Despite Donald Trump’s self-mythologizing ostentation – despite his gold toilets and eastern European models, despite his airplanes, golf courses and gleaming bad taste – he always had more shamelessness than actual money. This has been painfully obvious for years, so in a way, what the New York attorney general revealed on Wednesday, first in a press conference, then in a more than 200-page legal complaint, was nothing new. Letitia James alleges that Trump lies, and he most often lies to aggrandize himself, and specifically, he lies a lot about money. He’s not as rich as he says he is.
This week, James’s office filed a civil suit against Donald Trump, his three eldest children, the longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer Alan Weisselberg (who pleaded guilty to 15 felonies last month), and the Trump Organization itself. The lawsuit alleges a longstanding pattern of financial fraud in which, James claims, the Trump Organization deliberately inflated the value of its assets – including all of Trump’s most famously gaudy properties – when seeking loans, in order to secure more generous credit terms.
Deception seems to have been core to the Trump Organization’s business model. James alleges that the practice went on for years, citing 11 of the Trump Organization’s annual financial reports, on which Trump personally signed off, which her office says contain more than 200 fraudulent asset valuations. Just as Trump allegedly inflated the value of his assets when he was seeking a loan, there’s some evidence to suggest that he deflated the value of those same assets when it came time to pay his taxes. James’s office does not have the authority to bring criminal charges against Trump in this matter, but her lawsuit is accompanied by criminal referrals, both to the US district attorney’s office in New York and to the IRS.
In typical Trump fashion, the alleged frauds range from the shameless, to the bizarre, to the somewhat sad. In evaluating the value of his own apartment, the gilded casino lobby atop Trump Tower in Manhattan, where he was photographed pre-presidency, Melania Trump pouting behind him in a pink cape, Trump is accused of inflating the floor plan by three times. The apartment is about 11,000 square feet; Trump allegedly claimed it was 30,000, in order to value it at $327m.
At Trump Park Avenue, a high-rise apartment building he owns a few blocks away, 12 units were set aside by law as rent-stabilized; the rates couldn’t be raised, and the tenants could not be evicted. But Trump allegedly valued the property as if he were collecting market rate rents on those apartments, a fiction that increased the value of the building by almost 70 times.
At Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort-cum-residence where he has reportedly established a faux Oval Office since being forced from the White House, and where he was allegedly keeping some of the government’s most sensitive secrets in all but plain view, he apparently lied about the property’s potential. He allegedly claimed that Mar-a-Lago was eligible to be developed into residential properties, inflating its value to a whopping $739m. In reality, the site is subject to a number of zoning and environmental restrictions that constrict its development potential. Its actual worth is something like $75m.
Trump has long been defined by his own rigorous artificiality, and the frauds alleged in James’s complaint are so in keeping with his character that even the brazenness of the apparent malfeasance has ceased to be impressive. This is always how it goes with Trump, after all: his signature falseness, both of his personal style and his pretensions to wealth and of his politics, his promises to those who follow him. Everything, without fail, is shabbier and cheaper than Trump says it is. The silk snags, and turns out to be polyester; the leather peels off to reveal that its plastic; the gilt edges chip, a flimsy spray paint. Everything is geared towards his own self-aggrandizement and away from any personal responsibility.
He’s either the singularly powerful savior of “I alone can fix it”, or he’s the helpless victim of a “witch-hunt”. He’s either the greatest businessman who ever lived, or a humble, salt-of-the-earth guy. He’s always in the right, always uniquely capable and smart, and yet nothing is ever his fault. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, when the “great and powerful” wizard turns out to be a sad and insecure person, devoid of magic, the man behind the curtain becomes an object of pity, someone who needs an elaborate psychological edifice to tolerate a world in which he is not special, not anointed for greatness, but merely scared and small. But Trump cannot evoke this pity, because he has made it clear that he would rather destroy the country, and all of us with it, than abandon his delusions.
James’s lawsuit is just the newest in the former president’s string of legal battles. He’s being sued for defamation by the writer E Jean Carroll, whom Trump accused of lying after she accused him of rape, and just this week she announced she would be suing him for the rape, too, under a new New York law that briefly extends sexual assault victims’ civil statute of limitations.
He’s being sued by the NAACP for violating the Voting Rights Act when he claimed election fraud in 2020. He’s being sued by the DC attorney general for his misuse of inauguration funds in 2017; he’s being sued by Capitol police and seemingly every Democratic congressperson for the January 6 riot. And that’s just the stuff that couldn’t land him in jail: there is also a simmering criminal inquiry into the fake electors scheme in Atlanta, and of course the Department of Justice’s investigation into his smuggling of classified documents to Mar-a-Lago.
It’s easy to sue Trump, and it’s appealing. He seems to break the law with the same intuitive ease that most of us only feel for breathing, and a lawsuit against him can attract good press for any of the legions of ambitious, status-seeking liberal lawyers that populate the white shoe firms. But like other rich men who break the law, Trump has a tendency to evade consequences. Aside from lying, it’s perhaps his greatest talent.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist