Politics & Policy

What If Trump Doesn’t Have Billions?

Trump and his private jet at a campaign stop in Laredo, Tex. (Matthew Busch/Getty)
There’s a good chance we’ll never see his tax returns.

Why would Mitt Romney go on national television and declare, “I think we have good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes. Either he’s not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn’t been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay”? Since when does buttoned-down, white-bread Mitt Romney make audacious, provocative accusations?

Romney’s accusation might be a safe bet — if not to be verified, then to never be refuted. Just a few years ago, Trump refused to release un-redacted tax returns, even when it could help him win a $5 billion libel lawsuit against a New York Times reporter and author. If Trump was unwilling to release his returns in that circumstance, how likely is it that Trump will release them before Election Day?

Trump’s wealth is a key part of his public image, his status in the eyes of his fans, and his self-image. On July 15, Trump issued a statement declaring, “As of this date, Mr. Trump’s net worth is in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS.” (Capital letters in original.)

In October, Forbes magazine offered its own assessment of the mogul’s wealth, concluding, “After interviewing more than 80 sources and devoting unprecedented resources to valuing a single fortune, we’re going with a figure less than half that — $4.5 billion, albeit still the highest figure we’ve ever had for him.” They pointed out that in 2014, Trump’s organization provided documentation for cash and cash equivalents of $307 million. This year his team claimed to have $793 million in cash, but were unwilling to provide documentation.

RELATED: The Litigious — and Bullying — Mr. Trump

Listing all the net-worth figures Trump has claimed over the years, Gawker compared them with the significantly smaller sums indicated by available financial information.

But the most glaring evidence supporting Romney’s insinuation comes from Trump’s 2007 libel lawsuit against New York Times reporter Tim O’Brien. In his book TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, O’Brien wrote:

Three people with direct knowledge of Donald’s finances, people who had worked closely with him for years, told me that they thought his net worth was somewhere between $150 million and $250 million. By anyone’s standards this still qualified Donald as comfortably wealthy, but none of these people thought he was remotely close to being a billionaire.

Trump contended that passage was a lie and damaged his reputation. Trump fought, lost in court, appealed, and lost again. If Trump’s fortune is multiple billions as he contends, one or two tax returns would have demonstrated the three sources were wildly off-base.

RELATED: The Playboy Bully of the Western World

In a recent interview with National Review’s Ian Tuttle, O’Brien said, “The case dragged on for as long as it did because he wouldn’t comply with discovery requests. He wouldn’t turn over the tax returns, then the tax returns came in almost so completely redacted as to be useless.”

The New Jersey Superior Court in its decision offered a blistering rebuke to Trump, contending that there was no good reason to conclude that O’Brien’s sources were being dishonest:

O’Brien has certified that he re-interviewed his three confidential sources prior to publishing their net worth estimates, and he has produced notes of his meetings with them both in 2004 and in 2005. The notes are significant, in that they provide remarkably similar estimates of Trump’s net worth, thereby suggesting the accuracy of the information conveyed. Further, the accounts of the sources contain significant amounts of additional information that O’Brien was able to verify independently.

Even worse, the court concluded that Trump was an untrustworthy source for estimates of his own net worth: “It is indisputable that Trump’s estimates of his own worth changed substantially over time and thus failed to provide a reliable measure against which the accuracy of the information offered by the three confidential sources could be gauged.”

RELATED: Trump’s Yuuge Lies

The three-judge panel essentially called the mogul a liar: “The materials that Trump claims to have provided to O’Brien were incomplete and unaudited, and did not contain accurate indications of Trump’s ownership interests in properties, his liabilities, and his revenues, present or future.”

#share#The court even cited a 2000 Fortune article detailing past Trump financial exaggerations:

That difficulty is compounded by Trump’s astonishing ability to prevaricate. No one’s saying Trump ought to be held to the same standards of truthfulness as everyone else; he is, after all, Donald Trump. But when Trump says he owns 10% of the Plaza hotel, understand that what he actually means is that he has the right to 10% of the profit if it’s ever sold. When he says he’s building a “90-story building” next to the U.N., he means a 72-story building that has extra-high ceilings. And when he says his casino company is the “largest employer in the state of New Jersey,” he actually means to say it is the eighth-largest.

One of Trump’s central arguments was that any lower figure failed to correctly account for the financial value of the Trump “brand.” He contended under oath, “These statements . . . never included the value of the brand. And there are those who say the brand is very, very valuable.”

The court rejected this contention: “As Trump’s accountants acknowledge in the 2004 Statement of Financial Condition, under generally accepted accounting principles, reputation is not considered a part of a person’s net worth.”

#related#O’Brien’s lawyers cited documents from Deutsche Bank in 2005; the bank was underwriting a $640 million construction loan it made to Trump’s Chicago condo and hotel project. Deutsche Bank estimated Trump’s net worth was $788 million. That year Trump told the New York Times he was worth $5 billion to $6 million.

During the libel suit, Trump had 5 billion reasons to just show his full tax returns and prove the author’s estimate was wildly off base. But he did not. If he did not release un-redacted returns then, he isn’t likely to release un-redacted returns now.

Romney’s accusation will remain unanswered and unrefuted . . . probably forever.

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