For more than three decades, Donald Trump has used deception, lies, distortions, false claims made by disreputable associates and bullying techniques to get Forbes magazine to inflate his personal net worth on its annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans.
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He did it as a way to make himself seem more important and to boost his ability to make lucrative deals, borrow millions of dollars and leverage his reputation first in business and eventually in politics.
Drawing on his records, taped phone calls and more than 30 years of reporting, much of it on the New York real estate business, investigative journalist Jonathan Greenberg reports it has taken all these years to put together just how blatantly Trump manipulated him, starting with days as a reporter for Forbes working on what the magazine calls its “rich list.”
“From the beginning,” reports Greenberg, “Trump was obsessed. The project could offer a clear, supposedly authoritative declaration of this status as a player, and while many of the super-rich wanted to keep their names off the ranking, Trump was desperate to scale it.”
“It took decades to unwind the elaborate farce Trump had built to project an image as one of the richest people in America,” writes Greenberg in today’s Washington Post.
“Nearly every assertion supporting that claim was untrue,” continues Greenberg. “Trump wasn’t just poorer than he said he was. Over time I learned that he should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all.”
When Forbes first put together its list of the richest Americans, many wealthy people tried not to be on it, but Trump saw it as an opportunity.
“In our first-ever list, in 1982, we included him at $100 million,” adds Greenberg, “but Trump was actually worth roughly $5 million – a paltry sum by the standards of his super-monies peers – as a spate of government reports and books showed only much later.”
In his dealings with Greenberg and Forbes, Trump not only lied about his net worth and what he really personally owned (as contrasted with property his father Fred Trump owned in those early years) but also lied about who was inflating his claims.
In 1984, the third year Greenberg worked on the Forbes 400 list and evaluated Trump’s qualifications to be included, the reporter got a call from someone named John Barron, who said he was calling on behalf of Trump.
“John Barron,” said that in the prior year when Forbes credited Trump with a wealth of $200 million, that was really only a fraction of his net worth, which was over $1 billion.
Greenberg recalls that this caller, who he refers to as Trump’s “aide,” “urged me on the phone, I needed to understand just how loaded Trump really was.”
Only recently did Greenberg dig out his old tapes of those conversations, and compare what was said with what he had since learned from court records from lawsuits, filings with the Atlantic City gaming commission, revelations in several non-fiction books about Trump and other sources.
Greenberg says it has taken all this time to realize that John Barron was actually an alter ego of Trump himself, which he only realized listening to the old taped interviews.
“I was amazed,” writes Greenberg, “that I didn’t see through the ruse: Although Trump altered some cadences and affected a slightly stronger New York accent, it was clearly him.”
Barron told the reporter that Trump owned most of Fred Trump’s assets.
“Trump through his sock-puppet,” recalls Greenberg, “was telling me he owned ‘in excess of 90 perent’ of his family’s business.”
Only later when Fred Trump died and his will and estate assets became public record was it clear that Donald Trump had never owned his father’s assets and was lying.
“With all the home runs Trump was hitting in real estate,” “Barron” had added, Trump “should be called a billionaire.”
Greenberg and Forbes scaled down Trump’s claims based on its research but in retrospect, even those more modest assertions gave Trump much too much credit.
“This was a model Trump would use for the rest of his career,” laments Greenberg, “telling a lie so cosmic that people believed that some kernel of it had to be real.”
“The tactic laned him a place he hadn’t earned on the Forbes list – and led to future accolades,” notes Greenberg, “press coverage, and deals.”
“It eventually paved a path toward the presidency,” Greenberg adds.
Trump went on trying to con Forbes for years.
Several times Greenberg recalls getting phone calls from the notorious lawyer Roy Cohen, who was a Trump friend, mentor and for some years his lawyer. Cohen gave the reporter false information and always refused to provide documents to back up the claims.
It went on even after even after Greenberg moved on to other jobs in journalism.
In 1989, Trump sent Forbes journalist Harry Seneker a statement showing his net worth was $3.7 billion, including $900 million in liquid assets, causing the magazine to increase its estimates of his wealth from $1 billion in 1988 to $1.7 billion in 1989.
However in a 1991 filing with the New Jersey Casino Commission, at the end 1990 Trump’s cash position – both business and personal – was just $19 million, which was not enough to cover even the debt on his over-leveraged casino and real estate holdings and still cover his personal expenses of $1 billion a month.
His net worth at the time, the commission estimated, was $205 million – about six percent of what he had claimed to Forbes, which in 1990 dropped Trump off the list completely for the next five years.
“Trump was so competent in conning me,” writes Greenberg, “that until 35 years later, I did not know I had been conned.”
“The joke was on me – and everyone else,” adds Greenberg. “Trump’s fabrications provided the basis for a vastly inflated wealth assessment for the Forbes 400 that would give him cachet for decades as a triumphant businessman.”
Fabricating, deceiving, lying, manipulating were all tools Trump took to the political arena when he ran for president seriously beginning in 2015, and it appears he continues to use those black arts as president, making it hard to believe anything he says or does.