The second night of the Republican convention has the somewhat awkwardly named theme of "Make America Work Again." The speakers lean toward those who've demonstrated success in business, including mystery man Andy Wist. Those speakers and the overall theme will no doubt serve to remind viewers that the Republican nominee is a very wealthy man who, in the grand American tradition, promises to make you wealthy, too.
And in the grand American tradition of people promising to make you rich, it's not clear if the credentials of the guy making the promises check out.
We know that Trump is rich. He owns infinitely more buildings than I do, for example, as reported on his personal financial disclosure. We don't know how rich he is, though — in part because he regularly inflates, exaggerates and lies about a figure that we have no way of knowing. (Even if we had access to the tax returns that he refuses to make public.)
Trump did offer sworn testimony about his net worth during a 2007 deposition. "My net worth fluctuates," he said, according to the Wall Street Journal, "and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feeling."
That mirrors a curious line item in the document he released at the start of his campaign, where he declared that $3.3 billion of the $8.7 billion he's worth is attributable to "real estate licensing deals, brand and branded developments." "Brand" means the name "Trump," essentially, and there's really no reason that it can't be worth whatever Trump says.
That $8.7 billion figure was as of June 2014, he declared when he launched his campaign in June 2015. By the time he filed his personal financial disclosure, he declared that his net worth had grown to "TEN BILLION DOLLARS," in the all-caps used in the campaign's announcement. His disclosure this year put the figure at "in excess of" $10 billion.
Again, we have no way of knowing if this is true. What we know, though, is that experts who have tried to estimate the number have consistently come up with lower figures — sometimes much lower.
Forbes, in developing its annual list of billionaires, has tracked Trump's net worth the most consistently over time. It's grown slowly, getting hammered during the recession, but clearly doing pretty well in the post-"Apprentice" era of Trump's money-making. Their most recent estimate is that Trump is worth $4.5 billion — well less than half of what Trump says.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg released its second annual estimate. They figure that Trump is worth $3 billion, up slightly from the $2.9 million they estimated last year. Fortune is in the middle at $3.9 billion, also up from 2015.
Why the variance? Because Trump's net worth includes determinations of the values of a number of properties, of fluctuating securities holdings and of a number of non-real-estate possessions. The Forbes link above does a good job walking through the variables at play, including talking to brand experts about how much that "Trump" name is worth. (The highest figure? $1.1 billion, slightly more than my own.)
The important issue, though, is the extent to which Trump exaggerates his net worth. There's a great passage from a 2005 New York Times article that's worth excerpting. The author asked Trump about his net worth when they first met in 1996.
When I popped the wealth question, he paused momentarily and scrunched his eyebrows. We had reached a crossroads. Out it came. He pursed his lips a little bit. Out it came. He blinked. Out it came, rising up from deep within him.
"I would say six [billion]. Five to six. Five to six," he said.
Hmm. The previous August he told me that his net worth was $4 billion to $5 billion. Then, later that same day that August, he said his casino holdings represented 2 percent of his wealth, which at the time gave him a net worth of about $1.7 billion. In the same day, Donald's own estimates of his wealth differed by as much as $3.3 billion. ... And on the nightstand in my bedroom at Donald's Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, was a glossy brochure that said he was worth $9.5 billion.
That was two decades ago. In 2000, it was $5 billion. In the 2007 deposition mentioned above, $4 billion. In 2011, as he was considering running for president, $7 billion. Then, in 2015, $9 billion and then $10 billion in short order.
In 2005, Deutsche Bank was considering underwriting a construction loan for Trump, necessitating that it evaluate his net worth. They figured that the magnate was worth about $788 million.
Again: Trump is rich. He's richer than me; he's probably richer than you. If his argument is that he can make us as rich as he is, though, it's worth asking how he made himself rich and how rich he got, given that such information would allow us to evaluate if he can deliver on his promises.
Then again, I suddenly got the feeling that my personal brand is worth $11 billion. Looks like I should be president, after all.