The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s origin story suffers another severe blow

James Nolan, second from right in the middle row, and Fred Trump Jr., second from left in the middle row. Nolan was best friends with Donald Trump’s older brother. (From James Nolan)

The myth of Donald Trump, as written by Donald Trump, took yet another blow Monday.

The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish reported that Trump’s admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance — one of Trump’s go-to brags to play up his credentials — was hardly the feat he has claimed. In fact, Trump leaned on his older brother’s friendship with an admissions officer to get into the school. And even then, he was clearing a much lower bar than exists for acceptance to the prestigious school today.

Here are the key parts:

James Nolan was working in the University of Pennsylvania’s admissions office in 1966 when he got a phone call from one of his closest friends, Fred Trump Jr. It was a plea to help Fred’s younger brother, Donald Trump, get into Penn’s Wharton School.
“He called me and said, ‘You remember my brother Donald?’ Which I didn’t,” Nolan, 81, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He said, ‘He’s at Fordham and he would like to transfer to Wharton. Will you interview him?’ I was happy to do that.”
Soon, Donald Trump arrived at Penn for the interview, accompanied by his father, Fred Trump Sr., who sought to “ingratiate” himself, Nolan said.
Nolan, who said he was the only admissions official to talk to Trump, was required to give Trump a rating, and he recalled, “It must have been decent enough to support his candidacy.”
At the time, Nolan said, more than half of applicants to Penn were accepted, and transfer students such as Trump had an even higher acceptance based on their college experience. A Penn official said the acceptance rate for 1966 was not available but noted that the school says on its website that the 1980 rate was “slightly greater than 40%.” Today, by comparison, the admissions rate for the incoming Penn class is 7.4 percent, the school recently announced.

Trump has said he went to “the hardest school to get into, the best school in the world,” calling it “super genius stuff.” Nolan counters that “it was not very difficult” to get into Wharton in 1966 and added of his interview with Trump: “I certainly was not struck by any sense that I’m sitting before a genius. Certainly not a super genius.”

It’s hardly a surprise that Trump’s academic record isn’t as stellar as he has made it out to be. We have already seen reporting establish that he wasn’t nearly as successful at Wharton as he has occasionally suggested or led reporters to believe.

But this new report feeds into a fast-emerging trend when it comes to President Trump’s telling of his biography. While he often plays up the singularity of his intellect and achievements, reporting shows he routinely relied on family or other connections at key junctures and has inflated the early successes that resulted.

The most direct parallel seems to be Trump’s medical deferment from the Vietnam War. After getting four educational deferments, he got a fifth thanks to a diagnosis of bone spurs. The New York Times reported last year that the children of the doctor who provided that diagnosis told them it was done as a favor to Trump’s father, Fred Trump Sr. — the successful real estate businessman who also accompanied his son to the Penn interview. (The elder Trump was the podiatrist’s landlord.)

The new report by Kranish also recalls perhaps the biggest revelation undercutting Trump’s self-published origin story: how he became wealthy in the first place. While Trump has claimed he got only a $1 million loan to start out with, the Times detailed how the younger Trump “received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s.” The paper said these tax dodges included “instances of outright fraud.”

And when it comes to Trump’s education, he has apparently gone to great lengths to obscure the record and seems to have tapped powerful connections in the process, as The Post’s Marc Fisher detailed in March. The New York Military Academy, which Trump attended before college, moved its Trump files to a more secure location amid pressure from wealthy Trump allies. Around the same time that was revealed, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who flipped on Trump and pleaded guilty to several crimes, released a 2015 letter he wrote threatening Fordham University with legal action if Trump’s records were released.

The combined picture is one of a president who may not have been able to attend Penn or assemble anywhere close to such a fortune without familial connections. Without those, he also may have instead been serving in Vietnam around this same time.

That’s hardly the story of a self-made, brilliant budding real estate tycoon. It’s a story that apparently could have gone much differently if its protagonist were not born a Trump.