The New York attorney general is investigating the former president for manipulating the value of his properties in ways that benefit him. It’s something we’re familiar with at Forbes, because Trump tried to mislead us about his financial information for decades. This is the first in a series of stories digging deeper into the numbers.
Of the former president’s more than two dozen holdings, much of them tough-to-value real estate, his pile of cash and liquid assets should be the easiest to pin down—you just add up the balances on his account statements. But Trump doesn’t share those publicly, and his government financial disclosures only required him to list his cash and investments in broad, imprecise ranges. So, the exact size of Trump’s cash pile has always been something of a closely kept secret.
But filings released Tuesday by New York Attorney General Letitia James, as part of her civil investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial dealings, offer the clearest picture yet: Trump’s liquid assets stood at $93 million in 2020, according to the documents.
That makes Trump far from cash poor. But he has less in the bank than many of his fellow real estate billionaires. And he has far less than the fanciful sums he’s tried to sell Forbes—and, according to the attorney general, his own lenders and insurers—over the years.
Trump has been exaggerating his stash his whole career. In 1982, seeking a higher spot on the inaugural Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, Trump aimed his lawyer, Roy Cohn, at us. “I am sitting here looking at his current bank statement,” Cohn told reporter Jonathan Greenberg, who recounted the phone conversation in a 2018 Washington Post article. “It shows he’s got more than $500 million in liquid assets, just cash.” We didn’t buy that lofty number, which was more than the Trump family’s entire real estate empire was worth at the time.
Similar claims seemed to follow every year. When we sat down with Trump for a 1990 cover story, he was drowning in debt and on the brink of filing his first set of bankruptcies. “As we enter his 26th-floor office in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, he is already on the attack: ‘I’m going to show you cash flow numbers I’ve never shown anyone before,’” we wrote. “He shows us more numbers attesting to a wealth of cash and negotiable securities but folds the page so we can’t see the next column over.” What did he have to hide? We dug up filings showing he had borrowed big against his stock portfolio.
Trump was supplying numbers to potential lenders, too, based on annual personal balance sheets the Trump Organization helped compile. His 2004 balance sheet, released years later as part of a lawsuit, put his liquid assets at about $230 million in June of that year. Balance sheets for 2011 and 2012, submitted to Congress in 2019 by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, show cash of $259 million and $170 million, respectively. His 2013 balance sheet, also submitted by Cohen, listed cash of $346 million in 2013. A few months later, Trump told Forbes he had $500 million. (Our estimate at the time: $300 million.)
One thing remained consistent, however: the lengths to which Trump was willing to go in pursuit of a higher spot on Forbes’ wealth lists, including haggling with reporters over lunches and inviting them to pore over documents at his offices. In 2014, I went to Trump Tower to count Trump’s cash, thumbing through a six-inch stack of bank statements while a junior staffer stood guard to ensure I didn’t steal a page or snap a photo. It totaled some $300 million.
In June 2015, less than a year later, Trump launched his bid for the White House. His campaign released a financial statement showing cash and marketable securities of $302 million as of June 2014. But other documents soon introduced a different set of numbers. As a candidate for president, Trump was required to file a financial disclosure with the federal government. It showed a portfolio of cash and securities worth between $78 million and $232 million as of mid-2015.
That didn’t stop him from stumping for a much, much higher estimate. Forbes spent nearly two hours with Trump, combing through his fortune line-by-line, in September 2015. Like in 1990, he sat in his Trump Tower office waving supposed evidence of a huge pile of cash at us. “As of today, I’m at $793 million,” he bragged—2.5 times what his own balance sheet said a year before. Why the steep increase? “Because I sell stuff.” His lone example: the Miss Universe pageant, recently sold for less than $30 million. “Here’s your cash number here—or market value: 793,” he said, holding up his proof: a blank piece of printer paper with the number 793 scrawled in thick, black Sharpie. We held steady at about $300 million.
Even that may have been too high. The next year, after Trump filed another government disclosure, listing cash and securities worth between $61 million and $173 million, we slashed our estimate 30%. From there, we refined the number over his presidency—adding in proceeds whenever the Trump Organization sold a property and subtracting big expenses like the $25 million Trump paid to settle lawsuits against Trump University. Around the time he left office, Trump filed a disclosure listing his cash pile between $50 million and $169 million. Forbes pegged it at $110 million.
According to Trump’s recent personal balance sheets—obtained by James’ office—he appears to have had a bit less than that: $114 million in 2016, $76 million in 2018, $87 million in 2019 and $93 million in 2020, the last year of his presidency. And that’s assuming that Trump’s numbers weren’t inflated. Much of the case James is making against Trump relies on allegations that the valuations in his personal statements were often inaccurate or misleading, according to a recent press release. (Trump has denounced the investigation as a partisan witch hunt. James is a Democrat who is running for reelection after a brief campaign for New York governor.)
As the legal battle rages, the pandemic has been a further drag on Trump’s cash pile. His brick-and-mortar real estate is struggling, his Washington, D.C., hotel is hemorrhaging money and his golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland, longtime money losers, remain in the red. Less than $100 million in cash wouldn’t leave much of a safety net for Trump, who had an estimated $738 million of debt coming due over the next three years as of October.
But his reported deal to sell the hotel could stop some of the bleeding. More importantly, he likely got a huge windfall last year, when publicly traded Vornado Realty Trust—which owns 70% of two skyscrapers alongside Trump, who owns the rest—refinanced one of the buildings, returning $616 million to investors in the process. Assuming Trump got his 30% cut, the former president’s cash pile should be around $280 million now, Forbes estimates—nearly triple what he had in 2020, thanks to Vornado’s timely refinance.
Unfortunately for Trump, that same partnership has caught the eye of James’ office. On Tuesday, she accused Trump of using the arrangement to inflate the cash estimate on his balance sheets by counting money in the partnership—which Vornado controls, with “sole discretion” over whether to disburse funds to Trump—as cash he already has.
It remains up in the air whether James’ allegations, which include claims of more serious misrepresentations, will end up sticking. In the meantime, Trump is hard at work raising cash of different sorts. Last month, his Trump Media & Technology Group announced it secured an additional $1 billion from investors to help fund a new social media company. And, though Trump isn’t currently running for office, his campaign has kept fundraising, bringing in $82 million over the first half of last year. Just like in 2020, it doesn’t appear that Donald Trump has given a single penny from his own cash pile to the effort.