This week, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, Forbes dropped Trump from the list entirely, reporting that the former president is now worth about $2.5 billion — the same as last year, but as the rich get richer, stasis won’t cut it on the rich list. Trump’s worth is down about $600 million since the start of the pandemic, the magazine reported, leaving him $400 million short of qualifying for this year’s Forbes 400.
Trump, whose spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment, will not be happy. For nearly four decades, he has devoted enormous effort to assuring his place on the list, lobbying Forbes’s editors, presenting extensive figures designed to prove his wealth, even making phony phone calls to Forbes reporters in the 1980s, claiming to be “John Barron,” a fictitious PR man representing Trump and making his case for a higher rank on the list.
“[W]hile many of the super-rich wanted to keep their names off the ranking, Trump was desperate to scale it,” Jonathan Greenberg, the reporter who compiled the early lists, wrote in 2018.
Greenberg says Trump called him constantly, both in his own voice and in the guise of “Barron,” a purported publicity man who flipped between providing evidence of Trump’s supposedly soaring wealth and badgering the reporter with claims that turned out to be bogus. Trump showed up uninvited at the magazine’s offices, had his attorney Roy Cohn call to argue his case, and used his Barron alter ego to tear down rival developers who might also be on the list.
From the start, the rich list was the kind of marker that fascinated Trump, who built his brand around the idea that he was the richest guy and led the most fabulous life. He saw the magazine’s ranking as a powerful marketing tool, a way to persuade affluent customers to buy into his buildings to become part of the glitz and glamour of Trump world.
There was, according to Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, a symbiotic relationship between Trump and the Forbes list.
Trump “was obsessed with the Forbes list,” O’Brien wrote. “And his propensity for inflation, matched with Forbes’s aversion to hiring the sizable staff it might need to assess accurately the wealth of each of its designated 400, got Donald on the magazine’s inaugural list.”
“The more often Forbes mentioned him, the more credible Donald’s claim to vast wealth became,” the biographer wrote. “The more credible his claim to vast wealth became, the easier it was for him to get on the Forbes 400.”
In 2015, Forbes editor Randall Lane said that among the 1,538 Americans who had made the rich list by that point, “not one has been more fixated with his or her net worth estimate on a year-in, year-out basis than Donald J. Trump.”
This year, the magazine concluded that Trump would have boosted his wealth considerably if he had divested his holdings when he became president.
“If Trump is looking for someone to blame” for falling off the list, “he can start with himself,” the magazine wrote. When federal ethics officials pressed Trump to sell his real estate assets before he assumed the presidency, Trump’s refusal to do so robbed him of the chance not only to avoid conflicts of interest, but also to have invested his assets in the stock market, which Forbes concludes would have raised his value to about $7 billion.
By instead holding on to his family company and its properties, he lost significant value during his presidency, Forbes reported.
Forbes calculates billionaires’ worth by adding up their assets and subtracting debt and other liabilities. Trump now faces some significant liabilities, including the $100 million debt on his signature Trump Tower building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and a big debt to the federal government if he loses a long-standing dispute with the IRS over a $73 million tax refund from 2010.
Forbes’s effort to calculate Trump’s worth has always been complicated by the ex-president’s insistence that his brand, the ultimate in intangible assets, is worth billions of dollars. In 2009, Trump put a $5 billion value on his name.
“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with my feelings, even my own feelings,” Trump said in a deposition in a libel suit he filed against O’Brien, his biographer. “. . . My own feelings affects my value to myself.”
Forbes does not assign a brand value to the people on the list, whether they are Trump, Oprah Winfrey or other billionaires whose product is in good part their public personality. The result has been a yawning gap between what Trump says he’s worth and what the magazine’s researchers have concluded.
Over time, the Forbes list has grown to include more self-made billionaires than people with inherited wealth. Trump, who made the original list only because he claimed to own a piece of his father Fred Trump’s massive apartment holdings in New York City, gained a spot of his own on the roster in 1985, when he landed at No. 51 on the list with a net worth of $600 million. He remained in the list’s top 50 for most of the late 1980s.
From the start, Greenberg said, Trump insisted he was one of the richest people in America, but “nearly every assertion supporting that claim was untrue.”
The reporter said he discovered over many years of research that Trump “should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all,” concluding that when the magazine listed him in 1982 as being worth $100 million, he was actually worth about $5 million. Trump at that time had a $1 million trust from his father, $400,000 in his checking accounts and a few small real estate holdings he had financed with loans secured by his father’s assets.
Greenberg said Trump lied to him about the number of apartments the family owned, their value, and his independent ownership of the buildings — as it turned out, Trump had no equity in his father’s company until Fred Trump died in 1999.
Trump’s efforts to work the Forbes list continued for many years.
In 1989, Trump sent the magazine a statement claiming he was worth $3.7 billion, including $900 million in liquid assets. “I am more liquid than any major developer in the United States,” Trump wrote to Forbes. That year, Forbes boosted its assessment of Trump’s value from $1 billion to $1.7 billion.
But as Greenberg later reported, the New Jersey Casino Commission found that by the end of 1990, Trump had only $19 million in cash, way less than he needed to pay the loans on his casino and real estate properties. The commission valued Trump’s net worth at $205 million, a tiny fraction of what he had boasted of to Forbes.
In 1990, the magazine removed Trump from its list as the developer and casino magnate was crushed by a tsunami of debt. His Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City went bankrupt, as did his Plaza Hotel in New York. Forbes left him off the list for five years.
Trump responded by asking the co-author of his 1990 book, “Trump: Surviving at the Top” to add a few pages attacking the magazine’s owner, Malcolm Forbes, because he allegedly “lived openly as a homosexual — which he had every right to do — but expected the media and his famous friends to cover for him.” In the book, Trump contended that Forbes had dropped him from the list as payback after Trump refused to let the magazine magnate bring two underage men into the bar at Trump’s Plaza Hotel.
Trump got back on the Forbes 400 in 1996, after his casino company went public and he bought the Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants. Forbes then said he was worth $450 million, though Trump claimed the real number was $2 billion.
By the late 1990s, Forbes had come clean with its readers about its inability to figure out Trump’s finances. In 1999, Trump was No. 145 on the list, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, but with this explanation: “We love Donald. He returns our calls. He usually pays for lunch. He even estimates his own net worth ($4.5 billion). But no matter how hard we try, we just can’t prove it.”
In his 2005 biography, “TrumpNation,” O’Brien concluded, based on interviews with people who had “direct knowledge” of Trump’s holdings, that his net worth was between $150 million and $250 million. Trump at that point claimed to be worth $6 billion. He sued O’Brien for libel and lost both at trial and on appeal.
As much as Trump fought to get and stay on the Forbes list, he also dismissed it as a bunch of hype. In his 1990 book, Trump professed to be “amazed” that anyone pays attention to the rich list.
“Every year the Forbes 400 comes out,” he wrote, “and people talk about it as if it were a rigorously researched compilation of America’s wealthiest people, instead of what it really is: a sloppy, highly arbitrary estimate of certain people’s net worth.”