Reminder: Trump Took On 'John Barron' Persona To Lie To Forbes About His Wealth

Screengrab/NBC News/YouTube


Former Forbes reporter Jonathan Greenberg says Donald Trump lied extensively about his wealth through the years.

When Forbes magazine began publishing its Forbes 400 list in the early 1980s, up and coming real estate developer Donald Trump was desperate to be included among America’s most wealthy businessmen.

The only trouble was, Trump didn’t belong there.

In a 2018 story for The Washington Post, former Forbes reporter Jonathan Greenberg -- who was tasked with compiling and vetting the list -- recounted the lengths to which Trump went to convince him that he was worth far more money than was actually true.

Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1981 and assigned me to spend a year traveling around the country and interviewing wealthy people and those who worked with them about one another. The most challenging sector was private real estate wealth.

From the beginning, Trump was obsessed. The project could offer a clear, supposedly authoritative declaration of his status as a player, and while many of the super-rich wanted to keep their names off the ranking, Trump was desperate to scale it.

And in order to scale it, Trump had to lie.

He lied about how many apartments his father, Fred Trump, owned; about the value of those apartments; and even about his ownership stake in the company.

But most abnormal was Trump’s use of a false persona, “John Barron”, to talk up his own company and net worth -- and Greenberg has the tapes to prove it.

“Barron”, which The Post reported on previously, called Greenberg to let him know he was all wrong on his undervaluation of Trump’s wealth status:

Although Trump altered some cadences and affected a slightly stronger New York accent, it was clearly him. “Barron” told me that Trump had taken possession of the business he ran with his father, Fred. “Most of the assets have been consolidated to Mr. Trump,” he said. “You have down Fred Trump [as half owner] . . . but I think you can really use Donald Trump now.” Trump, through this sockpuppet, was telling me he owned “in excess of 90 percent” of his family’s business. With all the home runs Trump was hitting in real estate, Barron told me, he should be called a billionaire.
Although Trump, posing as Barron, asked Forbes to conduct the conversation off the record, I am publishing it here. I believe an intent to deceive — both with the made-up persona and the content of the call — released me from my good-faith pledge. In a 1990 court case, Trump testified that he had used false names in phone calls to reporters. In 2016, when The Washington Post published a similar recording, Trump denied it was him.

So what was actually true about Trump’s status within the Trump Organization?

In the early 1980s, Trump had zero equity in his father’s company. According to Fred’s will (portions of which appeared in a lawsuit), the father retained legal ownership of his residential empire until his death in 1999, at which point he left it to be divided between his four surviving children and some of his grandchildren.

And his net worth?

The most revelatory document describing Trump’s true net worth in the early ’80s was a 1981 report from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
They found that he had an income of about $100,000 a year, while his 1979 tax returns showed a $3.4 million taxable loss. Trump’s personal assets consisted of a $1 million trust fund that Fred Trump provided to each of his children and grandchildren, a few checking accounts with about $400,000 in them and a 1977 Mercedes 450SL.

In sum, Trump was worth less than $5 million, not the $100 million that I reported in the first Forbes 400.

[A]ccording to the New Jersey Casino Commission, which issued another report in 1991, by the end of 1990 Trump’s entire cash position — in both his business and personal accounts — was just $19 million. The amount was insufficient to pay the debt on his over-leveraged casino and real estate holdings while still covering his personal expenses of $1 million per month. His net worth, the commission estimated, was $205 million — less than 6 percent of what he’d told Forbes. In 1990, the magazine dropped Trump from the list and kept him off it for five years.

By the time Trump returned to the list in 1996, the future president was claiming to be worth $2 billion, though Forbes topped him out at $450 million that year.

And by the time he decided to run for president, Trump was claiming a net worth “in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS” on his campaign website.

What is the president actually worth? No one knows for sure; however, we do know that Donald J. Trump has a history of not only exaggerating his wealth but flat out lying about it.

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