President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Friday to reconnect with the working class: “I’ve employed thousands of Electrical Workers. They will be voting for me!”
Without knowing exactly why he posted this one, I have a guess: Former vice president Joe Biden gave a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at a conference Friday afternoon in Washington. Biden — a white, centrist male — clearly preoccupies Trump, who also has the 2020 presidential election on his mind. He’s been commenting and tweeting about Biden a lot lately.
Trump’s tweets include making fun of the sexual harassment charges that have been hanging over Biden, along with posting a video about it to his Twitter account. Trump, an epic skirt-chaser who has bragged and joked openly about sexually assaulting women, is on characteristically thin ice taking these sorts of jabs, but when Mr. Id goes on the prowl, boundaries disappear.
He’s also on thin ice bragging about his love affair with electrical workers. Electricians (and contractors, architects, lawyers, you name it) who have actually worked for Trump and the Trump Organization know that the president has a well-worn reputation for stiffing people who work for him once they submit their bills.
When I was reporting on Trump’s political and business dealings in New York and Atlantic City in the early 1990s, vendors routinely complained to me about how casually and frequently he refused to pay his bills. That’s never really changed much, and there’s lots of reporting to back up that observation.
Trump and his children — Ivanka in particular — have described this over the years as a form of tough-minded business aptitude: Take a bite out of someone else before they take a bite out of you, just like Fred Trump did when he built his lucrative housing portfolio. If someone has done shoddy work, don’t pay them. Some of this (absent the predatory mantra of kill or be killed) is somewhere in the realm of reasonable. No one should be paid in full for a subpar performance. But the president strays well beyond that territory, and he appears to relish not paying people because … he can.
"I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company,” he said during a 2016 presidential debate after Hillary Clinton pointed out that he was known for shafting dishwashers; painters; glass, marble and drapery installers; and the like. “My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.”
Indeed, he continues to do it.
“Trump’s actions in refusing to pay for work performed, after a project has opened, is a repeated practice of the Trump Organization on various projects; evidencing a typical business practice meant to force subcontractors to accept ‘pennies on the dollar’” is how the language reads from a 2017 lawsuit in which electricians who worked on the Trump International Hotel in Washington sued the Trump Organization for not paying up.
During the presidential campaign in 2016, USA Today’s Steve Reilly reviewed 60 lawsuits, 24 labor-law violations and 200 mechanic’s liens involving Trump companies, as well as conducting his own interviews with those involved. Reilly concluded that all of it painted “a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years.”
“In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources,” Reilly noted. “Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.”
Trump, for all his pro-worker rhetoric, doesn’t have much sympathy for workers whose wallets have been drained. “I will bring jobs back and get wages up,” he promised in 2016. But the president has been more focused on legacy sectors like coal than he has on the threat that robotics and automation pose to millions and millions of other jobs. And he’s never been enthusiastic about wage gains for the working class. Back in 2015, he said that having a low minimum wage is “not a bad thing for this country.”
Trump has enormous appeal to white, working-class voters and rural voters, as well as a broader swath of more affluent voters who aren’t electricians, dishwashers or contractors. All of those folks care much more about jobs and health-care costs than they do about the Mueller report and Russian hackers. Trump is no doubt well aware of this and it’s probably why he’s looking over his shoulder at Biden and tweeting, suddenly, about his love affair with electricians.
But Trump will have to deliver on the job front to those voters he’s courting between now and 2020. Thus far he’s benefited from the impressive job growth that began during the Barack Obama administration and has continued into his presidency. On Friday, U.S. hiring again proved to be impressive, with the unemployment rate clocking in at a 49-year low. There were some warning signs in those numbers, including a slight downturn in manufacturing jobs, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox observed. Wage gains may have plateaued as well, according to another of my colleagues, Mark Whitehouse.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Trump can continue to enthrall working-class folks who are either unaware of his business history or don’t care about it. If some of them realize that Trump often sees them as fodder rather than as a constituency he’s authentically committed to, then the political narrative might change.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”