Among the allegations New York Attorney General Letitia James made against former President Donald Trump on Wednesday is that he isn’t nearly as rich as he claims to be. It’s an accusation that could threaten the Trump brand and his political future more than any criminal indictment could.
This isn’t merely academic; Trump’s entire sales pitch to us is that he can — well — sell. He has told us for years that he is deserving of our respect and admiration, and indeed our votes, because he’s so very financially successful.
But according to the lawsuit, Trump’s representations about his wealth, like so many of his claims, may be no more than outright lies. James’ office sued Trump, three of his adult children and others on charges of fraud and misrepresentation based on years of alleged financial wrongdoing, in a case that could be lethal to the Trump empire. (In response to James' allegations, Trump's lawyer stated Wednesday that "no wrongdoing has taken place.")
Perhaps we should put the word empire in quotes. The Trump Organization’s alleged overvaluations are eye popping. To name just a few examples from the suit: It alleged that Trump’s Manhattan penthouse was overvalued by 400%, that the Trump Organization valued rent-controlled apartments at $50 million when the true value was closer to $750,000, and that Mar-a-Lago was valued by the Trump Organization at $739 million, whereas the true value is approximately $75 million.
If the allegations in James’ suit are proven true, Trump didn’t accidentally misstate the value of some of his properties; he grossly, exorbitantly overvalued his properties. He did this, allegedly, to get favorable loans, insurance and tax treatment. He failed up, repeatedly, and ultimately landed in the most powerful office in the world.
But there’s more to Trump’s alleged financial fraud than just getting bigger loans or paying lower taxes. Trump, like a common grifter, is allegedly inflating the value of his wealth to fabricate a fairytale about himself and his financial prowess.
In many ways, his tale reflects a common American narrative of relentless pursuit of wealth and opulence. We all know the story of Anna Sorokin, the now-infamous fraudster and con artist who claimed to be a wealthy German heiress to infiltrate the elite circles of New York society, duping banks and lenders into funding her fabricated lifestyle. She ended up getting some jail time, was the inspiration for a Netflix series and reportedly is in the process of landing her own reality TV show.
Trump of course has never been convicted of any crime, and it could be argued that he is the elite circle, not an outsider; but James’ allegations imply that he got where he is today via fraudulent actions. Only in his case, he won the presidency and ushered in a precarious era of instability for our country.
Trump is no stranger to being a party to legal proceedings, and it’s not hard to guess how he will respond to the latest allegations. We know his tactic out of court will be to call the suit against him a political witch-hunt. We know his strategy in court will be to delay, delay and delay.
Trump’s alleged wealth and status as a billionaire are a key part of his campaign narrative. We can trust him to run the country, because look at how successful he has been at running his businesses, he has beseeched us.
If the allegations are proven, Trump is a common grifter with an uncommonly large platform. But like grifters and fraudsters, he relies on our attention and belief to thrive. James’ suit could take down the Trump businesses. But only our decision to turn away from him can take down Trump.