By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/17/2011 8:29:30 AM ET 2011-05-17T12:29:30

Donald Trump's decision not to run for president will permit him to avoid making a full public disclosure of his finances and escape further national media scrutiny of business practices that were being litigated in courtrooms across the country.

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The announcement of his non-candidacy surprised some of those close to Trump, especially after he had selected a senior campaign staff — including a campaign manager, a pollster and an ad company — and given a tentative green light to an internal plan to announce his candidacy on May 25, according to a source who was regularly consulting with Trump about his candidacy.

But Trump abruptly pulled back over the weekend, just days after receiving private polling numbers from Republican pollster John McLaughlin showing that Republican voters were souring on the idea of his candidacy and that his standing had now fallen into the single digits, according to two Republican consultants who were briefed on the poll results.

The decision also came after an unfavorable court decision in Florida last Friday in which a federal magistrate ordered him to turn over a series of business licensing arrangements for his hotel and office building projects that he has long fought to keep confidential, according to court documents reviewed by NBC News.

Read the Florida court decision (.pdf)

"At the end of the day, he was going to face a degree of scrutiny of his business practices that he's not accustomed to," said Kenneth Turkel, a lawyer who is representing a group of condo investors who are suing Trump over a Trump-named project that has gone bust in Tampa, Fla. "We were the tip of the iceberg."

In a prepared statement Monday, Trump gave little explanation for why, after months of publicly flirting with the idea, he decided not to run for the Republican nomination. While insisting he was convinced he could win, he said he ultimately concluded that "business is my greatest passion, and I am not ready to leave the private sector."

"I don't know what factors played a role" in his decision, Michael Cohen, Trump's top aide, said when reached on his cell phone. "I have no light I can shed on this. You'll have to ask him."

He then said Trump was unavailable for the rest of the afternoon.

More investigations by Michael Isikoff in the Isikoff Files

But running for president would have unquestionably had consequences, according to several Republican consultants and others who have closely followed his candidacy. He would have been forced to give up his long running — and lucrative — NBC TV show, "The Apprentice," which was just renewed for another season.

( is a joint venture of NBCUniversal and Microsoft.)

He also would have been forced to file, within 60 days, a financial disclosure statement with the Federal Election Commission that would have revealed to the world whether he was really worth the many billions of dollars he has repeatedly claimed.

Trump had repeatedly insisted in recent months that he had no qualms about making such a public disclosure and at one point even indicated that he would release his tax returns if President Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate. After Obama did release his birth certificate, Trump stopped talking about his tax returns.

At the same time, Trump's business practices were being litigated in multiple lawsuits across the country. One that had gotten attention from NBC News and other media outlets was the dispute over a once-planned multimillion-dollar 52-story luxury condominium project called Trump Tower Tampa that has since gone bust. Condo investors in the project, who plunked down tens of thousands of dollars for units in the tower, allege that they were defrauded by Trump because he never disclosed that didn't actually own the project but was only licensing his name.

Video: Trump: 'I don't see myself as having failures'

(Trump has denied the allegations that he misled the investors, claimed the deal collapsed because of South Florida's poor real estate market, and countersued the developer, alleging that the company had failed to deliver on its promises to him.)

In an adverse development for Trump, the federal magistrate overseeing the case ruled Friday that Trump had to produce for the plaintiffs the licensing agreements he had for 15 other office tower and hotel projects that bear his name, including Trump buildings in Dubai, Panama and South Korea.

Such agreements have become a key part of Trump's business model, resulting in charges by critics that he is actually worth less than he claims because he doesn't own many of the buildings that bear his name. Trump denies that those deals bear on his net worth. But he has consistently resisted disclosing his licensing agreements, saying in a court deposition last year: "Confidentiality is very important. I don't want my competitors to know my deals."

U.S. Magistrate Anthony E. Porcelli, concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to examine such agreements in order to compare them to his agreement in Tampa and litigate their claim that Trump "did not disclose the actual truth of his participation as a mere name licensor."

The lawsuit in Tampa is hardly the only one in which Trump is embroiled. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity found that Trump is a party in about 100 federal lawsuits and that five of his major companies have been embroiled in more than 200 civil suits in federal courts.

Some of these allege fraud on Trump's part, including one in San Diego by students of "Trump University" alleging that they were scammed by the developer's claims that he could teach them how to become millionaires if they plunked down more than $30, 000 and maxed out their credit courses to attend business seminars he approved. Trump denied the allegation and countersued the lead plaintiff for defamation over a letter of complaint she wrote to the Better Business Bureau. (Those cases are pending.)

Trump also has filed multiple other lawsuits, one against a former New York Times reporter who he alleged defamed him in a book by claiming he was only worth hundreds of millions of dollars rather than the billions he has publicly claimed. That case was tossed out by a New Jersey state judge, but Trump has appealed to a state appellate court. 

Other Trump-initiated lawsuits include one filed last July seeking to block a new runway at Palm Beach, Fla., International Airport on the grounds that it could increase the noise levels of his palatial 18-acre home and private club, called Mar-a-Lago.

In that lawsuit, Trump accused the Palm Beach County airport director of "intentional battery" and harassment over the runway plans, according to the Center for Public Integrity report. A Florida circuit judge rejected that suit, but Trump has refiled a new complaint on the same issue that is still pending.

Trump has already been deposed in some of these lawsuits, including the one in Tampa and his suit against the former New York Times reporter. Turkel, the lawyer suing Trump in Tampa, said the cases likely would have required him to face yet more depositions that would have allowed hostile lawyers to pummel him with questions over his finances and business deals.

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Video: Trump ends flirtation with 2012 run

  1. Closed captioning of: Trump ends flirtation with 2012 run

    >> presidential race . chuck todd , good morning. what do you think?

    >> good morning. the republican portion of the presidential race , the preseason part and the circus sideshow is coming to an end.

    >> hello, everybody.

    >> reporter: for weeks, donald trump insisted he was serious about his presidential aspirations.

    >> they think i'm out promoting " celebrity apprentice ." that's not the reason. i don't need the publicity.

    >> reporter: on monday at an nbc entertainment presentation for advertisers and with the future of the show hanging in the balance , trump ended his flirtation with the white house run.

    >> gary, you're fired.

    >> i have decided we'll continue onward with " celebrity apprentice ." we'll continue making lots of money for charity. i will not be running for president, as much as i would like to. [ cheers and applause ]

    >> i want to thank everybody very much.

    >> reporter: trump had shown strength in early gop polls thanks to support from tea party conservatives who responded to his confrontational style and attention for pushing the conspiracy theory that president obama wasn't born on the united states as trump did on "today."

    >> i would like to show him show the birth certificate and i hope he can. i would love him to gom come out with a birth certificate .

    >> reporter: president obama put an end to that talk in april by releasing his original birth certificate and three days later skewering trump at the white house house correspondents dinner as an unamused trump sat in the audience.

    >> no one is prouder to put this matter to rest than the donald. that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter like did we fake the moon landing ?

    >> reporter: the next night trump 's " celebrity apprentice " was interrupted by president obama breaking major news, further deflating trump .

    >> the united states conducted an operation that killed osama bin laden .

    >> reporter: trump follows mike huckabee who, like trump , said he'd rather stick with his tv career.

    >> all the factors say go, but my heart says no.

    >> reporter: after huckabee the biggest question mark is mitch daniels who's being pushed to run by many george w. bush supporters, and two women who could shake up the race, michelle bachmann and sarah palin have yet to reveal their plans. analysts say the entire field benefits from trump 's departure.

    >> most republican strategists took a big sigh of relief upon hearing that donald trump was not running.

    >> reporter: under the radar yesterday mitt romney , the front runner on the republican side raised over $10 million in one day of fund-raising. that's the work of presidential politics and why everybody considers him a front runner .

    >> chuck todd , good to have you here.


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