For years Donald Trump was the host of The Apprentice, a reality TV show in which contestants vied for a management job within his organisation and he would deliver the verdict: “You’re fired!”
It cemented the image of Trump as an assertive chief executive who had conquered New York, an image that still proves seductive to millions of voters who want him to run the United States like a business. But like much else about the 45th US president, it was all a lie.
On Tuesday a judge found that Trump’s business empire was built, at least in part, on rampant fraud. Justice Arthur Engoron of the New York state court in Manhattan said Trump and his adult sons wildly inflated the value of his properties to hoodwink banks, insurers and others.
These included his office buildings and golf courses, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and his penthouse apartment at Trump Tower in New York, which he claimed was 30,000 sq ft, nearly three times its actual size, resulting in an overvaluation of as much as $207 million.
Noting that Trump’s lawyers were effectively asking the court not to believe its own eyes, judge Engoron quoted the Marx brothers’ film Duck Soup: “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
The decision will make it easier for state attorney general Letitia James to establish damages at a civil trial due to start next week; she is seeking a penalty of about $250 million. Judge Engoron ordered the cancellation of certificates that let some of Trump’s businesses, including the Trump Organization, operate in New York – just possibly the beginning of the end of his empire.
If the judge’s scathing decision withstands an appeal from Trump’s lawyers, it will be the first time a government investigation into the former president has resulted in punishment. It will also deal the biggest blow yet to his persona as a successful tycoon.
That was always more about illusion than reality. In The Apprentice, he was effectively an actor reading from a script in a fantasy boardroom. In real life, it later transpired, he shied away from saying “You’re fired!” to anyone’s face at the White House, preferring to delegate the unpleasant task.
Trump’s origin story was told in his best-selling 1987 book The Art of the Deal. But the man who ghostwrote it, Tony Schwartz, describes him as an emperor with no clothes. “There’s nothing more important to Trump than being seen as very, very rich, which is why he’s expended so much effort in trying to claim a net worth far beyond what he actually was worth,” Schwartz told the Guardian in 2020.
A series of tax revelations and reports have shown that Trump is not as rich as he would like everyone to believe. But the exaggerations are very on-brand for a man who claimed to have the biggest inauguration crowd ever, that voter fraud is rampant and that Democrats are so pro-choice they want to commit infanticide.
None of it seems likely to shake the Trump faithful in advance of next year’s presidential election against Joe Biden. Their instant assumption is that politically biased judges are trying to distract attention from Hunter Biden’s troubles and that Trump is merely smarter than others when it comes to gaming the system.
At a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa last week, Mathew Willis (41), said: “I’ve never seen him be anything but honest. During a debate at one point, they were like, ‘Oh, you don’t pay your taxes,’ and he’s like, ‘Neither do you! I use the legal system to do what I do. The loopholes are there. They put them there for people like you and us. I’m just working the system.’ He’s not doing anything illegal. What’s wrong with that?”
On Wednesday Trump, who also faces four criminal indictments, was due to meet autoworkers amid the strike in Michigan, despite helming a presidency that was avowedly anti-union. The master of Mar-a-Lago will pretend to be a hero of the working class. In the words of judge Engoron: “That is a fantasy world, not the real world.” – Guardian