Donald Trump’s Business Past at Odds With Rhetoric on Trade

7 minute read

When Donald Trump wanted to expand into furniture, he looked overseas.

The New York business mogul’s deputies placed a phone call to a little-known Turkish furniture maker, Dorya, and by the end of 2013 they were marketing glitzy furnishings including gunmetal-colored beds, sumptuous leather sofas and cocktail tables shaped like prehistoric altars.

“The entire production process, from the moment the raw wood is cut until the product is finished or upholstered occurs in Dorya’s Izmir, Turkey production facility,” the Trump Organization said in a statement after the furniture line was announced.

The deal was a tidy parable of modern economics. Trump, the manager of a internationally recognized brand name, expanded his conglomeration of businesses into another product line in a cost-effective way. Doruk Yorgancioglu, the American-educated heir of a family furniture business, got valuable access to the U.S. market, including a splashy launch in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

“I didn’t believe it,” marveled Yorgancioglu to a Turkish-language newspaper a year after the deal was struck.

Trump has long sent most of his businesses overseas, from clothing apparel to hotel construction parts and all the various products he has branded. He outsourced the production of his shirts to Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia. Trump vodka was made by a distillery in the Netherlands. Trump suits are made in Mexico and tie clips are made in China. He brought barware in from Slovenia and imported glass and building materials from China.

He has stocked his hotels with products made abroad, including elevator parts imported from Japan, Trump-branded shampoo imported from Hong Kong and beach furniture from China, U.S. import data from the past ten years show.

But Trump’s business past cuts against some of the themes of the populist presidential campaign he has run. Trump has called for protectionist trade policies and criticized businesses that moved manufacturing outside of the United States. He’s blamed sleazy politicians, uncaring business leaders and bad trade deals for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs and promised to bring them back through sheer willpower.

“All this free trade, you know what, it is free trade for them, not for us,” Trump said earlier this year. “We have to make smart deals.”

Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has not been shy about calling Trump on the apparent contradiction, highlighting his business practices in her acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention and visiting U.S. manufacturers such as a Denver tie maker on the campaign trail. Clinton’s campaign even built a website with a map of locations from Connecticut to California where Trump products could be manufactured instead of overseas.

“He makes all these things, but he doesn’t make any of them in the United States,” Clinton said on Wednesday. “He could make suits in Ohio. He could make furniture in North Carolina. You can build it in America.”

In fact, there’s nothing unusual about Trump’s business practices, which are in line with a decades-long trend of globalization. As bulk shipping became easier after World War II and employing American workers became increasingly expensive, the biggest U.S. companies began expanding overseas. Most economists agree that the formation of the World Trade Organization, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements passed in the 1990s and 2000s have greatly accelerated the trend.

While Democrats hit Trump for making ties in China, 97% of all the clothes sold in the United States in 2014 were imported, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

“Why just pick on Trump for outsourcing?” said Arie Lewin at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “One of the things that happens with globalization is that American companies are in the lead of outsourcing these kinds of jobs.”

In some cases, going overseas is the only way to get a particular job done.

When Trump bought a golf course in Jupiter, Florida, from the Ritz-Carlton in 2012 he planned to renovate it, including steep, sand-sloped bunkers. The only way to create the 16 revetted bunkers was by purchasing artificial turf from a company in the United Kingdom, according to Chris Cochran, a senior associate at Nicklaus Design, the firm that handled the project.

Trump purchased tons of synthetic grass to stock the course from the UK-based Envirosports, import data show. “If we wanted to do revetted bunkers, this was our only option,” Cochran said. “We presented that to Trump, and he’s like ‘Yeah, we like the idea too. You’re the architect, let’s go with it.’”

Importing was the only option, Cochran said. “If you can’t buy product in the United States, the process isn’t here and you desire that then American industry needs to step up to the plate,” he added.

Trump has defended his foreign supply chains in interviews. “It’s very, very hard to have anything apparel made in this country,” he told CNN last year. “You know how much is made outside of the country?”

And he even defended outsourcing in a 2005 blog post. “I know that doesn’t make it any easier for people whose jobs have been outsourced overseas, but if a company’s only means of survival is by farming jobs outside its walls, then sometimes it’s a necessary step.”

Still, list of products Trump has imported from abroad is extensive. In addition to apparel sourced through a third-party company, Phillips-Van Heusen, import data indicate Trump was involved in shipments of marble from Genoa, Italy; shipments of pens from Norway; and numerous Chinese goods including slippers, wooden furniture and cutlery, often in connection with his hotels. (A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, Trump has made himself the mascot of American-made products, repeatedly attacking companies that move their production overseas, like Carrier, the HVAC manufacturer that announced in February it was moving an Indiana plant to Mexico. “We’re bringing jobs back to our country,” Trump said in Indiana earlier this year. “We’re not going to let Carrier leave.” After Nabisco announced it was moving to Mexico, he swore he would never eat Oreos again. “Our people should have more pride in buying made in the USA,” he said at a New Hampshire really in June.

Even as he calls for high tariffs, canceling trade agreements and instituting protectionist trade policies, his own business become one of the country’s most unabashed and famous globalists, offshoring most of its manufacturing. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the Republican primary pointed out Trump’s rather awkward position. “You’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits,” he told Trump during one of the debates.

To Trump’s critics, the gap between his own business practices and his political rhetoric is yawning.

“Donald Trump is a hypocrite,” said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio in a call with reporters earlier this year. “He has made millions of dollars from these trade agreements.”

There’s “place after place after place we know, just in my state alone, where Donald could have gone to make these things,” Brown said.

But for his business associates, the deals have been win-win.

Yorgancioglu, the Turkish furniture maker, said the partnership with Trump elevated his company’s name. Just months into Trump’s campaign for president, Dorya expanded its Turkish-built furniture line with a bevy of new glossy beds and gunmetal-colored desks selling for many thousands of dollars.

That connection led to new interest around the world—and even some more surprise phone calls. “After we established a partnership with Trump, NBC studios called. They wanted products for the world-famous show ‘Downton Abbey,'” Yorganciouglu told the Turkish newspaper in 2014. “It’s a great honor.”

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