucrative side deal, he teamed up with a multilevel marketing company, ACN, whose clients were told they could make a living from home by selling video phones, satellite television and other services. Investigated in several countries, ACN has left a trail of complaints that people were suckered into spending far more than they earned trying to peddle the company’s products.
Regulators in France concluded that “only 1 percent of people recruited could claim a satisfactory income,” and that the rest lost money or, at most, made about $35 a month, according to court records. Montana officials came to a similar conclusion, finding that the average participant in that state paid ACN about $750 in various fees but got back only $53.
ACN, which has never admitted wrongdoing while settling legal actions by state regulators, claims its business model is misunderstood; on its website, it once posted a page helpfully titled “The Difference in ACN and a Pyramid Scheme.” A class-action lawsuit pending against Mr. Trump and his family asserts that the Trump brand became central to ACN’s business strategy, citing one plaintiff who signed up after she “watched clips of ACN appearing on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”
ACN sold DVDs of Mr. Trump promoting its products, and devoted part of its website to its “Trump partnership,” featuring photos of him appearing at ACN events and his glowing testimonial: “ACN has a reputation for success. Success that’s really synonymous with the Trump name and other successful names, and you can be part of it.”
By the time Mr. Trump featured ACN’s video phone on “The Apprentice” in 2011, the technology was close to obsolete, and yet he played it up, saying, “I think the ACN video phone is amazing.”
His tax returns reveal just how much the company was paying him for the happy talk: $8.8 million over 10 years, including $1 million in 2009 — the nadir of the Great Recession, when desperate people were drawn to promises of a fast payday. In fact, Mr. Trump actively capitalized on the economic anxiety.
In a separate deal he struck that same year, this one to promote the multilevel marketing of vitamins by a company that was rebranded the Trump Network, he gave speeches that persuaded some people to spend almost $500 for a starter kit and try to recruit friends and relatives. Mr. Trump said in a video that people “need a new dream.”
“The Trump Network wants to give millions of people renewed hope, and with an exciting plan to opt out of the recession,” he said.
Within a couple of years, the company behind the Trump Network, Ideal Health, was sold, and its owners declared bankruptcy. Still, it was long enough for Mr. Trump to make $2.6 million selling hope in a vitamin bottle, according to his tax records.
In 2016, he agreed to pay $25 million to settle litigation over Trump University, an unaccredited seminar that persuaded people to pay as much as $35,000 to learn the real estate trade. But that legal reckoning was the exception in a decade-long run by Mr. Trump and his company, described in the class-action suit, filed in 2018, as a “large and complex enterprise with a singular goal: to enrich themselves by systematically defrauding economically marginalized people looking to invest in their educations, start their own small businesses and pursue the American Dream.”