Donald Trump built his name and reputation on his supposedly fabulous wealth and extravagant lifestyle. His net worth, he claimed, was in the millions, then billions, then tens of billions.
For Trump, wealth is the only standard worth being measured by. And as his career was starting out, that standard coalesced into a burning obsession for Trump: for his own wealth to be listed by Forbes as part of its Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. He got his wish for the first time in 1981.
But now, the Forbes reporter who made the initial choice to put him on that list has alleged that Trump brazenly lied, harangued, and cheated his way into being included—and he has provided audio evidence to prove it.
In a lengthy essay for the Washington Post, investigative journalist Jonathan Greenberg claimed that, as a 25-year-old reporter for Forbes, he was duped by Trump into accepting a series of lies about the then-property mogul’s wealth—a con job so elaborate that Trump himself called Greenberg in his infamous “John Barron” alter ego to help sell the falsehood.
“It took decades to unwind the elaborate farce Trump had built to project an image as one of the richest people in America,” Greenberg wrote. “Nearly every assertion supporting that claim was untrue.”
Trump wasn’t just poorer than he said he was. Over time I have learned that he should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all. In our first-ever list, in 1982, we included him at $100 million, but Trump was actually worth roughly $5 million — a paltry sum by the standards of his super-monied peers — as a spate of government reports and books showed only much later.
Essentially, Greenberg claimed, Trump had not only lied about the percentage of property he owned in the business he shared with his father, Fred Trump. He also dramatically overvalued the properties themselves:
The most revelatory document describing Trump’s true net worth in the early ’80s was a 1981 report from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. [Journalist Timothy O’Brien obtained a copy for his book. Trump had applied for an Atlantic City casino license, and regulators were able to review his tax returns and personal and corporate debt, giving them the most accurate picture of his finances. They found that he had an income of about $100,000 a year, while his 1979 tax returns showed a $3.4 million taxable loss. Trump’s personal assets consisted of a $1 million trust fund that Fred Trump provided to each of his children and grandchildren, a few checking accounts with about $400,000 in them and a 1977 Mercedes 450SL. Nowhere did the report list an ownership stake in the Trump Organization’s residential apartments. Trump also possessed a few parcels of valuable but highly leveraged real estate, financed with $22.5 million in debt, all of it secured by his father’s assets. He did not own a safe deposit box or stocks in publicly traded companies. In sum, Trump was worth less than $5 million, not the $100 million that I reported in the first Forbes 400.
Most incredibly in Greenberg’s article is the inclusion of recorded phone calls between him and “Barron.” In one, the latter—clearly Trump using a ridiculous false accent—asks to speak off the record before insisting that Donald’s ownership of his family’s various properties had been consolidated away from his father, Fred.
Explaining his decision to publish the ostensibly off-the-record recording, Greenberg wrote, “I believe an intent to deceive — both with the made-up persona and the content of the call — released me from my good-faith pledge.”
While Trump clearly went on to earn millions, if not billions, more over the next several decades (without actually seeing his tax returns, we’ll just have to take his word for it), Greenberg’s anecdote exemplifies a fundamental truth about him: that he’s usually entirely full of shit.
The White House and the Trump Organization both declined to comment to Greenberg; I have reached out to them as well and will update if I hear back.