March 14, 2019 4 min to read

Wash Post Expose: 6 Essential Cons that Define Trump’s Success

Publication : Politics, The Huffington Post, Trump

A playbook of deceit starts with the ‘origin lie’ that made him richer than he was. And it’s still being written.

(This article first appeared in the Washington Post here on February 22, 2019. It, was the most read feature on the Post in the days that followed)

Nearly four decades ago, Donald Trump deceived me into including him on the first Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. He claimed a net worth of $100 million but was actually worth less than a tenth of that. Last week, President Trump declared a national state of emergency to bypass the constitutional budgeting powers of Congress and divert money to build a wall on the border with Mexico. What do these acts have in common? Only that they are the first and latest entries on the continuum of cons that have defined Trump’s success.

A real estate insider told me back in the 1980s that Trump’s win-at-all-costs father, Fred, “loves a crook and he loves a showman.” Donald Trump has built his extraordinary career by exhibiting the characteristics of both. He is a self-promoter willing to lie, swindle and destroy to advance his insatiable self-interest. I am not the first journalist to observe that for Trump, the “Art of the Deal” has been the art of the con. But as the first journalist to enable the consummate con man’s career-boosting deceptions, I have a completist’s view of the pernicious racket that is his playbook. Here, in roughly chronological order, are the six essential cons around which Trump has built and sustained his success:

Con No. 1: To borrow billions, Trump lies to inflate his net worth.

As Trump’s power has grown, his lies have become bolder and more apparent. Early in his career, however, when Trump first conned me into putting him on the Forbes 400 list and then deceived financial institutions to loan him billions of dollars based upon a vastly exaggerated net worth, his deceptions were more elaborate and difficult to track. As recounted in The Washington Post last year, Trump fed me carefully crafted false information for years. This included two long phone interviews in which Trump pretended to be a nonexistent assistant named John Barron, as well as his having his notorious fixer Roy Cohn call me at Forbes in 1982 and 1983 to lie on his behalf.

Trump was consistent in maintaining the lies he told Forbes: that he controlled his father’s assets, that his family owned 25,000 apartments (they owned less than half that number), and that his projects had less debt and far more profits than they actually did — all facts and figures that were hard to challenge. Anyone who listens to the two 40-minute telephone recordings I made in 1984 of the man who Trump’s secretary said was the Trump Organization’s “VP of Finance John Barron” can easily recognize Trump’s thinly disguised voice. Some critics wondered how stupid I had been not to have seen through this ruse. Yet even the most seasoned journalist could not have imagined a prominent figure doing what nobody had, as far as I am aware, dared to do before or since: impersonate a nonexistent spokesman on the phone to national media.

The failure of our imagination to respond to Trump remains true to this day. It is not that we underestimate his capacity as a businessman, candidate or president of the United States. It is that we cannot imagine — and are unprepared to respond to — anyone who lies and cons as shamelessly and effectively as he does.

Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” framed Trump’s Forbes 400 scam as his “origin lie,” the foundation he built his entire career on. That’s because, as Tim O’Brien wrote in his book “TrumpNation”: “The more often Forbes mentioned him, the more credible Donald’s claim to vast wealth became. … The more credible his claim to vast wealth became, the easier it was for him to get on the Forbes 400 — which became the standard that other media, and apparently some of the country’s biggest banks, used when judging Donald’s riches.”

It is hard to imagine that financial institutions would extend $3 billion in loans to Trump’s Atlantic City and New York real estate projects based on his inflated asset statements and Forbes 400 listing without insisting on audited financial statements that demonstrated exactly how much cumulative debt he was on the hook for. Yet during the eight years after he first conned his way onto the list, this appears to be exactly what happened.

As with all great con men, Trump is as skilled in the art of deception as he is in the art of promotion. He made certain that nobody could definitively counter his inflated-wealth con by ensuring that a comprehensive balance sheet was never created. As The Post’s Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher wrote in their book “Trump Revealed,” Trump, in 1990, brought in Steve Bollenbach as chief financial officer to respond to lender concerns about his crippling debt. They report: “When Bollenbach began delving into the organization’s finances, he got a surprise. The small staff on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower included three accountants. Each knew about pieces of the fraying empire — the casinos, for instance, or the condos. But no one knew the overall picture; there were no consolidated financial reports.”

This was deliberate. And despite multiple bankruptcies, Trump’s inflated-worth ruse remained at the center of his image as a successful businessman, a billionaire able to play the part of a brilliant tycoon on “The Apprentice” reality show and capable of licensing his name for millions of dollars.

Read the rest of the story at the Washington Post online here.

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