They say there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And then there are Donald Trump’s numbers.
Years ago, I had a conversation with Trump that seems especially relevant now.
I remember him telling me that I had gotten an earlier story about him wrong. He said something like, “When I say I’m buying, I’m selling. And when I say I’m selling, I’m buying.” I told him that he had sworn on the heads of his children that what he had previously told me was true. He repeated his mantra, saying I should have known that he was selling when he said he was buying, and buying when he said he’s selling.
So I asked why I should believe a word that he said. Undaunted, he went right on.
That all came back to me when I took a look at the 92-page Trump financial document that the Federal Election Commission released on Wednesday.
I’ve spent more than 40 years making my living by writing about numbers, and I’ve never run across anyone who uses them the way that Trump does. He just spews numbers forth, based on heaven knows what, and people are supposed to take them on faith.
That FEC document has tons and tons of numbers. But it’s hard to figure out what—if anything—they tell you about Trump, other than that he’s got fingers in several hundred pies.
When he filed the document, on July 15, he said that he had a net worth of more than $10 billion, compared with his claim a month ago that he was worth $8.738 billion as of June 30, 2014. He released that net worth summary when he formally declared that he was running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Some of the numbers in that document were more than a little ephemeral. For example, he claimed that “real estate licensing deals, brand and branded developments” were worth $3,320,020,000. I was especially taken with the $20,000 part. What was that 10-digit valuation based on? He wouldn’t say then, and his representatives won’t say now.
What is today’s “more than $10 billion” net worth number based on? Who knows? Vague as it was, last month's “summary of net worth” was at least a document that had numbers that added up across and down, even though you couldn’t figure out what the numbers were based on.
I won’t burden you with the hundreds of numbers in the 92-page filing, because there’s no point to it. Except for speech income (which my Post colleagues calculated at $1.75 million, much of which came from a “multi-level marketer” called ACN), you can’t get your arms around anything. He lists 326 holdings of what appear to be marketable securities. What are they worth? How much income do they generate? Is there any outstanding debt on them? No way to tell.
I sent Trump’s people a short list of questions—such as whether revenues listed for various activities were net of expenses, and whether there was any debt on individual properties above and beyond 15 liabilities listed on Page 47 of his filing. (The total liabilities and the total claimed values of the assets can’t be determined, because the Federal Election Commission requires only ranges of values and debts, not specific amounts).
His people declined to answer questions, or to comment.
The only way I will believe Trump’s claimed net worth is if someone provides hard information. Not claims, but hard information. Vouched for by someone who doesn’t have Trump in his or her name.
I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.