When Forbes launched the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans in 1982, Donald Trump made the cut at $100 million. He and his lawyer Roy Cohn complained to Forbes that $100 million was too small, Jonathan Greenberg, an investigative journalist who interviewed Trump for the issue, recounts in The Washington Post, but decades later, he learned that "Trump was actually worth roughly $5 million" and "should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all." In 1984, when Trump was pushing to be labeled a billionaire, Greenberg got a call from "John Barron," who assured Greenberg that Trump owned virtually all of his father Fred's real estate assets.
We now know that "John Barron" was Trump's alter-ego — and that Trump is still obsessed with his Forbes ranking — and Greenberg writes that when he recently rediscovered the tapes, "I was amazed that I didn't see through the ruse." In fact, according to Fred Trump's will, he retained 100 percent ownership of his residential empire until his death in 1999. And instead of the 25,000 residential units Donald Trump claimed his family owned, valued at $20,000-$40,000 each, there were 8,000 to 10,000 units, each worth about $9,000, Greenberg said. He added that this deceit mattered:
I was a determined 25-year-old reporter, and I thought that, by reeling Trump back from some of his more outrageous claims, I'd done a public service and exposed the truth. But his confident deceptions were so big that they had an unexpected effect: Instead of believing that they were outright fabrications, my Forbes colleagues and I saw them simply as vain embellishments on the truth. We were so wrong. This was a model Trump would use for the rest of his career, telling a lie so cosmic that people believed that some kernel of it had to be real. The tactic landed him a place on the Forbes list he hadn't earned — and led to future accolades, press coverage, and deals. It eventually paved a path toward the presidency. [The Washington Post]