How Trump Got His Fortune

Oct 6, 2018
Originally published on October 6, 2018 10:50 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Trump and his fortune made fresh news this week as The New York Times published a major investigation drawn from thousands of pages of financial documents. The president called the article, quote, "a hit piece." With us now to talk about some of the allegations is Tim O'Brien. He's author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." And, of course, he's executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. Tim, thanks so much for being with us.

TIM O'BRIEN: Wonderful to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Is the header of this the president's not as rich as he wants you to believe?

O'BRIEN: That's easily the header of this one. I don't think that's news, though. I think the nuts and bolts of that story are some other things, which is the extent to which President Trump and his father, Fred Trump, used a variety of tax shelters - a number of which were perfectly legal, others which were dubious and possibly fraudulent - to protect the family's vast wealth - about a billion dollars or so in wealth.

SIMON: To keep it in the family?

O'BRIEN: To keep it in the family. And so when Fred Trump passed on several hundred million dollars to his children, he could do so in a way that allowed him to avoid inheritance and gift taxes. In other words, the Trumps probably should've paid around $550 million in taxes on about a billion dollars that was transferred. And instead, they paid around 50 million or so.

SIMON: When Donald Trump has said over the years, I built what I built myself, how does that stack up?

O'BRIEN: Well, that's another important theme of the story. President Trump really rode into Manhattan on his father's shoulders. His father was a very successful Queens and Brooklyn developer. He built middle-income housing for low- to middle-income people. And his son, Donald, wanted to be a big-time real estate developer in Manhattan. But he wouldn't have been able to do that if Fred Trump hadn't co-signed the loans and loaned him money to get started and to help him through rough patches.

I think that relationship was pretty well-known. I had reported extensively on some of that. The Times really fleshed that out with a lot of new numbers. And the scale of his dependence on his father was really laid pretty bare in that story. So that's another important theme of the story, which is the president said on the campaign trail and elsewhere that he only got a million dollars from his dad. That's all he ever took from his father, when, in fact, it's hundreds of millions of dollars.

SIMON: Is there anything that you can recognize, and that maybe people going over the story now can recognize, as distinctly illegal?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. There's couple of interesting pieces. One is when Fred Trump and his wife, Mary, transferred a large portfolio of buildings to Donald Trump and his siblings, they used an appraiser who essentially low-balled the value of the buildings so they would be taxed at a lower rate. And everything in The Times' reporting suggests that that was improper. In addition, they found an example of a company called - an odd little company. It was essentially a shell company called All County that the Trump family used to inflate how much they were spending on equipment and supplies for their armada of buildings so they could then pocket the differential themselves rather than pay income tax on it.

All of that stuff is possibly highly fraudulent. The trick is the statute of limitations has passed on much of it. So at most, they may end up with civil penalties on this. But I suspect that's not what bothers the president the most about it. What I think really will get under his skin about this is that it knocks down this idea that he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, and he earned his living on his own rather than being someone who was born on third base and said he hit a triple, which is essentially the story he's been putting out there for a long time.

SIMON: Tim O'Brien of Bloomberg Opinion, thanks so much.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.