How much money does Donald Trump actually have?
Trump’s image as a savvy, deal-making, and, most importantly, fabulously wealthy businessman isn’t just about his personal brand. He’s made it a key selling point for his presidential campaign as he’s run to be the Republican Party’s nominee.
“I’m really rich,” he assured voters as he launched his run for president. That message was intended to convey not only that he doesn’t “need anybody’s money” to fuel his campaign but also that he will help create wealth for everyone. “We’re going to make America wealthy again,” he’s promised his supporters. “I will give you everything.”
He pledges to Make America Great Again, but also explained that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say.”
Yet the nominee has also refused to release his tax returns, which would tell the public exactly how much money he has. He’s maintained that he’s worth more than $10 billion. But he’s also become known for a slippery relationship with the truth, and there’s a pile of evidence to indicate that he may be worth a lot less than that. (Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign responded to a request for comment on this evidence or on whether he will be releasing his tax returns.)
Trump says one thing, records say another
It’s difficult to get a handle on the more than 500 businesses Trump owns, plus other potential investments and sources of wealth, without him disclosing them himself. Even then, much of the valuation rests on what import one gives to the Trump brand itself and how to adequately assess the worth of his various real estate holdings.
Financial media outlets have estimated what they think the mogul is worth, but none have ever come close to backing Trump’s claim of $10 billion. When Bloomberg ran a tally this week of all of his major assets, including stock holdings and the value of properties like golf courses and luxury towers, it came up with $3 billion. Forbes, after interviews with 80 sources and a piece by piece look at Trump’s empire, concluded $4.5 billion.
The Bloomberg analysis, however, relies at least in part on statements Trump himself made in financial disclosure forms, while Forbes has always had to rely on information given by the Trump Organization — and Forbes has admitted that Trump consistently pushes for a higher valuation. Fortune also caught him conflating revenue and income in his campaign filing reports and thereby significantly inflating how much income he says he has.
In other places, Trump has submitted information on forms that would revise his wealth significantly downward. As Crain’s reported in March, Trump got a break in his latest property tax bill for Trump Tower in New York City that is only available to married couples who have an annual income of $500,000 or less.
The trend of publicly boasting about his money and then privately swearing that his assets are worth less goes pretty far back. In 1988, Trump a told Forbes that his personal residences were worth $50 million, but he said in sworn statements that they were in fact a net liability because the debt load was more than they were worth. In 1989, while Trump insisted that he was worth between $4 and $5 billion, Forbes obtained records he had submitted to a government body that his assets were only worth $1.5 billion. In 2005, a bank evaluated his net worth to be $788 million when underwriting a construction loan for some of his real estate projects — a time when Trump claimed his worth was more like $3.6 billion.
And when Trump sued a reporter in 2006 for writing that Trump was a mere millionaire, not a billionaire like he claimed, two different banks estimated that he was worth only a third of the $3.5 billion he said he was worth in 2005. Trump refused to release unredacted tax returns, and the ones he released were unusable in refuting that figure. (Trump lost the lawsuit.)
What’s in a brand?
One big asset that the bean counters and Trump diverge on is the value of his brand. Trump told Forbes his brand and related deals are worth more than $3 billion. But Forbes gives it a value of zero because the magazine assumes that any worth is already baked into the rest of his assets and it doesn’t value potential future deals. It’s the biggest point of contention between them.
But a brand isn’t just about putting words on a product in gold lettering. If anything, the difficulty of pinning down a valuation of a brand is because it’s about the subjective quality of a reputation. And Trump’s reputation is not as iron-clad as he might boast.
The candidate’s business acumen has led him to make a number of ill-advised decisions — some of which landed him in bankruptcy court. He has had to file for bankruptcy three times on his casinos in Atlantic City — in 1991, when the Trump Taj Mahal was $3 billion in debt; in 2004, when the Trump Marina and Trump Plaza were $1.8 billion in debt; and in 2008, when Trump Entertainment Resorts missed a payment on a $53.1 million bond.
He’s also launched a number of products with his name on them, many of which have since disappeared, including Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, Trump: The Game, and Trump Steaks. There have also been larger branded flops such as Trump Mortgage, a real estate loan business that he launched just before the housing market crashed (he said in 2006 that “the real estate market is going to be very strong for a long time to come”), and Trump University, which has now landed Trump in a legal morass.
Can he really run without anyone else’s money?
Trump repeatedly claimed in the early days of his campaign that he won’t need or even accept any other rich people’s money to fund his campaign, saying he has “unlimited” cash of his own he can put up, all while attacking his primary rivals for taking contributions.
But that story started to change earlier this year when he moved into the general election. When Reuters took a look at his financial disclosure forms, it concluded that Trump likely didn’t have enough cash or liquid assets to fully fund the campaign through the end of the election. Then in May, with a potential tab of $1 billion to run his campaign looming, he reversed course and said he would start actively raising money. He also said he would set up a joint fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee and help raise money for it.
There are also lingering questions about the money he infused into his own campaign and whether there are strings attached. Rather than direct donations, as of June $46 million of the $63 million of his own money that he had spent on the campaign was through loans. Trump had promised to forgive those personal loans, rather than make the campaign pay him back, and in June he announced that he was wiping away more than $45 million in loans. Yet the evidence to support that statement didn’t materialize. As of June 30, NBC News was unable to find a filing with the Federal Election Commission showing that he forgave the loans, and an official with the commission told the outlet that there was no digital or paper filing as such. The campaign repeatedly denied requests for it share the paperwork.
The disappearing act of his charitable donations
There have been similar mysteries when it comes to documentation of Trump’s charitable giving. Trump claims he regularly gives millions to charities, and his campaign manager said in March that the figure was “more than $100 million” over the last few years.
But just as with Trump’s net worth, it’s hard to verify those kinds of figures without the release of his tax returns. David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post has spent weeks trying to dig up evidence that Trump actually made good on his promises and used his own money to make charitable contributions, talking to more than 220 charities.
Fahrenthold found that while Trump “has a long-standing habit of promising to give to charity,” he frequently doesn’t follow through. Of the 188 charities he contacted that had connections to Trump, he found just one donation — a gift of between $5,000 and $9,999 to the Police Athletic League of New York City in 2009.
The most recent flare up was when Trump held a fundraiser for veterans, promising to give $1 million of his own money. But the donation didn’t materialize for four months, and he only made the final million-dollar gift under intense media pressure from outlets demanding the proof that he had actually donated.
Tax records also show that Trump hasn’t given any money to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a charity he controls but is funded by a number of donors, since 2008. Before that time, he donated only a third of what he had pledged to the foundation. In fact, between 1988 and 2014, Trump gave just a little over $5 million to his foundation, according to BuzzFeed, less than other outside donors. In seven of those years he gave nothing, and in the years between 1991 and 1996 he never gave more than $60,000.
Certainly Trump is under no obligation to give any of his money to charity, no matter how much he might have. But the dissembling around his donations is just one more elision of the truth about his financials.
By any measurement, it’s still likely that Donald Trump is a well off man, even if the actual values are lower than what he boasts. Any American family that earns more than $206,568 lands in the top 5 percent. Trump’s family certainly qualifies.
It still matters greatly to Trump, however, and to his image as a candidate, exactly how much he has. “I’m running for president,” Trump told Forbes in September. “I look better if I’m worth $10 billion than if I’m worth $4 billion.”