Donald Trump, facing financial ruin, sought control of his elderly father’s estate. The family fight was epic.

“It was basically taking the whole estate and giving it to Donald,” Trump’s sister said in secretly recorded audio.

The Trump siblings — from left, Robert, Elizabeth, Freddy, Donald and Maryanne — in an undated photo.
The Trump siblings — from left, Robert, Elizabeth, Freddy, Donald and Maryanne — in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the Trump family)

Donald Trump was facing financial disaster in 1990 when he came up with an audacious plan to exert control of his father’s estate.

His creditors threatened to force him into personal bankruptcy, and his first wife, Ivana, wanted “a billion dollars” in a divorce settlement, Donald Trump said in a deposition. So he sent an accountant and a lawyer to see his father, Fred Trump Sr., who was told he needed to immediately sign a document changing his will per his son’s wishes, according to depositions from family members.

It was a fragile moment for the senior Trump, who was 85 years old and had built a real estate empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He would soon be diagnosed with cognitive problems, such as being unable to recall things he was told 30 minutes earlier or remember his birth date, according to his medical records, which were included in a related court case.

Now, those records and other sources of information about the episode obtained by The Washington Post reveal the extent of Fred Trump Sr.’s cognitive impairment and how Donald Trump’s effort to change his father’s will tore apart the Trump family, which continues to reverberate today.

The recent release of a tell-all book by the president’s niece Mary L. Trump and the disclosure of secret recordings of her conversations with her aunt reflect the ongoing resentment of some family members toward Donald Trump’s attempt to change his father’s will.

Listen to Maryanne Trump Barry tell her niece Mary L. Trump how Donald Trump tried to take over the family estate.

With the election weeks away, the documents and recordings provide more fodder for Mary Trump’s continuing efforts to see her uncle defeated by Democrat Joe Biden, whom she has said she would do “everything in my power” to elect.

Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry was recorded by her niece in January 2019 expressing outrage over her brother’s efforts to change the will as their father’s mental capacity was declining. “Dad was in dementia,” Barry said.

Listen to Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald Trump's sister, say that their father had dementia when Donald sought to change his will.

Barry said that when she was asked by her father in 1990 to review the proposed changes, she consulted with her husband, John Barry, an attorney familiar with estate law who died in 2000. “I show it to John, and he says, ‘Holy s--t.’ It was basically taking the whole estate and giving it to Donald,” Barry said.

Barry helped convince her father to reject her brother’s effort. As a result, Donald Trump “didn’t talk to me for two years,” Barry said during one of several conversations her niece recorded. Mary Trump recently provided the tapes to The Post.

Listen to Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald Trump's sister, tell her niece Mary L. Trump that after the fight over the family estate, Donald Trump “didn't talk to me for two years.”

In other taped conversations, referring to immigration policy and other matters, Barry said President Trump has “no principles” and “you can’t trust him.” In a brief telephone conversation, Barry said, “At this point, I’m not making any comment.”

From left, Donald Trump talks with his parents and sister Maryanne Trump Barry at the opening of Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City in 1990.
From left, Donald Trump talks with his parents and sister Maryanne Trump Barry at the opening of Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City in 1990. (AP)

Underlying the episode about the will was a troubling question: Did Donald Trump try to take advantage of his father at a time when the senior Trump was in the early stages of dementia? In a deposition, Donald said he had no idea his father was suffering from dementia, saying his father was “very, very sharp” at the time. But medical records and accounts by two of his siblings indicate the elder Trump’s cognitive abilities were already declining.

Donald Trump’s deposition from 2000 inheritance case

Q. Do you recall your father suffering from any memory lapses in 1991?

A. No.

Q. Do you recall him being diagnosed as having senile dementia in 1991?

A. No, I don’t.

Q. Do you recall him exhibiting any confusion in 1991?

A. No.

Then, within months of Trump’s effort to amend his father’s will, Fred Trump Sr. was formally diagnosed with “early stages of dementia,” according to medical records that were disclosed in a 2000 court case brought by Mary Trump and others seeking a larger inheritance from the elder Trump’s estate. In that case, Donald Trump and two of his siblings were deposed.

Mary Trump on Thursday filed suit in a New York court against Donald Trump, Barry and the estate of their brother Robert Trump, alleging that they — as executors of their father’s estate — later deceived her about the “true value” of what she believes she should have inherited. Her complaint said she was “fleeced” out of “tens of millions of dollars or more.”

Mary Trump said in a statement to The Post that Donald Trump’s initial effort to change his father’s will when his mental state was in decline is still relevant today because it shows how he put his own interests above even those of his own family members.

“As demonstrated by his willingness to alter his father’s will illicitly and in secret, there are no limits to Donald’s unethical behavior,” she said. “Because doing so benefited Donald, however, he had no compunction about deceiving his father in order to defraud his own siblings. There is no code of conduct, no moral or ethical imperative that stands in the way of Donald’s craven willingness to achieve his ends no matter the means.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere, asked for comment, said via email: “Old News. Totally False.”

The state of Fred Trump Sr.’s mind, as it turned out, would prove to be a crucial factor for his son as the legal dramas over the estate escalated.

New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio (D), center left, tours the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City with Donald Trump on the casino's opening day in 1990.
New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio (D), center left, tours the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City with Donald Trump on the casino's opening day in 1990. (Mike Derer/AP)

Trump’s business problems

By the end of 1990, Donald Trump’s financial problems were spiraling out of control, and he increasingly looked to his inheritance as his salvation.

“It was a very bad period of time and if for any reason I was not able to come out of this well, then this would be giving me a trust to protect the money” that he would inherit, Trump said in a deposition he gave in the 2000 inheritance case, explaining why he came up with the idea to amend the will.

His casino empire at the time was in “severe financial distress,” according to a report by New Jersey regulators, the Trump Shuttle airline was losing millions of dollars per month, and his latest project, his crown jewel called the Taj Mahal, was cannibalizing business from his other casinos.

Trump convinced bankers to give him a $100 million line of credit, he told The Post in an interview for the biography “Trump Revealed.” But the possibility of personal bankruptcy still loomed, and he pleaded with more bankers — one of whom later told The Post that they gave him a financial lifeline only because if he went down, they might go down, and thus was worth keeping “alive.”

Still, the debts kept mounting, and Trump relied even more heavily on the man who had repeatedly bailed him out: his father. Fred Trump Sr. sent a lawyer to one of his son’s casinos with a check for $3.35 million, which paid for 670 gambling chips worth $5,000 a piece, according to a New Jersey regulator’s report. The maneuver funneled desperately needed cash into the casino.

Donald Trump, right, waits with his brother Robert for the start of a Casino Control Commission meeting in Atlantic City in 1990, seeking final approval for the Taj Mahal casino.
Donald Trump, right, waits with his brother Robert for the start of a Casino Control Commission meeting in Atlantic City in 1990, seeking final approval for the Taj Mahal casino. (AP)

But it still wasn’t enough. A string of six corporate bankruptcies would follow. Fearing that his future inheritance would be seized, Donald Trump came up with his plan for an amendment, known as a codicil, to his father’s will.

While Trump had been expected to be the lead executor in an initial version of the will, this amendment would have broadened that role, according to Mary Trump’s account in her book. She wrote that the codicil would have put his siblings “at Donald’s financial mercy, dependent on his approval for the smallest transaction.”

Don Novick of Novick & Associates, an expert on New York estate law who reviewed the documents at The Post’s request, said: “It gave [Donald Trump] an enormous amount of authority he didn’t have in the original will. It gave him essentially full control to do whatever he wanted to run these businesses and to use estate and trust assets for that purpose.”

The codicil, reported by the New York Times in 2018 as part of its investigation into the family’s tax-avoidance measures, also was designed to protect Donald Trump’s inheritance from efforts to seize it by creditors and Ivana.

Trump’s uncontested divorce from Ivana was finalized in December 1990, with cruel and inhuman treatment by Donald Trump cited as the grounds. The division of property was then to be decided. Ivana had originally asked for $2.5 billion, half of Trump’s estimated worth, but his lawyers said her prenuptial agreement allowed her to receive less than 1 percent of his assets. (A private settlement eventually would be reached. Ivana Trump said in a brief telephone conversation: “I have no idea what Donald Trump and his father did. I have no comment.”)

Security guards escort Mary MacLeod Trump, Donald Trump's mother, as she arrives for lunch at a New York restaurant in 1990.
Security guards escort Mary MacLeod Trump, Donald Trump's mother, as she arrives for lunch at a New York restaurant in 1990. (Mario Cabrera/AP)

‘You’re not signing anything’

Donald Trump asked a lawyer, Peter Valente, to write the codicil, according to Barry’s deposition in the 2000 case. (Valente said he could not discuss the matter due to attorney-client privilege.) Then, instead of presenting the proposal to his father, Trump said in the deposition that he sent two of his father’s most trusted associates to make the pitch in December 1990. They were Fred Sr.’s lawyer, Irwin Durben, and his accountant, Jack Mitnick.

Durben died in 2016. Mitnick declined to comment.

When Durban and Mitnick brought the codicil to Trump’s father for his signature, Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod Trump, looked at the document and told her husband, “You’re not signing anything until I have had a chance to read it,” Barry said in the recording made by her niece.

Maryanne Trump Barry’s deposition from 2000 inheritance case

Q. Can you tell us when you first became aware of that document?

A. I first became aware of this document when my father called me and said he had been given this document by Irwin Durben and Jack Mitnick and asked to sign it and he said he didn’t like what he saw in there and he wanted me to take a look at it.

Q. Do you know approximately when that phone call was?

A. It wasn’t, I am trying to remember. It was either late 1990 or early 1991 and I have a distinct recollection of him bringing the document to me when we were down at my brother Donald’s house in Florida for a weekend that early 91. Early 91 maybe. But in any event, he called me on it and brought it to me because he was disturbed by what he read.

After Fred Trump Sr. refused the request to sign the document, he called Barry. Fred Sr. later met with his daughter, showed her the proposed codicil and said he was annoyed at the way Donald had tried to use two trusted advisers to get him to “sign it immediately,” according to Barry’s deposition in the 2000 case.

As father and daughter discussed the document, Barry said, they concluded that it would mean “Donald has sole control of everything as the executor/trustee, can sell, do anything he wants, you know, with the properties,” Barry said in her deposition.

Maryanne Trump Barry’s deposition from 2000 inheritance case

Q. So he [Fred Trump Sr.] expressed to you some sort of concern that by dint of the instrument putting Donald in control of the assets, even as his capacity as fiduciary, that somehow creditors of Donald would be able to attach the assets?

A. Right. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how he perceived it and that is how it looked to me too.

“Dad was concerned because although he always had the highest respect for Donald and admiration for him, this was a time when Donald was in precarious financial straits by his own admission and Dad was very concerned as a man who worked hard for his money and never wanted any of it to leave the family,” she said.

“He said to me . . . ‘This doesn’t pass the smell test,’ ” Barry said. “Here’s his attorney giving him something that he reads [that] could potentially denude his estate and he was annoyed that should happen that way.” It was done “behind his back, he had not authorized it, didn’t know they were going to give it to him for signature.”

It was left to Barry to tell Donald Trump that their father was killing the codicil. Years later, Trump, who rarely admits a mistake, said in a deposition that “I blame myself” for the way he sought the change in the will.

Donald Trump deposition from 2000 inheritance case

Q. Did Mr. Mitnick ever tell you what aspect or aspects of the whole episode your father found annoying, if I can use that word?

A. I think the presentation was not handled properly and he didn’t know Mr. Valente, didn’t feel comfortable having a lawyer that he never met putting a codicil in front of him and that was it. He wasn’t happy about it and I blame myself for that because I think the presentation was probably, in retrospect, not done right but I had a lot of things on my mind at that the point and this is not the biggest thing at all.

“My father wasn’t happy about it,” Trump said in his deposition. “The man was very, very sharp and wanted to know, you know, who the lawyer was. He wanted to read the document, wanted to get to understand the document and in the end he just didn’t like maybe the concept of the document or didn’t like the way it was presented or he just wanted to review the whole situation.”

By the spring of 1991, Fred Trump Sr. was working on the new will that made Donald Trump a co-executor of the estate, along with two of his siblings, Robert, who died August 15, and Maryanne. (The other siblings are Fred Jr., who is Mary’s father and died in 1981, and Elizabeth, who was not an executor of her father’s estate and thus not actively involved in the matter.)

A photograph of Fred Trump Sr., President Trump's father, sits in the Oval Office in 2019.
A photograph of Fred Trump Sr., President Trump's father, sits in the Oval Office in 2019. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Another fight

It was at this time that a new question came up: What would be given to the two children of Fred Trump Jr., Donald’s older brother, who had died in 1981 of an alcohol-related disease?

Mary and Fred III went to court in 2000 to argue that Fred Trump Sr. was not of sound mind when Donald and his siblings sought changes in the will in September 1991 that led to their effective disinheritance.

To bolster their case, they obtained medical and other records that showed Fred Trump Sr. was increasingly in mental decline. Mary said in an affidavit that her grandfather suffered from “senile dementia” and alleged that the will was “the product of undue influence and coercion” by Donald Trump and his siblings.

Robert Trump, Donald’s younger brother, said their father had been in “notable decline” in his cognitive ability starting in 1990, the year that Donald wanted his father to sign the codicil, according to medical records.

Robert Trump’s deposition from 2000 inheritance case

A. My father was very angry that a document, again, a document which I had never seen nor was I aware of it, but a document had been presented to him for signature almost as if it was a fait accompli, and evidently the preparers of the document were Mr. Durben and Mr. Mitnick, and I later learned it was also Mr. Valente, whoever he was.

And my father was quite unhappy that they had not had the courtesy and the professionalism to tell him that they were working on something, truly on his behalf as well as Donald’s behalf, and gave it — gave him a document and said, sign this and we’ve got to get it fast, sign it. And when he read it I don’t believe he understood it completely. So he was very unhappy with those two individuals particularly.

Then in October 1991, Fred Trump Sr. went to see one of his physicians, C. Ronald MacKenzie. The doctor wrote in his report that Fred Trump Sr. had “significant memory impairment” and showed “early signs of dementia.” In his notes, MacKenzie wrote that Trump Sr. had “obvious memory decline in recent years.” MacKenzie declined to comment.

In February 1992, Fred Trump Sr. underwent a neuropsychological evaluation by Rajendra Jutagir. The doctor wrote in the report, which is included in court records, that Fred Trump Sr. “did not know his birth date, was unsure of his age, and turned to his son [Robert] for help in responding to some questions.”

Jutagir’s exam found that the senior Trump’s cognitive ability was below the 15th percentile for a person in his age group. He could not recall what he was told 30 minutes earlier, the report said. He was given standard tests and failed or performed poorly. He was able to recall only three of the previous nine U.S. presidents. He was unable to draw hands on a clock to show a requested time. After reading a story, he could only remember one detail out of 23. Jutagir could not be reached for comment.

Rajendra Jutagir’s report

Memory: Immediate recall of stories read to him was poor relative to his achievement. Although norms are not well established for his age group, conservative estimation suggests performance below the 15th percentile. After a delay of 30 minutes recall of stories was nil. Immediate recall of a story that he read to himself was also impaired as he could remember only one detail (out of a possible 23), and showed evidence of mild confabulation.

From a 1992 medical record about Fred Trump Sr.

Despite all of this, Donald Trump insisted in his deposition that he never saw or heard of any evidence of his father’s mental decline during this time.

“Do you recall him being diagnosed as having senile dementia in 1991?” Trump was asked by a lawyer in the deposition.

“No,” Trump responded.

“Do you recall him exhibiting any confusion in 1991?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” Trump said.

Then, when the lawyer asked Trump to look at a doctor’s report from October 1991 that said his father “has mild senile dementia,” Trump said he knew nothing about it.

2000 Donald Trump deposition

Q. Let’s look at the exhibit. On Page 3, under the entry in the middle of the page, October 3rd of 1991, the 3rd paragraph next to the last sentence. “He [Fred Trump Sr.] has mild senile dementia.” You indicated before you had never heard of that. Does this in any way refresh your memory that some doctor made such a diagnosis on October 3rd of 91?

A. No.

Q. And you never heard it at any time thereafter through the end of 1993?

A. No, I have not.

(When asked during the 2016 campaign about dementia in his family, Trump said on “The Dr. Oz Show” that his father developed signs of Alzheimer’s disease only in “the last few years” before dying in 1999.)

Mary Trump said in an affidavit in her 2000 case that the executors of Fred Trump Sr.’s estate, including her uncle Donald, had “lied in the probate proceeding” about the elder Trump’s mental health and coerced the elder Trump to effectively disinherit her and her brother.

Trump and his brother Robert led an effort against a challenge to the will made by Mary and her brother, Fred III, saying they would withdraw medical care that was being provided by a Trump company to Fred III’s son, William, who had cerebral palsy. Donald Trump told the New York Daily News that after he was sued by Mary and Fred III over the will, he decided, “Why should we give [William] medical coverage?”

Mary Trump’s 2000 Affidavit

At the time, my uncle [Robert Trump] reported to the neuropsychological examiner that my grandfather’s memory had been in “notable decline” for the past two years. This is the same man who swore at his deposition, as did his brother and sister, that his father was mentally fit at the time he made his Will.

In the end, Mary and Fred III settled the inheritance fight and signed confidentiality agreements.

But Mary said this year she wasn’t bound by secrecy because of what she had learned about the value of the estate. Based on records she provided to the New York Times, she said she had been told the estate was worth $30 million when it was actually worth closer to $1 billion. She said she began to secretly record her aunt in an effort to extract knowledge about what Mary considered the family’s deception.

The fallout, as it turns out, had been foreshadowed by one of Fred Trump Sr.’s advisers, whose name is not disclosed in court records. In 1991, the adviser wrote him a memo that referred to the way he was effectively disinheriting Mary Trump and her brother. Suggesting that he consider giving them a more equitable share of the inheritance, the adviser wrote: “You may wish to increase their participation in your estate to avoid ill will in the future.”

The elder Trump ignored the advice.

Nearly 30 years later, Mary Trump, still upset over the inheritance battle and deeply at odds with her uncle’s political views, published her book with the title “Too Much and Never Enough.”

About this story

Editing by John Drescher. Copy editing by Carey Biron. Design and development by Jake Crump, Allison Mann and Lucio Villa. Photo editing by Natalia Jiménez-Stuard.

Michael Kranish is a national political investigative reporter for The Washington Post. He is the co-author of The Post’s biography "Trump Revealed," as well as biographies of John F. Kerry and Mitt Romney. He previously was the deputy chief of the Boston Globe's Washington bureau.