NEW YORK (AP) — To his supporters, the business career of Donald Trump is proof he's got the decisiveness and smarts required to lead the country. To critics, his exaggerated claims, burned customers and four bankruptcies suggest a man wholly disqualified for the office.
The truth: It's complicated.
Criticized by Republican rivals for his crude comments and what they call iffy conservative credentials, Trump now finds his business acumen in the political crosshairs. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has started calling Trump a "con artist" who has been "sticking it to the little guy" as he built his empire, and says he would be "selling watches in Manhattan" if he hadn't gotten help from his millionaire father.
Trump's business record gives Super Tuesday voters inclined to praise or condemn his boardroom bona fides a way to support either view.
Gutsy, shrewd and armed with an uncanny sense of timing, Trump built a business that spans the globe, much bigger in scope and riches than when he took it over from his father. Yet some of his failures have been as spectacular as his successes, and he's stiffed creditors and has licensed his name in ways that raise questions about his judgment.
"Donald has proven himself an innovative and smart businessman," says real estate developer Don Peebles, a registered Democrat who does not plan on voting for Trump if he makes it to the general election. "I respect and admire what he's accomplished."
The fortune built by Trump's father, estimated at several hundred million dollars, came from low- and middle-income housing in Brooklyn and Queens. Trump wanted more. So he bet big on much richer Manhattan, a risk for the son of an outer-borough builder.
His timing was near perfect. He began construction in 1980 on his signature Fifth Avenue building, Trump Tower, just as New York City began a long boom following a brush with bankruptcy.
He put up more buildings, bought an airline and rolled the dice in another industry — casinos. In 1984, he opened the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he opened Trump's Castle the following year. In 1991, he took an especially big risk to build the Trump Taj Mahal. He personally guaranteed loans used to develop the project, putting his own fortune on the line if things went sour.
They did. As the U.S. muddled through a recession, Trump was unable to make good on billions of dollars of debt. The bankruptcies — four in all, stretching over nearly a decade — left many casino lenders and vendors bitter. They got just pennies on each dollar they were owed.
"People forget that he left bondholders out to dry ... that these were not victimless events," says Michael D'Antonio, author of the Trump biography "Never Enough." ''When he tried to do other kinds of business — airlines and casinos — he stumbled."
In 2001, Trump completed the 90-story residential Trump World Tower in New York City. Then, three years later, he discovered a flair for reality TV with the launch of "The Apprentice" on NBC. As his celebrity star rose, Trump moved to squeeze more dollars out of his name. He's branded everything from bottled water and suits to hotels and residential towers, striking deals to put his name on properties built and owned by others in Panama, Uruguay, Turkey, India and the Philippines.
As he has extended his brand, he's faced criticism that he's gotten careless, or worse. Rubio has focused in the past several days on Trump University, which charged students $1,495 each for seminars that would teach them the billionaire's secrets to making it big in real estate. A lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general claims the classes fell so short of promises that it amounts to fraud.
"This is a guy who says he stands for the working class," Rubio said Saturday. "When in fact his entire business career, he's been sticking it to working-class Americans."
It's clearly struck a nerve with Trump, who on Saturday called the litigation "a small deal, very small" and told supporters he could have settled, but is continuing to fight on principle.
For a man who measures his success in dollars, Trump has managed to grow them substantially. According to Forbes magazine, Trump's wealth has risen to $4.5 billion from $1 billion in 1988, a 350 percent gain. That's half of what he would have earned if he had invested in a broad U.S. stock index, and that doesn't count dividends.
Trump, by the way, says Forbes is all wrong.
"I borrowed a tiny amount of money, $1 million," he said Saturday. "I started a business. It's worth much more than $10 billion right now."
Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Kennesaw, Georgia, and Jill Colvin in Bentonville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.