In the beginning there was Donald, a simple boy, really, raised in the untamed tenements of Queens, yearning to rise from his humble, hard-scrabble birth and make his mark. Through the sweat of his brow and the genius of his powerful, powerful brain -- but mainly the genius, plus a small, $1 million grubstake from his father -- our plucky young hero transformed himself, all by himself, into The Donald, one of the great business titans of our era or any other.
That’s been the story, anyway. Through that oft-told tale, Donald J. Trump has claimed status as one of the enduring and most romanticized archetypes of American culture, that of the self-made man, the man who turned that little $1 million -- “repaid with interest!” -- into billions and billions and billions.
In truth, however, Trump is more accurately categorized not as a self-made man, but as a self-invented man, one of those characters who invents a backstory and then comes to embody it. He is not a wildly successful business genius; he just played one on TV. And as revealed in extensive business records of the Trump family, it was his father Fred who made the fortune; Donald made the myth.
Through those tens of thousands of business records, tax returns, property deeds and other documents compiled by the New York Times, we learn that over the years, Donald was funneled a fortune of at least $400 million in inflation-adjusted dollars by his father. We learn that whenever Donald faltered and stumbled, even into middle age, his father was there to pull him to his feet and quietly clean up the mess. As the Times points out, “Had Mr. Trump done nothing but invest the money his father gave him in an index fund that tracks the Standard & Poor’s 500, he would be worth $1.96 billion today,” which is roughly where many now estimate his wealth.
To its credit, the Times owns up to its own gullibility in creation of the Trump myth, citing a 1973 story in which it swallowed Trump’s invention hook, line and sinker:
“In the chauffeured Cadillac, Donald Trump took The Times’s reporter on a tour of what he called his “jobs.” He told her about the Manhattan hotel he planned to convert into a Grand Hyatt (his father guaranteed the construction loan), and the Hudson River railroad yards he planned to develop (the rights were purchased by his father’s company). He showed her “our philanthropic endeavor,” the high-rise for the elderly in East Orange (bankrolled by his father), and an apartment complex on Staten Island (owned by his father), and their “flagship,” Trump Village, in Brooklyn (owned by his father), and finally Beach Haven Apartments (owned by his father). Even the Cadillac was leased by his father.
“So far,” he boasted, “I’ve never made a bad deal.”
It was a spectacular con, right down to the priceless moment when Mr. Trump confessed that he was “publicity shy.”
The continuing flow of millions of dollars from Fred to Donald is well-documented by Trump family records obtained by the Times, including some 200 tax returns filed by Fred Trump or companies he owned. Those records also document how, through a variety of shams and scams, the Trump family succeeded in evading hundreds of millions of estate and gift taxes that by law should have been paid.
Trump lawyers have dismissed the Times reporting as “extremely inaccurate” and have warned vaguely of legal action. In a statement prepared before publication of the story, they warned that “Should the Times state or imply that President Trump participated in fraud, tax evasion, or any other crime, it will be exposing itself to substantial liability and damages for defamation.”
The warning didn’t take. Indeed, a form of the word “fraud” occurs some 10 times in the New York Times story -- “overt fraud” ... "appeared fraudulent" ... "defrauding tenants" ... “outright fraud.” “Illegal” occurs five times, as does “evasion.” Having gone through the process as a journalist, I can easily imagine Times’ lawyers circling each of those words in red, demanding that the reporters prove it, justify it and document it before being allowed to use it.
Apparently they did a fine job of it. Trump and his lawyers have identified not a single specific inaccuracy in the story; they have challenged not a single specific statement. Surely, Trump would love nothing better than to prove that the “failing New York Times” got it wrong, that this is “fake news.” He has fallen silent at the opportunity to do so.
Thanks to statute-of-limitation laws, criminal prosecution is highly unlikely if not impossible, although the New York attorney general’s office has pledged a thorough investigation. Among other things, investigators are going to want to know whether the possibly illegal strategies used to smuggle Fred Trump’s wealth from one generation to the next, away from the prying eyes of the IRS, are being used today by Donald Trump on behalf of his own children.
Even there, I suspect, The Donald is merely trodding the path that was cleared, smoothed and paved for him by his father.