Trump Owed Hidden Debt While In Office
Donald Trump’s business attracted so much scrutiny during his time in office that it would be easy to conclude that all information about its foreign entanglements must be out by now. It is not. Buried in a heap of recently released financial paperwork sits a surprising revelation: Donald Trump had a foreign creditor he failed to disclose while running for president in 2016 and after assuming office in 2017.
The documents, compiled by the Trump Organization and obtained by the New York attorney general, show a previously unreported liability of $19.8 million listed as “L/P Daewoo.” The debt stems from an agreement Trump struck to share some of his licensing fees with Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate that partnered with Trump on a project near the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Trump eliminated the debt five and a half months into his tenure as president, according to the documents. He seems to have acted with some urgency to wipe the liability off his balance sheet. From 2011 to 2016, the documents show that the balance stayed static at $19.8 million. Paperwork capturing Trump’s financial picture as of June 30, 2017, five months into his presidency, appears to show that the balance had dropped to $4.3 million, $15.5 million less than it had been a year earlier. Trump got rid of the debt altogether shortly after that. “Daewoo was bought out of its position on July 5, 2017,” the documents say, without specifying who exactly paid off the loan.
Although the debt appeared on the Trump Organization’s internal paperwork, it did not show up on Trump’s public financial disclosure reports, documents he was required to submit to federal officials while running for president and after taking office. Trump’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, told the New York Times in 2016 that his boss disclosed all debt connected to companies in which Trump held a 100% stake on the documents. That was not true.
There is a chance that Trump’s omission may have been legal, nonetheless. Although officials have to list personal loans on their financial disclosures, the law does not require them to include loans to their companies, unless they are personally liable for the loans. The Trump Organization documents do not specify whether the former president, who owned 100% of the entities responsible for the debt, personally guaranteed the liability, leaving it unclear whether he broke the law or merely took advantage of a loophole.
There’s little doubt that if the world had known about the debt while Trump was president, it would have sparked conflict-of-interest concerns, perhaps heightened by Daewoo’s historical ties to North Korea. (In the mid-1990s, the firm was the only South Korean company permitted to operate a business inside the country.) Most people as rich as Trump would not be heavily influenced by a $20 million loan. Regardless, the fact that the former president managed to keep the debt secret for so long underscores how weak the government’s ethics safeguards are, how difficult they are to strengthen—and how easily Trump could barrel right through them as he runs for president again in 2024.
Trump’s relationship with Daewoo dates back at least a quarter century. In 1997, the Korean firm signed a deal to partner with Trump on a black skyscraper near the United Nations named Trump World Tower. That project was successful enough that Daewoo continued to do business with Trump, using his name on six properties constructed in South Korea from 1999 to 2007.
At some point—it’s not clear exactly when or how—Daewoo also became Trump’s creditor. The debt reflected on the Trump Organization’s documents appears to have started with a principal of $25 million. Records indicate that the liability was connected to Trump ventures in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Brazil, Florida, Arizona, Canada and Chicago.
None of this was apparent on disclosure reports that Trump, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment, filed with the Office of Government Ethics. “If someone does not disclose a loan, OGE has no way to know,” says Walter Shaub, who ran that agency when Trump took office. Don Fox, who also once headed the office, adds: “The system is kind of predicated upon people actually following a law because they want to follow the law.”
Trump repeatedly butted heads with ethics officials. In one instance, the agency reached out to the Department of Justice, after Trump failed to disclose a $130,000 liability owed to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who had paid hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels on behalf of his boss. Cohen ultimately turned against Trump and testified on Capitol Hill, bringing documents with him that shed greater light on the president’s finances—and even hinted at the possibility of a second undisclosed liability.
“The system is kind of predicated upon people actually following a law because they want to follow the law.”
After reviewing Cohen’s documents, Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, asked Trump’s accounting firm for additional materials. Reviewing those materials might have allowed lawmakers to identify loopholes and potentially draft legislation to close them. The accounting firm, Mazars, refused to turn over documents without a subpoena. Cummings’ committee supplied one, and Trump sued to block it.
In a world that operates at a faster and faster clip each year, the American legal system moves like it’s stuck in a different century. After losing in U.S. district and appeals courts, Trump filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay to stop the subpoena. The nation’s highest tribunal granted Trump’s request and then, in July 2020, a year after Cummings first subpoenaed for the documents, sent the matter back to a lower court for reconsideration.
Reviewing the case for a second time, a U.S. appeals court reached a split decision in July 2022—more than three years after the Oversight Committee issued the subpoena, over two and a half years after Cummings passed away and more than one-and-a-half years after Trump left office. The court ruled that Trump’s accountants had to turn over some documents, but it is unclear what exactly the Oversight Committee has received so far—it still has not revealed anything about the Daewoo debt.
“My committee is continuing to analyze information we are receiving from Mazars,” Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who succeeded Cummings as chair of the Oversight Committee, said in a statement. “We are committed to uncovering the full scope of former President Trump’s conflicts of interest so the American people can understand how these conflicts may have influenced key decisions by the Trump Administration—and whether reforms are needed to prevent these serious conflicts in the future.”
It seems unlikely that Congress is going to tighten up disclosure laws anytime soon, however. The former president’s allies won back the House of Representatives last month, and Trump announced another run at the White House shortly thereafter. Republican House members probably will not want to pass a law that could expose their party’s front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination. The Democrats have had their time in power, when they could have theoretically changed the laws. Trump, using the courts, managed to run out the clock.