BUSINESS
05/21/2016 08:06 am ET

This Could Be Donald Trump's Biggest Lie

How rich is he?

Donald Trump is really rich, right?

Well, he certainly says he is. His latest personal financial disclosure puts his wealth at $10 billion.

But no one actually knows if that’s true. Rigorous and objective analysis by reporters puts Trump’s wealth far below his self-reported status as a billionaire 10 times over, with most recent estimates pegging it at between $2.9-4.5 billion.

When Tim O’Brien wrote a 2005 biography of Trump, here’s what he found:

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.

How did Trump respond to the accusation that the central claim of his public character was fake? By saying it didn’t really matter if it were true, while also throwing in some crass misogyny, O'Brien wrote:

Donald dismissed this as naysaying.

"You can go ahead and speak to guys who have four-hundred pound wives at home who are jealous of me, but the guys who really know me know I'm a great builder," he told me.

But it did matter to Trump. He sued O’Brien for $5 billion for defamation. (The case was dismissed.) At the time, Trump said his net worth was at least $2.7 billion.

When Forbes, which is in the business of counting rich people’s money, dug into just exactly how wealthy Trump was -- and that is not an easy task, the magazine said, involving “interviewing more than 80 sources and devoting unprecedented resources to valuing a single fortune” -- it marked the number at $4.5 billion.

Obviously, that is far less than $10 billion, and Trump was again worried -- not necessarily about accuracy itself, but about how it looked. “I’m worth much more than you have me down [for],” he told Forbes. “I don’t look good, to be honest. I mean, I look better if I’m worth $10 billion than if I’m worth $4 billion.”

Bloomberg, which also assiduously tracks the wealth of the super-rich, arrived at $2.9 billion when it investigated the topic in July 2015.

So how in the world does Trump get to his $10 billion figure when everyone who looks at it objectively comes away with a remarkably lower figure?

He quite literally just takes things everyone agrees he owns and estimates their worth as much higher, without saying how, specifically.

For instance, he says his golf courses are worth $2 billion, using an undisclosed methodology. Bloomberg put the number at $570 million, based on the valuation of similar properties.

The Trump brand alone, which brings in licensing and branding fees, is worth more than $3 billion, he says. But that seems exaggerated for something that only brought in $32-55 million in royalties in 2014. 

Trump has now famously flip-flopped on releasing his tax returns, which wouldn’t tell us his real wealth but would pinpoint his personal income. He told the AP, “there is nothing to learn from them.” He claims "income" of $557 million in 2015, but Crain’s Aaron Elstein reported that Trump got a state tax break for households with incomes less than $500,000. Trump and state officials said the tax break was a mistake.

So a more accurate statement might be that there is nothing to learn from the tax returns that will help Donald Trump’s image.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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