Donald Trump is probably not a billionaire
Over the last 48 hours, the latest attempts to derail Donald Trump’s candidacy have focused on the presumptive nominee’s tax returns — more specifically, what is or isn’t in them. On Tuesday night, Trump told the Associated Press he would not release the returns prior to November because he is currently under audit by the IRS, a 180 reversal from his position on the matter back in January, when he said he would be releasing his returns. However, 24 hours later, he characteristically changed course after being criticized on the matter by Mitt Romney.
“I’ll release,” he told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “Hopefully before the election I’ll release. And I’d like to release.”
Bloomberg Editor and author Tim O’Brien is one of those holding Trump’s feet to the fire on the matter. O’Brien has seen the nominee’s tax returns, but is barred from speaking or writing about them due to a court order. A decade ago, Trump sued O’Brien for libel over his book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald,” which offered a less flattering image of the real estate tycoon’s finances than the one he usually touts in the press.
While Trump has noted that his tax returns wouldn’t provide a total account of his personal wealth (“There’s nothing to learn from them,” he has previously said. “You learn very little from a tax return.”) — a statement O’Brien acknowledges — the Bloomberg editor has noted that the returns would provide a clear picture of:
1) Trump’s income.
2) The size and scope of his business activities.
3) Whether he’s really as charitable as he insists.
4) If he uses off-shore tax havens like those divulged by the Panama Papers.
5) What financial conflicts of interest might arise because of his current business deals should he be elected.
That’s enough to give Trump incentive to want to avoid releasing. All that said, we don’t need to see Trump’s returns to realize what the candidate is likely most insecure about people finding out: That he’s probably not a billionaire.
O’Brien’s deep dive into the candidate’s finances (the one that made Trump so upset he took him to court) reveal a businessman so worried about the public perception of his (purported) successes that he was obsessed with making the Forbes 400 — a list members of the über-rich secure in their wealth “abhorred” and “loathed.” They knew how much money they had, they didn’t need other people who might want that money to.
Trump, on the other hand, frequently disputed Forbes’ assessment of his fortune (or lack thereof: following a string of bad business decisions in the early ’90s, Trump reportedly had to borrow some $30 million from his siblings’ trusts to keep the empire from crashing and burning, and was off the list for six years). The real estate mogul would contest whatever figure the publication assigned to him, often by a factor of two or three (or more), to the point where it became something of a running joke among editors:
1998 Rank: 121; $1.5 billion. Forbes explains: “Unstoppable salesman, master of hyperbole. Net worth was negative $900 million in 1990, now claims our estimate is low by a factor of three: ‘The number is closer to $5 billion.”‘
1999 Rank: 145; $1.6 billion. Forbes explains: “We love Donald. He returns our calls. He usually pays for lunch. He even estimates his own net worth ($4.5 billion). But no matter how hard we try, we just can’t prove it.”
2000 Rank: 167; $1.7 billion. Forbes explains: “In the Donald’s world, worth more than $5 billion. Back on earth, worth considerably less.”
Trump blusters on and on about the size of his financial assets because, when you don’t actually have the cards in hand, your only bargaining chip is the perception you do. Money speaks for itself. If you don’t have the money, you end up talking a lot more than you would have to otherwise. Trump talks a lot.
So far, it’s worked out for him. He (kind of) wrote a book on it. It’s how he was able to talk Forbes into publishing highly inflated evaluations of his wealth over two decades with nearly nothing to back the numbers up. It’s how he was able to take the presidential nomination simply by insisting it was his. And if there’s a smoking gun that could hurt his nomination in his taxes, he’s already figured out a way to talk himself out of that, too:
— Orin Kerr (@OrinKerr) May 12, 2016