Letitia James, the attorney general for the state of New York, filed a 220 page lawsuit against Donald Trump and three of his children on September 21 in the state supreme court of New York, charging them with using wildly inaccurate assessments of Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago, and numerous other properties to defraud lenders and cheat on taxes. She claimed that the outcome was a “astonishing” and “staggering” strategy that brought in an estimated $250 million in unjustified profits.
In a play on the title of Trump’s 1987 best-selling memoir The Art of the Deal, James referred to these financial tricks as “the art of the steal.” Trump (or more likely his co-author, journalist Tony Schwartz), referred to his aggressive sales tactics as “truthful hyperbole” in that book, which was defined as “an innocent sort of exaggeration — and a very powerful form of advertising.” People “want to believe that something is the biggest, the best, and the most spectacular,” according to Trump (or Schwartz), and Trump was more than happy to make that belief. His penchant for fantastic tales would become his main method of operation for more than forty years and may have propelled him to the presidency. However, his primary strategy has now exposed him to a legal lawsuit that might bring down his empire.
With his first Manhattan project, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, he had begun back in the middle of the 1970s. The young developer was forced to maintain the original height despite the older hotel’s need for a complete renovation. But by adding a glass skin to the old brick façade and inflating the floor numbers, he was able to make it appear brand-new and exciting so that visitors staying on what would have previously been floors six to 26 could brag to friends that they were on higher, more prestigious-sounding floors 14 to 34. Similarly, he asserted that his hotel’s ballroom was the largest in the city despite being told it wasn’t. The 68th floor of his subsequent construction, the 700-foot-tall Trump Tower, was advertised as the world’s highest concrete building while being third in height behind Sydney, Australia’s MLC Center and Chicago’s Water Tower Place (850 feet) (771 feet).
With considerably more understated characteristic features like an additional closet and a garage under each row house, his father, Fred Trump, had established a real estate empire in Brooklyn and Queens. Donald Trump was now developing this concept further by utilising a variety of gimmicks (renumbered floors, largest ballroom, etc.) to attract attention and increase revenue. When the Grand Hyatt was encased in glass and marketed as the newest thing, people who had been reluctant to pay $20 a night to stay at its predecessor were overjoyed to shell out many times that amount to stay in what was effectively the same edifice. Residents of Trump Tower paid top dollar for condos while appearing unaware that their view was no greater than that offered by structures next door on floors that were the same height but labelled with numerals nine digits below. They desired a piece of Trump’s eye-catching superluxury and glitz, and if the dramatic combination of pink marble, mirrors, and gleaming brass offered at Trump Tower was perhaps a little extravagant, so much the better.
A series of corporate failures in the 1990s would reveal how precarious Donald Trump’s alleged fortune was, although the repercussions for Trump personally were minimal. The banks to which he owed over $1 billion let him off with what amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist because he had made the Trump brand into something that was deemed to offer such value. He was an adept in this heads-I-win, tails-you-lose environment. In 2004, the TV programme “The Apprentice” made its opportune debut, and he was able to recover his status as a business whiz in Americans’ living rooms. It was initially a huge ratings hit, but in typical Trump hyperbole, even after it didn’t place in the top 20, he said it was the best show on television for years. He devised the political gimmicks and stunts that got him all the way to the White House over the course of the following ten years, including disputing Obama’s citizenship, accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists, and promising to nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court judges.
However, in Washington, the lies that had helped sell condos and draw in bank loans were less effective. Making changes to a weather chart with a black Sharpie, attempting to treat Covid victims with experimental treatments, and forcing the president of Ukraine to look into Biden’s son in exchange for weapons that had already been taken were all issues rather than answers. The small, fiercely devoted crew that Trump had managed as a real estate entrepreneur had been replaced by a large federal bureaucracy, and the same mainstream media that had helped him become a superstar was now relentlessly scrutinising him.
As soon as the lies that had been passed off as exaggerations, mistakes, or even jokes — Trump simply being Trump — were revealed to be fabrications, he retaliated with taunts, scathing charges, and a full-on assault on the truth. Anyone who disagreed with him was a loser, and any negative press about his activities was untrue information. He was now peddling disruption, contention, and discontent, and his salesman instincts were even better developed. He had effectively replaced the concept of truth with what Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the White House, memorably referred to as “alternative facts.”
Hyperbole, which was previously one of his superpowers, crossed the line from being what Trump called “truthful” and Stephen Colbert could have dubbed “truthiness” to downright lying during this process. Financial documents that were used for loans and appraisals stated that his 11,000 square foot apartment was 30,000 square feet, valued at an astounding $327 million, and was worth nearly $100 million more than the most expensive condo sale in New York history. They also claimed that Mar-a-Lago and other properties could be divided up and developed into McMansions despite conservation easements and that cash held by a business partner was his. These were not justifiable exaggerations; they were legal infractions.
And finally, there was a tonne of evidence, despite Trump’s well-known avoidance of emails, messages, and paper trails. Attorney General James filed a civil lawsuit in state court, referred a criminal case to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, and referred a tax fraud case to the IRS, all while citing more than 65 witnesses, millions of documents, and ten years’ worth of inaccurate annual financial statements that contained more than 200 egregiously false assessments.
In order to research and write my biography of the Trump family, I spoke with Eugene Morris, a real estate attorney who had worked with both Donald Trump and his father. Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor Roy Cohn was Morris’ first cousin, and Morris told me that the younger Trump seemed especially fascinated by Cohn’s ability to stay out of jail despite being charged with tax fraud. Donald Trump undoubtedly hopes that he will experience the same outcome, but he should be cautious about his wishes. James filed a lawsuit in civil court, which cannot imprison a defendant; nevertheless, if she wins, she will demand reimbursement for the $250 million he is said to have stolen through fraud, as well as a lifetime prohibition on him and his children conducting business in New York. The Trump Organization would be saddened, but in an ironic twist reminiscent of an O. Henry story, Trump and his children would actually share what could be viewed as being Cohn’s final fate—being disbarred two months before he passed away.