(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.
Although Trump has threatened to sue reporters many times, the only time he followed through with a libel suit was in 2006, after O’Brien, in “TrumpNation,” reported that three experts close to Trump believed his true net worth to be between $150 million and $250 million — far from the $6 billion he claimed he was worth at the time.
Trump lost the suit, appealed the ruling, then lost the appeal in 2011. This was the same year he again demonstrated how important his illusory billionaire status was to him. As noted in “Trump Revealed,” while cooperating with a Comedy Central “roast” of him, Trump insisted that the show’s comedians agree to keep only one subject off-limits. “Don’t say I have less money than I say I do,” Trump insisted, according to comedian Anthony Jeselnik. “Make fun of my kids, do whatever you want. Just don’t say that I don’t have that much money.”
Con No. 2: To avoid taxes, Trump lies to deflate his net worth.
The only people Trump ever wanted to convince that he had less money than he did were those who worked for the Internal Revenue Service. And somehow, despite his inflated public claims of income and valuations, he managed to do just that. Last year, the New York Times published the results of a painstakingly researched investigation into Trump’s tax dodges. The article stated: “President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents … He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents … He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings. … The president’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, transferred well over $1 billion in wealth to their children, which could have produced a tax bill of at least $550 million under the 55 percent tax rate then imposed on gifts and inheritances.” Instead, the Times reported, “the Trumps paid a total of $52.2 million, or about 5 percent.”
Virtually every aspect of the Trump family empire operated like a tax evasion scheme. According to the Times, over the years, 295 separate revenue streams were created for Fred Trump to evade gift and income taxes while directing money to his children.
Donald Trump not only managed to deflate the value of his family’s assets for tax purposes, but in a con that probably goes unrivaled in American tax-dodging history, from at least 1996 onward, he reportedly erased personal income taxes he would have otherwise paid from profitable ventures like his “Apprentice” TV show. How? He used the whopping $916 million loss of the money that had come from the lenders who had backed his casinos. Over the next 15 years, Trump was able to pay no income taxes on this loss of $916 million in other people’s money.
But Trump has not been content with schemes to avoid federal government and state tax collectors. The undervaluation con continues full throttle as he evades local real estate taxes on his golf courses. As The Post pointed out in an investigation in 2016, Trump’s attorneys audaciously deflate the value of his many golf courses to minimize local taxes. In his financial disclosures for the Trump National Golf Course Westchester, The Post reported, “Trump valued the course at more than $50 million. But last year, his attorneys filed papers with the state declaring the ‘full market value’ of the course was far lower: about $1.4 million.” Trump has also been the king of tax-break litigation, suing the city of New York time and time again to take advantage of tax abatements that were never meant to apply to the type of luxury developments he built. Veteran New York Times real estate reporter Charles Bagli added up the staggering value of these tax dodges in a Times investigation titled, “A Trump Empire Built on Inside Connections and $885 Million in Tax Breaks.”
During a 2016 presidential debate, when challenged by Hillary Clinton to explain why he refused to disclose his taxes and why he paid no taxes on hundreds of millions in income, Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”
Con No. 3: To be a winner, Trump makes losers of those he does business with.
To make every business deal with him sound sweeter than it was, Trump marketed his name as synonymous with gold-plated luxury. But few of his deals had happy endings. His narcissistic need to be a winner every time meant that there were losers every time. This included just about anyone who made the mistake of signing a contract to lend or partner or supply goods or services to him. After stiffing his partners and lenders in Atlantic City in 1991 by declaring bankruptcy and forcing them to write down billions of dollars in losses, Trump soon retook control of the properties by creating a public casino company in 1995 and selling the stock to suckers attracted to his name. According to a MarketWatch columnist, “Donald Trump was a stock market disaster,” with Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts racking up more than $1 billion in losses during his 13 years as chairman, while its stock fell from a high of $35 to just 17 cents. But despite making losers of the poor saps who invested with him, Trump emerged a winner, soaking the bankrupted public company for what Fortune magazine estimated was $82 million in compensation.
Trump has bragged: “Does anyone know more about litigation than Trump? I’m like a PhD in litigation.” Unlike all the other things Trump says he knows more about than anybody, this one has a morsel of truth to it. While most Americans expect to do what they promise in a signed contract, Trump sees contracts as mere jumping-off points for “negotiation.” Knowing that litigation is costly and can drag on for years, Trump’s business modus operandi for stiffed contractors has been, “You can negotiate with my lawyers for a settlement or sue me and see how long that takes!” An analysis by USA Today published in June 2016 found that during the previous 30 years, Trump and his businesses have been involved in 3,500 state and federal legal cases.
Understanding special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and Trump’s long relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia begins with recognizing that Trump has among the worst reputations of any businessperson in America. As investigative journalist Craig Unger explained in “House of Trump, House of Putin,” after burning so many major financial institutions by losing more than $3 billion in Atlantic City and overpriced New York properties, Putin’s “oligarchs and Mafia kingpins” were some of the only investors willing to do business with Trump, through untraceable offshore entities. Unger wrote that Trump’s real estate was “used as a vehicle that likely served to launder enormous amounts of money — perhaps billions of dollars — for the Russian Mafia for more than three decades.”
It is no coincidence that the only major financial institution willing to provide Trump with significant funding after his bankruptcies has been Deutsche Bank, which itself has been the source of fines and investigations related to billions of dollars in transactions by money-laundering clients, including Russian oligarchs.
Russian oligarchs were not the only money launderers to fund Trump’s properties. Global Witness, a nonprofit watchdog organization, headlined a scathing exposé a few years ago: “Narco-a-Lago: Money laundering at the Trump Ocean Club in Panama.”
The report found that many of the presold apartments in the 70-floor Panama City tower were funded by money launderers, including Colombian cocaine cartel members. Reuters reported that, “By the time the Trump Ocean Club project was complete in 2011, many investors had withdrawn and lost their deposits rather than stump up the 70 percent balance. Bondholders lost, too … There was one person who still profited: Donald Trump. Court records … indicate Trump … earned between $30 million and $50 million from lending his name to the project.”
Con No. 4: To win in politics, Trump makes voters believe that his presidency benefits them.
One of the great mysteries of Trump’s ascension to power is his support among working-class Americans. He is far from being a person who mingles with the masses. Trump’s social and professional activities have been limited to those who are superwealthy, famous or influential. To the extent that he has interacted with common Americans, it has been as a commercial icon: He sells them chances to lose money at his casinos’ slot machines; he grants them admission to real estate society through the scam that was Trump University; he offers them armchair viewing of crass demonstrations of cruel power in “The Apprentice.”
As part of candidate Trump’s campaign to attract working-class Americans to vote against their economic self-interest, Trump bragged that he was “very highly educated … I have the best words,” while continually railing against those he calls “the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites.” He is easily the most successful anti-government populist to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It is no coincidence that at the same time, he is a prolific liar.
Accepting Trump’s endless deceits have become articles of faith to any number of the 64 million Americans who, in 2016, were led to believe that his election would benefit them and their families. That Trump frequently lies about something he himself has been recorded saying in the recent past makes no difference to his base. Although the “Make America Great Again” prosperity he promises is available only for those who are part of the club of ultrawealthy elites on whose behalf he legislates, Trump supporters willfully listen only to their leader’s words instead of his actions in office.
As Trump’s supporters march toward an illusory future with their hate-mongering leader, they remain oblivious to the trillions of dollars that Trump’s tax cuts for the top 1 percent and their corporations will add to the federal debt, or to the forecasts of diminished spending on programs that help most working and middle-class Americans.
Trump told a Missouri audience in November 2017 that his tax bill was created to help the middle class and that it “is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me.” In reality, most of the long-term tax savings will go to major corporations and the superwealthy. According to a Forbes estimate, Trump could personally save $11 million annually. Yet his base of working- and middle-class supporters remains blind to the fact that Trump is making America great for himself and not them.
That Trump’s lies are believed by so many is a testament to his manipulative mastery of the art of the con. In supporting his wall on the border with Mexico, Trump says that more than 3,000 terrorists were apprehended at the southern border. Yet our government’s own statistics show that the number was zero. Zero! Trump promised that Mexicans would pay for the wall again and again, then denied that he had ever said it and shut down the federal government because Congress refused to pay for it. Trump has even scammed his followers out of core Judeo-Christian values such as compassion. Thousands of children will suffer lifelong trauma because they are being separated from their parents as a result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy. When I asked a white, 82-year-old Trump-supporting Floridian grandmother how she supported this policy given her Christian faith, her face seethed with anger: “It’s their parents’ fault for bringing them!”
Scapegoating foreigners for political gain is as old and tragically effective a tactic as appealing to racism. It is the same hatemongering tune that stirs disempowered working-class white people to blame African Americans for their economic challenges. As President Lyndon Johnson said to his young aide Bill Moyers in 1960: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Con No. 5: To avoid accountability, Trump makes the media, and truth, the “enemy of the people.”
Truth is the greatest threat to Donald Trump. He despises the transparency and accountability that flows from a free press. He continually attacks the media as “the enemy of the people,” despite increasing violence against journalists by some of his supporters, repeating the phrase in a Wednesday tweet in reference to the Times. Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York magazine, described Trump’s use of this term as “full-on dictator speak.” For opponents of Joseph Stalin, being branded an enemy of the people was a death sentence. In Nazi Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels also favored the term, arguing in 1941 that “each Jew is a sworn enemy of the German people.”
In an interview on Sept. 6, 2018, Trump responded to a critical Times editorial by stating, “The Times should never have done that, because really what they’ve done is, virtually, you know it’s treason.”
Trump regularly insults or threatens to sue journalists who refuse to act as stenographers for his lies. “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it,” he said, referring to NBC News on Oct. 11, 2017. “Network news,” he tweeted that day, “has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” This prompted Sen. John McCain to note that the comment was “how dictators get started.”
Repeat a lie often enough, the saying goes, and it takes root as the truth. The Post has documented (and updates each day) every “false or merely misleading” claim that Trump has made since his election, and found that the president has lied more than 8,700 times. The rate of reckless falsehoods uttered per day has accelerated with his time in office — and with the convictions of his associates stemming from the Mueller investigation.
With the help of Fox News, Trump’s relentless deceptions have been successful in attracting and maintaining his core supporters. Trump boasted about the power of the deception of his Fox News-misinformed supporter base when he said, on the campaign trail, “I love the poorly educated,” and also, famously, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
In his cautionary short handbook, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder identifies core components of fascism that are echoed in Trump’s ability to win and sustain the support of his political base. Snyder reflects on the extraordinary diaries of Victor Klemperer, a professor who survived Hitler and lived to write the tale. “Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant,” Snyder wrote. “At the end of the war, a worker told Klemperer that ‘understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Fuhrer.’ ”
Post columnist Greg Sargent believes that Trump’s war on the truth is worse than simple self-aggrandizement. “When Trump insists on his own invented ‘facts,’ ” Sargent wrote, “he makes reality-based political dialogue impossible. His utter disregard for truth is a subversion of our democracy and a dereliction of his duty as president.”
“Fascists,” Snyder writes, “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. … Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Con No. 6: To stoke fear, Trump recasts perpetrators as victims.
As president, Trump’s primary governance strategy relies on the same deceptive manipulation of human fear that brought him victory as a candidate. He has proved himself masterful at playing the white Christian male grievance card. Whether it is the foreigners streaming across the border to take American jobs, the dark-skinned urbanites coming for rural Americans’ guns or empowered women upending patriarchal traditions, Trump and his Fox News echo chamber let white Christians know that they are being victimized and that far worse will follow if they do not fight for their right to oppress others.
A few months before the 2016 election, Molly Ball published an extraordinary article in the Atlantic predicting how Trump could use fear to win. “Ratcheting up fear,” Ball wrote, “helps Trump. … The fear reaction is a universal one to which everyone is susceptible … fear makes them cower from the unfamiliar and seek refuge and comfort. Trump channels people’s anger, but he salves their fear with promises of protection, toughness, strength. It is a feedback loop: He stirs up people’s latent fears, then offers himself as the only solution.”
Ball quoted a top Republican admaker who explained: “Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty.” Trump’s argument for building the wall with Mexico, even at the cost of the largest-ever abuse of the doctrine of eminent domain to seize private property, has no basis in rational analysis. All it has going for it is the con man’s relentless playing of the fear card.
“The Democrats,” Trump warned last October, “will open our borders to deadly drugs and ruthless gangs. The Democrats — and I say this — and I’ve dealt with it — the Democrats are the party of crime.”
Nazi leader Hermann Göring once said: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Blaming the victim also works for sexual assault. At least 22 women have publicly accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Trump has denied every accusation, proclaiming that these “false allegations” were made by “women who got paid a lot of money to make up stories about me.” At a 2016 campaign rally, he told his supporters who the real victim was. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” Trump said. “Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
When it came time to rescue his controversial choice of Brett M. Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice, Trump repeated the perpetrator-as-victim strategy that had worked so well for him. Bill Shine, Trump’s recently hired deputy chief of staff for communications, was just the right man for the job. Until being forced out of Fox News in 2017, Shine was the right-hand man of Fox CEO and alleged sexual predator Roger Ailes. There, as Vox observed, Shine was “a man with 20 years of experience enabling and covering up rampant sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.” After coaching sessions orchestrated by the White House, Kavanaugh appeared in an exclusive interview on Fox News arguing what the writer Jacob Weindling of Paste termed “the Bill O’Reilly defense,” the “standard Fox News sexual harassment playbook of denying everything while painting yourself as the victim.”
By the time Kavanaugh faced Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused him of sexual assault while they were in high school, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was arguing that her testimony was part of a “shameless smear campaign” by Democrats to destroy an innocent man’s life.
White Christian men are not the only victims in Trump’s imaginary world. America itself is being victimized — though not by the usual suspects. For more than 60 years, Republican Party voters and their leaders have been the most outspoken enemies of totalitarian Russia, denouncing nuclear disarmament while fanning the fires of murderous foreign wars to stop the expansion of Soviet influence. Now, quite suddenly, Trump has recast Putin, the most ruthless dictator to control Russia since the dark days of Stalin, into America’s friend, while denouncing NATO allies as freeloaders and America’s CIA and FBI as “deep state” enemies of the American people. Given Russia’s role in propping up his candidacy and real estate empire, it is easy to understand why Trump has done everything in his power to support Putin’s efforts to weaken the NATO alliance. What is tougher to understand are the self-identified conservatives and patriots who suddenly reversed a lifetime of political beliefs to suit the worldview of their corrupt leader. In George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984,” the empire of Oceania is in an endless war with Eurasia. Then, without notice, in the middle of “Hate Week,” the all-powerful Party decides to join with its longtime enemy and be at war with Eastasia, its longtime ally. Once Big Brother makes known its decision, it becomes treason to disagree — or even to recall the past.
Trump’s seemingly limitless power over his core supporters allows him to justify even the most reprehensible behavior and manipulate their fear as he transforms friends into enemies and compassion into hatred. This power is as ominous as Big Brother’s.
Fear of a fascist future is what led me to write my new dystopian novel, “America 2034: Utopia Rising,” a spinoff of “1984” set in Trump’s nightmarish fifth term as President for Life. The story opens by describing how Trump declares his second state of emergency the day before the 2020 election, ordering a communications blackout to take control of polling places nationwide. This cautionary tale reflects what I fear may be Trump’s seventh, and most far-reaching, scam: conning Americans out of our democracy.