Is Donald Trump a billionaire? We have no way of knowing for sure
Donald Trump has staked his presidential career, and perhaps the future of the Republican Party, on the claim that he is a billionaire who has succeeded wildly at business. But is it true - is Trump, in fact, a billionaire? A noted Trump biographer, who has spent much of his career as an investigative journalist covering Trump in one venue or another, has his doubts.
"There is no verifiable evidence that Trump is a billionaire; none," David Cay Johnston said Sunday in a series of tweets about Trump, whom he has written about in his new book, "The Making of Donald Trump."
Johnston's book uses thousands of pages of publicly available documents to make the case that Trump has wildly over-exaggerated his net worth. It connects the dots on Trump's financial career spanning more than 30 years, allowing Johnston to conclude that there is no basis upon which anyone can verify if Trump is, in fact, a billionaire. Johnston questions the net worth of his signature golf properties as well as his ownership in real estate development deals where he simply licensed his name instead of actually owning a piece of the deal.
Johnston, a veteran of The New York Times, painstakingly walks through several examples in his book of Trump properties that the GOP presidential nominee claimed were worth in excess of $50 million in order to justify his claim to be a billionaire. In each case, Trump or his staff have claimed in tax filings or court cases that they were worth just a fraction of what he claimed in the Personal Disclosure Form that he filed with the Federal Election Commission in order to run for president.
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It is virtually impossible to determine any sort of objective truth in all of this from the only document that Trump has ever released publicly – the FEC personal disclosure form that is entirely self-reported. That FEC document contains only what Trump says, or believes, is true about his net worth.
That sort of vagueness has led other successful businessmen, such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to wonder aloud whether Trump is really a billionaire.
"He's good at that (putting his name on hotels and buildings in licensing deals). Whether or not that's made him a billionaire, I don't know," Cuban told BuzzFeed News this summer. "He's not transparent enough for us to actually know."
An exhaustive report in TheNew York Times this fall showed that at least some of Trump's signature real estate properties were either straight name-licensing deals, or leases. Trump didn't own the buildings. Johnston concurs.
On his FEC disclosure form, Trump listed hundreds of corporate and legal entities (e.g., LLCs) that bear his name. But there is no way to discern if any of them have actual value. What largely matters, for most people, is a balance sheet of assets and liabilities. In a separate section of his disclosure form, Trump listed 21 assets, split between his golf properties and buildings around the world.
He lists a handful of liabilities as well but here, too, it's nearly impossible to see whether those add up to a significant amount. The New York Times obtained his 1995 tax return and wrote that he deducted nearly a billion dollars that year, and then likely carried those losses forward. His organization has been through four bankruptcies. Johnston has written in The Daily Beast that Trump likely can carry his tax losses forward for another quarter century.
Any determination if Trump is actually a billionaire or not rests principally with the value of those 21 assets listed in his FEC disclosure form. These claims are somewhat verifiable from local newspaper accounts, public court records in instances where the Trump organization has been sued in civil court or asset valuations he has filed with local and state government entities for the purpose of tax assessments on the properties.
Johnston has written about Trump's net worth in the past – and concluded, at the time, that what Trump told journalists was at odds with what his organization reported to regulatory authorities.
"In 1990, when his business empire was on the verge of collapse, Trump told me and many other journalists that he was worth $3 billion. He told others $5 billion," Johnston wrote in his book. "I got my hands on a copy of his personal net worth statement that spring, which revealed a much smaller figure. Two months later, a report commissioned by his bankers and introduced in casino hearings put Trump in the red by almost $300 million."
Trump has said he's recovered from that era, and that his properties today are worth billions. In his book, Johnston used local newspaper accounts and public tax records to take a closer look at several of his signature golf properties listed on the FEC form to see how well they stood up under scrutiny to Trump's self-evaluation of $50 million of more. The valuations didn't hold up, he wrote.
"Trump's 92-page disclosure report valued one of his best-known properties at more than $50 million," Johnston wrote in his book. "But he told tax authorities the same property was worth only about $1 million. He valued another signature Trump property at zero – and demanded the return of property taxes he had already paid."
Trump has based much of his presidential candidacy on his business prowess, and that he has turned the inheritance from his father into billions. Tens of millions of voters are being asked to make a decision based on what he says from his bully pulpit about his wealth – with no way for anyone to verify his self-reported status as a billionaire, his business prowess, or the value of his signature properties he lists on his FEC form.
So is Trump a billionaire? We don't know. The media has done its best to find out, but has had only partial success. Unless Trump releases his tax returns, there's no way to verify his claims – which means that voters will go to the polls on Tuesday with nothing more than an educated guess about the true extent of his business success that is central to his presidential candidacy.
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