(CNN)Before he became president of the United States and starting espousing lies about the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump was a kind of business illusionist whose stock-in-trade allegedly included shifting claims of wealth based on his real estate holdings. With his books closed to outsiders, the truth was hard to ascertain. But now, thanks to the New York attorney general, accountability may be at hand.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Letitia James said her office had discovered numerous “misleading statements and omissions” in tax documents and financial statements that the Trump Organization provided to lenders and insurers. She contends she has found a possible pattern of deception in which the Trump Organization submitted inflated valuations of property to “suggest that Mr. Trump’s net worth was higher than it otherwise would have appeared.” Her court filing says Trump understated values to lower their property taxes.
Among the most noteworthy examples of these practices cited by James is the treatment by Trump’s financial documents of his penthouse in Manhattan. The apartment is large — almost 11,000 square feet — but, according to the state’s filing, Trump documents indicated it was 30,000 square feet and thus worth a whopping $327 million. When questioned, former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg said the figure was an overstatement, “give or take” $200 million.
Higher valuations permit a borrower to seek more funds from lenders and at better terms. But, in Trump’s case, exaggeration is seemingly a pattern of practice: Nearly tripling the size of his home with mere words is also consistent with his way of insisting the world conform to his preferences.
Thus, he had to insist his 2016 inaugural crowd, which at best numbered 600,000, was 1.5 million. Similarly, he has claimed his Trump Tower in Manhattan has 10 more stories than it does, and, after Anthony Fauci threw the first pitch at a Nationals game in Washington, DC, he falsely claimed the Yankees had asked him to do the same in the Bronx.
Although it may seem pathetic, Trump’s misrepresentations about his inaugural crowd, Trump Tower and the Yankees are harmless — likely meant to bolster his image.
Misstatements on financial and legal documents, however, can amount to fraud. This is why James’s office has asked for testimony from Trump and his children — Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. — who are part of the family firm, to further clarify matters.
In seeking further testimony from the Trump family, James likely hopes to fill in the factual gaps that neither Eric Trump nor Weisselberg addressed when they invoked the Fifth Amendment in 2020. A Trump Organization’s spokesperson replied the latest “allegations are baseless and will be vigorously defended.”
It must be noted that when it has suited his political purposes, Trump has come down hard on people who dodge prosecutors’ questions. “The mob takes the Fifth,” he told a crowd in 2016. “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth?”
That said, he has used the maneuver numerous times. When he was going through divorce proceedings with his first wife — Ivana Trump, according to Wayne Barrett’s “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth,” he used the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering 97 deposition questions. And after former President Bill Clinton admitted to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Trump said, “I’m not even sure that he shouldn’t have just gone in and taken the Fifth Amendment.”
Trump’s changeable stance on the Fifth Amendment reflects a man who will take whatever position best suits his needs in that moment. As we learned during his presidency, when the Washington Post counted more than 30,000 of Trump’s false or misleading statements, he seems unconcerned with accuracy.
As a businessman, he once said in a deposition, “My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.” And he routinely tried to mislead the journalists who compiled Forbes’ annual list of America’s richest.
Jonathan Greenberg, then of Forbes, wrote in the Washington Post that Trump’s pressure campaign began in 1982 when the magazine assigned him a $100 million fortune when it was likely closer to $5 million. (Neither Trump nor the Trump Organization responded to the Washington Post for comments on the Forbes allegation.)
As someone who has labored to document the truth about Trump, I empathize with the folks at Forbes who, like me, were stymied by the fact that Trump’s businesses were privately held with books closed to prying outsiders. James has the authority to compel the production of documents — and, thanks to joining forces with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, has expanded her investigative forces. She can also consult media reports informed by documents leaked by Trump’s niece Mary Trump.
In 2015, I was inside Trump’s penthouse home when he tried to impress me with his financial strength. As he thew out figures on the value of his golf courses, homes and commercial buildings, I reminded myself of the decadeslong controversy over his claims to stupendous wealth and success. I knew, for example, that his claim that his Scotland golf course was profitable just wasn’t true.
As he finished, he said I could get the details from Michael Cohen, who I knew, even then, was not the most reliable source. To be frank, it wasn’t his job to help journalists marshal the facts. His duty, as he told ABC News in 2011, was to protect Trump’s interests: “It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit.”
Trump’s adult children, whom James has targeted, may have little incentive to offer accurate numbers, even if they know them. However, they do understand that the image Trump has created, which is as shiny as the brass letters on Trump Tower, is essential to the family’s identity — and so silence may be their best strategy.
With an army of lawyers on hand, Trump may yet evade civil liability, but no one has ever come this close to holding him accountable for his alleged fictions. James has done this by prying open the long-closed Trump Organization books and discovering they have a true tale to tell.