It’s June 1, 1982, and a 35-year old Donald Trump is spending much of the afternoon in his palatial Fifth Avenue office trying to convince me that he is worth more money than any other real estate titan in New York. I’m there as Forbes magazine’s lead reporter, interviewing him for our first annual “Rich List” of wealthy Americans. Donald is in all-out promoter mode, arguing that his work, and not his father’s, was responsible for nearly all of the Trump family fortune.
I was only 23 at the time of the interview, but Donald Trump took me seriously. He knew that I was the gatekeeper between his ego and the millions of readers who would soon hear about the new Forbes 400 ranking of the wealthiest Americans.
As we discussed the largest asset in the Trump family portfolio, Donald claimed that the value of the family’s 23,000 apartments in Brooklyn and Queens and Virginia should be calculated, after debt, at $40,000 each. When he saw I wasn’t biting, he revised his assessment to $20,000 each. In an obsessive effort to prove that he, not his father, deserved credit for amassing this real estate portfolio, Trump claimed that “80%” of the apartments had been purchased by him.
All of these claims were clearly false. I knew that the rent-stabilized apartments were worth less than $10,000 each at the time, and that Fred had built them over many years. (When I did extensive research on this claim a few years later, I also learned that there were never more than 10,000 of them, and that the 23,000 number was a deliberate fabrication by Donald).
Donald must have known that I knew that both his valuation and his claim to have acquired 80% of them were outrageous. After all, the centerpiece of the Trump holdings was Brooklyn’s working class “Trump Village,” which was built in 1963. Donald would have been only 17 at the time. And he was far from home, spending his fifth year at the heavy-on-discipline military academy boarding school that his emotionally distant, dominating father had shipped his unruly, fight-prone son off to.
I thought, He can’t expect me to believe these lies, so why is he telling me them? And why is he lying so obsessively to compete with his own father?
Of all the endless ink that the media has lavished upon attention-starved Donald Trump, only one article has ever dealt extensively with his relationship with Fred Trump that included a comment from his father— a 1983 New York Times profile. Nearly all media attempts to interview Fred Trump (who died in 1999), including mine, were turned down. Back then, one top real estate developer explained the disappearance of Donald’s father by saying that Fred Trump “loves a crook and he loves a showman.” Speaking for himself on that rare occasion in 1983, Fred Trump told the Times, “Donald has a competitive spirit and I don’t want to compete with him. He amazes me. He’s gone way beyond me, absolutely.”
But these admiring words from a distant, hard-pushing father have done nothing to satisfy Donald Trump’s mean-spirited competitiveness, compulsive lying and neurotic need to impress.
Harry Levinson, a business psychologist specializing in family businesses was also quoted in that 1983 Times profile. He explained that, “The core problem of the entrepreneur in the family business is the unresolved Oedipal problem, trying to beat the old man.” This is felt most acutely, Levinson noted, when the father, like Fred Trump, has been very successful.
”The son feels so inadequate and unable to compete with the father that he works out compensatory behavior,” Dr. Levinson said. ”He goes to the opposite and blows himself up to deny his feeling of helplessness.”
A few weeks ago, Deepak Chopra appeared on the “Tonight Show” and provided a similar assessment. Donald Trump’s behavior, Chopra said, reflects “resentment, grievances, fear, hostility, guilt, shame …and very poor self-esteem.”