THE BLOG
06/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

None Dare Call Him Poor

Some lawsuits make perfect sense to me.

Remember Max Mosely? He's the upper-crust Brit, the international head of Formula One racing, who was photographed last year at what the News of the World termed a Nazi-themed sadomasochistic orgy. Mosely sued for invasion of privacy. He didn't deny maintaining a bondage den in central London or hiring tall blonde prostitutes to humiliate and spank him. But he took umbrage at the Nazi thing. His father, Sir Oswald Mosley, had been a leading British fascist in the 1930s; Mosley fils didn't want to be seen as taking appeasement to a whole new level. He pressed his case, and won, and I say good for him. You got rights, Max!

Other lawsuits make far less sense to me. Some, in fact, seem to have no certain outcome except to make the plaintiff look extremely silly.

Consider the current defamation suit being brought by Donald Trump against Timothy O'Brien, an editor at the New York Times and author of the 2005 book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald--a volume that most likely would have sunk from sight long ere now, if Trump hadn't made a stink about it.

The nature of O'Brien's alleged defamation? He accuses Trump of being poor. Not poor poor, but of having a net worth in the range of $250 million rather than the 5 billion that Trump claims. Doing the math, that means he values Trump at five cents on the dollar. Ouch! Even in this age of toxic assets and vertiginous markdowns, that's quite a haircut. But still, it's just one guy's set of numbers as against another guy's set of numbers. Is it anything to sue about?

No one has ever accused Trump of being a slave to dignity, but this public quibbling over the size of his bank account raises the bar on gaucherie. Could you imagine someone who was really rich--Warren Buffett, the Sultan of Brunei--stooping to this sort of thing?

Not only is the lawsuit undignified; it promises to become hilarious. It will force Trump to explain how he himself values his assets, and this will likely entail breathtaking flights of fancy, spectacular bursts of bluster, and a naked logic-defying salesmanship that casts P.T. Barnum in the shade.

Thanks to an article in the Wall Street Journal ["Trump on Trump: Testimony Offers Glimpse of How He Values His Empire," May 18] we've had a preview of the kind of howlers we might look forward to when and if the case gets past preliminary hearings and comes to trial. Citing a sworn 2007 deposition, the article reported that, when asked if he ever exaggerated the value and success of his projects, Trump replied, "Would you like me to say, oh, gee, the building is not doing well, blah, blah, blah..."

When asked why he claimed to own 50% of the Manhattan rail yards project when in fact his stake was 30%, he replied that "in my own mind, I've always equated that 30% to 50%...more than 50%."

When asked why he said, "The building is largely owned by me," in connection with a Hawaiian hotel-condo in which his sole interest was a licensing agreement, he said, "I'd rather have this than own the building."

When asked if he did financial analyses of the downside risk to some of his projects, he replied that he did "mental projections" that generally showed things turning out fine.

These "mental projections" apparently did not foresee the recent bankruptcy of Trump Entertainment Resorts, or the piling up of lawsuits in regard to stalled projects in Florida and Chicago, or the ongoing headaches with his planned but still unbuilt golf community on the foggy, shifting dunes of Scotland.

All things considered, this would seem like an excellent time for Donald Trump to keep his head down and take care of business. But that kind of restraint seems beyond him. Like, say, Rod Blagojevich or Roger Clemens, he only knows how to play offense.

Still, this defamation suit makes no sense at all. It can only invite further systematic scrutiny of Trump's finances--under oath, no less. If it turns out he really has the five billion that he claims, what has he gained? If it turns out that he's bluffing--that his "mental projections" far outstrip his actual resources--that could do serious damage to an empire built, first and foremost, on confidence, swagger, and looking like a winner.

David Collins is the author of Maxxed Out, a novel about a real estate mogul going broke. He may be reached at dcmaxxedout@gmail.com.