In his best-selling 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump presented himself as the ultimate New Yorker — brash, brilliant, supremely successful. It is delicious, then, that it was New York Attorney General Letitia James who punctured this fiction with a stinging, Manhattan-tough one-liner.
I honestly wonder which aspect of James’s 222-page complaint will rankle Trump more: the threat of potential fines and restrictions that could essentially mean the corporate death penalty for the Trump Organization? Or the damage to his fragile ego from the suit’s detailed allegations about how he wildly inflated his net worth?
Judging by Trump’s declaration that James is a “racist” on a “witch hunt,” and his lawyer’s insistence that James, a Democrat, filed the suit to launch her own political career, the announcement stung the former president, even if it has not yet fatally wounded his business empire.
My favorite detail in the suit is the allegation that Trump claimed his apartment at Trump Tower spanned more than 30,000 square feet and was worth $327 million, far more than any New York apartment has ever been sold for. In reality, James said, the apartment covers just under 11,000 square feet. That’s still huge; the Fifth Avenue triplex is still worth a lot of money. But why would he lie about such an easily checkable fact as square footage?
For that matter, why would he claim that a group of rent-stabilized apartments he owned were worth 65 times their actual value, according to James? Why would he claim his tower at 40 Wall Street was worth $524 million, when a contemporaneous professional appraisal set its value at roughly $200 million? Why would he claim that the Trump Organization had cash on hand that James said did not exist? Why would he assert, or boast, that the name “Trump” — just the gold-plated name itself — added huge amounts to the valuations of other properties?
According to the lawsuit, the practical reason was to fraudulently represent to banks that he and his company had more assets than they truly did. That allowed him to obtain loans at lower interest rates and insurance coverage with lower premiums, the suit alleges, amounting to an estimated $250 million in unwarranted benefits during the decade between 2011 and 2021. James’s suit seeks to recover that money from the firm — and to punish Trump, his daughter Ivanka, his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, and the Trump Organization by severely limiting, if not eliminating, their ability to do business in the state of New York.
But it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to suspect a psychological explanation for Trump’s alleged lies, as well. Trump has always seemed to be compelled to exaggerate his accomplishments, even when there was no rational reason to do so.
Recall his very first day as president. He had a perfectly respectable crowd at his inauguration, given the iffy weather and the divisiveness of the 2016 election. But he ordered his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to insist — falsely, grandiloquently and laughably — that it was the biggest inaugural crowd in history. Note how, to this day, Trump routinely overstates the crowd size at his MAGA rallies, stoking his own ego by claiming his followers waited in miles-long lines to bask in the radiance of his presence.
Trump has always seemed to be especially touchy about his wealth, insisting that he is far richer than analysts at Forbes magazine and elsewhere reckoned. I have to wonder whether James had that sensitivity in mind when she prepared the statement she read at her news conference announcing the suit.
James’s investigators examined Trump’s declared valuations for 23 properties, including his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago; the hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House that he recently sold; and several of his golf courses. She seemed to make a point of mentioning these marquee holdings and showing, she alleges, that they are not really worth what Trump claims. All that glitters might be gold, but in Trump’s case, it’s only 14-karat.
The fact that — according to James and the lawsuit — Trump allegedly obtained expert, outside appraisals and still boosted the properties’ values suggests incredible recklessness. Whether that is born of simple greed or inner need, it might end up costing Trump an awful lot of money.
James said she believed Trump may have left himself open to criminal fraud charges as well. The New York district attorney’s office issued a statement on Wednesday saying its criminal investigation of Trump remains open; and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will have yet another fraught decision to make — whether these alleged inflated property valuations violated federal criminal statutes as well and warrant charges.
Hubris has taken Trump far in life. As the ancient Greeks knew, however, it’s not a very good long-term plan.