Taking the measure of Donald Trump’s wealth isn’t easy
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, has touted over and over that he is rich. Very rich. And, if elected, he says he would make the country rich. Very rich.
But while Trump is indisputably wealthy beyond most Americans' wildest dreams, he's not nearly as rich as he claims in his campaign — at least not by many conventional measures of assets. Trump recently has been declaring his net worth is more than $10 billion, a figure that is more than double what specialists who track individual wealth have estimated.
Federal disclosure forms released Wednesday — documents that candidates promise to fill out truthfully and would face criminal penalties if they don't — provided a rare and detailed accounting of Trump's wealth. Even so, Trump complained that the forms don't allow him to disclose just how really rich he really is.
"I'm really rich," Trump said when he announced his campaign last month. "I'm proud of my net worth. I've done an amazing job."
He is perhaps the wealthiest man to ever run for president, topping Ross Perot's estimated $4.3 billion net worth, but even that is not enough for Trump. The man who is already in the nation's 0.00004 percent wants to be considered in the 0.00002 percent. The man who Forbes ranks as the world's 405th-richest person wants to be at least the 125th richest.
The forms documented that he has at least $1.35 billion in assets, and probably far more than that. He checked boxes 23 times to indicate particular assets — from golf courses to skyscrapers — are worth "over $50 million." Then there's the positions he's held in 515 organizations — most of which have the name "Trump" in them and frequently listing him as chairman or president.
Publications that keep track of the nation's richest people do not support his claim of an 11-figure fortune. Forbes estimates his net worth at a mere 10 figures: For those counting at home, that's $4,100,000,000. He doesn't even show up on a Bloomberg News listing of 400 billionaires, which currently cuts off at $4.2 billion. That means he might be worth nearly $6 billion less than the $10 billion he has cited in his public statements.
Trump declined requests for an interview, and his campaign declined to comment.
One of the major reasons for the discrepancy is that Trump is counting the value of his brand — by his own estimate, worth some $3.3 billion — and the other lists from Forbes and Bloomberg mostly are not. He also lists larger values on his real estate.
Like with so much about his campaign, Trump's not following the usual dictum when it comes to talking about his wealth. Most politicians try to downplay their wealth to connect with voters.
Senator Marco Rubio talks about his parents, a maid and a bartender, while Governor Scott Walker likes to show off sweaters he bought for $1 at Kohl's department store. Mitt Romney, who was worth a comparable pittance to Trump at just $250 million, tried to avoid topics of his personal finances altogether.
Trump, on the other hand, wears his wealth on his sleeve, often along with his silver or golden cufflinks.
"I'm not a psychiatrist, but clearly he's an insecure person the fact that he keeps mentioning how much money he has," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
Still, Cohen said, there could be some political rationale for Trump's rhetoric on his wealth.
"I think it's strategic to demonstrate that he doesn't need outside money," he said. "He doesn't need super PAC money, and he doesn't need a rich guy like Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers. Because he's one of them."
Trump's unabashed showmanship also offers a rebuttal to politics as it is typically practiced, helping explain his popularity among a slice of Tea Party-oriented voters who are fed up with business as usual in Washington.
Several candidates — from the poorest among the field, including Walker and Rubio, to other wealthy rivals like Jeb Bush — declined to comment on Trump's statements about his wealth.
Trump's financial disclosure statement, released on Wednesday, was 92 pages — nearly five times as long as Romney's filing four years ago. Romney, by far the wealthiest candidate in 2012, was worth about $250 million.
Trump lists rental property in St. Martin in the French West Indies, aircraft in New York and Palm Beach, and golf courses in Florida, New Jersey, Scotland, and Ireland. There's the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., and the large towers in Manhattan. He also has a helicopter air service and a vineyard and casinos.
Most of his assets are in real estate, which could be difficult to access in a campaign unless he begins selling his property. He has at least $265 million in debt, mostly from mortgage payments.
When Trump submitted the statement last week to regulators, who did not release it publicly until Wednesday, he complained that the federal disclosure form did not give him his full due.
The forms only require ranges, which in many cases top out at $50 million.
"This report was not designed for a man of Mr. Trump's massive wealth," the campaign said last week in a statement.
Just to be clear, in all capital letters, the campaign noted his net worth "is in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS." That would be $1.3 billion more than a one-page summary his campaign released several weeks earlier, which captured Trump's income as of June 30, 2014. The increase, his campaign said, was because property values had risen over the past year.
Trump's strategies are generating both derision and humor in the media. Fortune Magazine has created a "wealth calculator" that allows readers to plug in what you think your net worth is, and have it translate the figure into Trump-style estimates (no matter what number you enter, the result is "$10 billion").
Others have noted Trump's long record of apparently overstating his wealth.
Timothy L. O'Brien in 2005 wrote in "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald" that Trump's net worth could be between $150 million and $250 million (Trump then sued the author for $5 billion; the suit was dismissed).
"On a single day in August 2004, he told me his net worth was $4 billion to $5 billion, then revised that later the same day to $1.7 billion. Forbes said at the time he was worth $2.6 billion," O'Brien wrote this week on Bloomberg View. "A year later Donald told me he was worth $5 billion to $6 billion, but a brochure left on my nightstand at his Palm Beach resort said he was worth $9.5 billion."