To hear Donald Trump tell it, the media is totally overreacting to the sorry state of his campaign finances. Sure, he entered June with just $1.3 million in cash on hand, compared to the $42 million held by Hillary Clinton, but he can always just pull more money out of his own pockets. Because, as the former reality TV star informed everyone when he declared his presidential candidacy last year, he is "really rich."
"As far as I'm concerned, I'd be very happy to continue to self-fund," Trump told ABC News on Tuesday. "I'll be honest, I think I could spend $50, $60, $70 million of my own money and run a wonderful campaign."
Journalists seem unconvinced. In fact, the media's attitude boils down to this: Okay, Mr. Trump, show us the money.
Behind all the scrutiny of the presumptive Republican nominee's low fundraising total are longstanding doubts about the true magnitude of Trump's wealth — specifically how much of his net worth (supposedly in the $10 billion range) is readily available to him in cash, as opposed to buildings, golf courses and other assets that are undoubtedly valuable but cannot be spent on political ads or used to make payroll.
A Daily Beast headline in March declared, rather cheekily, that "Donald Trump is too poor to be president." The subhead explained: "Trump may be 'worth' X billion, but what matters are liquid assets — and he doesn't have enough of those to mount a general election campaign."
About the same time, when the GOP nomination was still in doubt, Bloomberg View blared that "Trump is too poor for a third-party run." Just a few weeks ago, Vanity Fair wondered, "Is Donald Trump not really a billionaire?" And when Clinton said in a speech Tuesday that "maybe he isn't as rich as he claims," her skepticism made headlines from Fortune to Yahoo to the Blaze.
Update: 49 minutes after this story was posted, Reuters published an article that concluded Trump "does not have enough cash to see his campaign through to Election Day." The hits just keep coming.
Such coverage is strikingly different from what other recent, rich-guy candidates received. Mitt Romney and John Kerry, for example, were cagey about their net worth, seemingly worried that huge numbers would reinforce perceptions that they were out of touch with most voters. A Mother Jones headline from fall 2012 captures the difference pretty perfectly: "Mitt Romney: Richer than you think."
Although journalists covering previous elections have suspected that candidates might be wealthier than they let on, reporters now question whether Trump is really as loaded as he claims.
This isn't just a matter of curiosity. If Trump is actually as flush as he would have reporters and voters believe, then he is right about his mostly empty war chest — it's nothing to worry about, and the story is being blown out of proportion. As Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer said on CNN Tuesday, "If he wanted to get that number up in two seconds, he just strokes a check, and it's up."
But there are reasons for the media to doubt whether Trump can, in fact, simply "stroke a check" and largely self-finance a credible campaign against Clinton, who is expected by many political observers to raise $1 billion.
The big one is that he refuses to release his tax returns, which would reveal his actual income, not just estimate his overall worth. Trump says he won't publicize his tax returns because he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, but Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee — another wealthy candidate who was reluctant to share tax documents — has speculated that the real reason for Trump's unwillingness could be that he earns less than he wants people to think.
The Wall Street Journal, using the financial disclosure form Trump submitted to the Federal Election Commission last year, recently estimated his 2016 pretax income at $160 million. The Journal said it also relied on "interviews with dozens of former and current Trump Organization executives and people who are familiar with his businesses."
In the same FEC filing, which required Trump to assign ranges of values to his assets, he listed cash, stock and bond holdings — stuff that could be quickly liquidated, if necessary — worth between $78 million and $232 million.
That's a lot of money, but recent history suggests that it would not be enough to win the White House. President Obama raised $722.4 million in 2012 and spent almost all of it. He spent slightly more to win in 2008.
Could Trump sell property to raise money? Sure, but it probably wouldn't be as easy as he makes it sound. He boasted to Forbes last year that if he put Trump Tower on the market for $2 billion, "I'd have checks on my desk in 10 minutes." Forbes, which said it devoted "unprecedented resources to valuing a single fortune," disagreed. The magazine put the value of Trump Tower at $630 million and its owner's net worth at $4.5 billion — less than half of what Trump claims.
Whatever Trump Tower might fetch, you don't have to be a real estate mogul to know that closing the sale and putting cash in Trump's wallet — cash he could spend on his campaign — would take just a bit longer than 10 minutes.
Trump's precise wealth remains a mystery to the media, partly because the candidate has said he trusts his gut to make appraisals. When he sued a journalist in 2006, claiming the writer had underestimated his net worth in a book, Trump testified that he measured his riches using his "own feelings as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day."
Right now, Trump's feelings seem to be telling him that having just $1.3 million in his campaign account is not a problem because he can draw from his personal fortune. But that isn't good enough for the media, which consistently arrives at lower figures than Trump when the subject is his finances.
And until he actually makes a large deposit — or starts raising money at a presidential pace — stories about his nearly barren campaign coffers (and perhaps his personal coffers) are not going to go away.