Donald Trump says he’s really rich—worth nearly $9 billion ($8,737,540,000 to be exact). Forbes estimates that he’s worth less than half that much, around $4 billion. Does it matter? The answer is definitively no, because once the Donald Trump presidential charade is over he’s gonna be worth much more than $8 billion—and worth every penny of it.
I have to say up front I’ve known Trump for years and I like him even if much of his presidential announcement speech had my skin crawling. (Describing many Mexican immigrants as “rapists” is at the top of my list.) But I have long appreciated Trump’s resilience both in business and in his personal life; anyone who remembers the early 1990s vintage Trump, when he was both mocked as a business has-been and was by some estimates insolvent, also knows that more recently his name and brand keeps getting bigger and his wives keep getting hotter.
All of which leads me to believe that this man—who needs to brag about his wealth and intelligence like most people need to breathe—is looking at this presidential thing like he looks at everything else: how to make a brand that’s big and profitable even more so.
For the record, I don’t know how much Donald Trump is worth, and in the past he has been touchy when reporters have challenged his fortune’s size. (He sued one reporter who quoted unnamed sources saying Trump was merely worth hundreds of millions instead of billions for libel. In 2011, a New Jersey appellate judge dismissed the case, saying Trump failed to prove “actual malice.”)
Even so, every Wall Street firm I covered wanted Trump’s business as he pulled himself back from his near-death experience in the early 1990s, when some of his Atlantic City properties filed for bankruptcy. Trump himself never filed for bankruptcy, which is probably why, as he began to rebuild himself, his Wall Street broker was none other than the late Alan “Ace” Greenberg, the legendary stock trader who only handled accounts of the megawealthy.
To be sure, in his announcement speech Trump offered scant evidence that he’s worth what he says he is; indeed, he has just filed the standard forms with the Federal Election Commission, which will start a more-intensive vetting process over his financial disclosures.
Those forms are pretty exhaustive, I might add; just go to the website of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and take a look at what candidates need to disclose and you’ll understand why rich people generally don’t run for president. Candidates are required to disclose, in detail, assets and income, then transactions and gifts and travel reimbursements. Another layer of detail involves disclosing liabilities and something called “agreements or arrangements.”
Lastly, presidential candidates must disclose “positions (other than with the U.S. government)” and “sources of income in excess of $5,000.” This is why Karl Rove said on Fox News Sunday that other candidates should “ignore” Trump until he files with the FEC, which he did late Monday afternoon.
Trump fired back on Twitter: “@KarlRove still thinks Romney won! He doesn’t have a clue! @FoxNews,” and in another he vowed to make his initial financial disclosures this week: “@KarlRove, who spent $430 million in the last cycle and didn’t win one race, said I’m not a candidate until I file papers. Next week Karl!”
Trump’s campaign manager told me that the full disclosure will be completed in 30 days; Trump, he said, won’t seek extensions as Rove and others have predicted.
We shall see. In any event, like Rove, I had my doubts that Trump would go through with the whole disclosure process. What I never doubted is that he loves the attention because the debate over the net worth of the new and improved Donald Trump no longer turns on the vagaries of the real-estate market but on the value of his brand.
Keep in mind much of the difference between the Forbes net worth estimate and Trump’s own, which he says was compiled by “highly respected” accountants, is the value of the Trump brand, which Forbes says isn’t worth the $3 billion-plus Trump says it is.
But how do you really value a brand? Brands are worth what people think they’re worth, and when you’re name is everywhere from hotels and apartments buildings to reality TV, it’s easy to see how the numbers add up and will keep adding up as he does this presidential dance that, quite frankly, is amazing reality television.
That’s why I have no doubt that Trump will turn this new “serious” stage of his life into a business winner. The way I see it, Donald Trump isn’t really running for president; he’s running to make more money and enhance a brand that’s bigger than his real-estate holdings and golf courses. And with the people who matter to him the most, it doesn’t get cheapened by occasionally disgusting rhetoric about immigrants or possible exaggerations about his wealth.
He’s playing to his fans and there are many millions of them. They like him on television and they like his real estate and golf courses. Another bet: I don’t think Donald will run for president after all, regardless of Monday’s FEC filing, or even if he does make those detailed financial disclosures and somehow gins up enough publicity to get into the first GOP debate in August.
In the end, I think he will call it quits because, after awhile, Donald is going to realize he’s squeezed all the marketing juice out of the presidential lemon that is possible, and anything more will end up hurting, not helping, one of the world’s great brands.
He knows that, and that’s why he’s so rich.