The Big Read: Even under oath, Donald Trump struggled with the truth

By David A. Fahrenthold, Robert O'Harrow Jr.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves after delivering an economic policy speech. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves after delivering an economic policy speech. Photo / AP

The lawyer gave Donald Trump a note, written in Trump's own handwriting. He asked Trump to read it aloud.

Trump may not have realized it yet, but he had walked into a trap.

"Peter, you're a real loser," Trump began reading.

The mogul had sent the note to a reporter, objecting to a story that said Trump owned a "small minority stake" in a Manhattan real estate project. Trump insisted that the word "small" was incorrect. Trump continued reading: "I wrote, 'Is 50 percent small?' "

"This [note] was intended to indicate that you had a 50 percent stake in the project, correct?" said the lawyer.

"That's correct," Trump said.

For the first of many times that day, Trump was about to be caught saying something that wasn't true.


LAWYER: Mr. Trump, do you own 30 percent or 50 percent of the limited partnership?

TRUMP: I own 30 percent.


It was a mid-December morning in 2007 - the start of an interrogation unlike anything else in the public record of Trump's life.

Trump had brought it on himself. He had sued a reporter, accusing him of being reckless and dishonest in a book that raised questions about Trump's net worth. The reporter's attorneys turned the tables and brought Trump in for a deposition.

For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on the same theme: Trump's honesty.

The lawyers confronted the mogul with his past statements - and with his company's internal documents, which often showed those statements had been incorrect or invented. The lawyers were relentless. Trump, the bigger-than-life mogul, was vulnerable - cornered, out-prepared and under oath.

Thirty times, they caught him.

Trump had misstated sales at his condo buildings. Inflated the price of membership at one of his golf clubs. Overstated the depth of his past debts and the number of his employees.

That deposition - 170 transcribed pages - offers extraordinary insights into Trump's relationship with the truth. Trump's falsehoods were unstrategic - needless, highly specific, easy to disprove. When caught, Trump sometimes blamed others for the error or explained that the untrue thing really was true, in his mind, because he saw the situation more positively than others did.

"Have you ever lied in public statements about your properties?" the lawyer asked.

"I try and be truthful," Trump said. "I'm no different from a politician running for office. You always want to put the best foot forward."

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

In his presidential campaign, Trump has sought to make his truth-telling a selling point. He nicknamed his main Republican opponent "Lyin' Ted" Cruz. He called his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, "A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR!" in a recent Twitter message. "I will present the facts plainly and honestly," he said in the opening of his speech at the Republican National Convention. "We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore."

Trump has had a habit of telling demonstrable untruths during his presidential campaign. The Washington Post's Fact Checker has awarded him four Pinocchios - the maximum a statement can receive - 39 times since he announced his bid last summer. In many cases, his statements echo those in the 2007 deposition: They are specific, checkable - and wrong.

Trump said he opposed the Iraq War at the start. He didn't. He said he'd never mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. He had. Trump also said the National Football League had sent him a letter, objecting to a presidential debate that was scheduled for the same time as a football game. It hadn't.

Last week, Trump claimed that he had seen footage - taken at a top-secret location and released by the Iranian government - showing a plane unloading a large amount of cash to Iran from the U.S. government. He hadn't. Trump later conceded he'd been mistaken - he'd seen TV news video that showed a plane during a prisoner release.

But, even under the spotlight of this campaign, Trump has never had an experience quite like this deposition on Dec. 19 and 20, 2007.

He was trapped in a room - with his own prior statements and three high-powered lawyers.

"A very clear and visible side effect of my lawyers' questioning of Trump is that he [was revealed as] a routine and habitual fabulist," said Timothy O'Brien, the author Trump had sued.

The Washington Post sent the Trump campaign a detailed list of questions about this deposition, listing all the times when Trump seemed to have been caught in a false or unsupported statement. The Post asked Trump whether he wanted to challenge any of those findings - and whether he had felt regret when confronted with them.

He did not answer those questions.

In 2005, O'Brien, then a reporter for the New York Times, had published a book called "Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald." In the book, O'Brien cited people who questioned a claim at the bedrock of Trump's identity - that his net worth was more than $5 billion. O'Brien said he had spoken to three people who estimated that the figure was between $150 million and $250 million.

Trump sued. He later told The Post that he intended to hurt O'Brien, whom he called a "lowlife sleazebag."

"I didn't read [the book], to be honest with you. . . . I never read it. I saw some of the things they said," Trump said later. "I said: 'Go sue him. It will cost him a lot of money.' "

By filing suit, Trump hadn't just opened himself up to questioning - he had opened a door into the opaque and secretive company he ran.

O'Brien's attorneys included Mary Jo White, now the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Andrew Ceresney, now the SEC's director of enforcement. The lawsuit had given them the power to request that Trump turn over internal company documents, and they used it. They arrived at the deposition having already identified where Trump's public statements hadn't matched the private truth.

The questions began with that handwritten note and the 50 percent stake that wasn't 50 percent.

"The 30 percent equates to much more than 30 percent," Trump explained. His reasoning was that he had not been required to put up money at the outset, so his 30 percent share seemed more valuable.

"Are you saying that the real estate community would interpret your interest to be 50 percent, even though in limited partnership agreements it's 30 percent?" Ceresney asked.

"Smart people would," Trump said.

"Smart people?"

"Smart people would say it's much more than 30 percent."

Trump inflates the numbers

TRUMP: I got more than a million dollars, because they have tremendous promotion expenses, to my advantage. In other words, they promote, which has great value, through billboards, through newspapers, through radio, I think through television - yeah, through television.

And they spend - again, I'd have to ask them, but I bet they spend at least a million or two million or maybe even more than that on promoting Donald Trump.

LAWYER: But how much of the payments were cash?

TRUMP: Approximately $400,000.

LAWYER: So when you say publicly that you got paid more than a million dollars, you're including in that sum the promotional expenses that they pay?

TRUMP: Oh, absolutely, yes. That has a great value. It has a great value to me.

LAWYER: Do you actually say that when you say you got paid more than a million dollars publicly?

TRUMP: I don't break it down.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

On to the next one.

"I was paid more than a million dollars," Trump said when Ceresney asked how much he'd been paid for a speech in 2005 at New York City's Learning Annex, a continuing-education center.

Ceresney was ready.

"But how much of the payments were cash?"

"Approximately $400,000," Trump said.

Trump said his personal math included the intangible value of publicity: The Learning Annex had advertised his speech heavily, and Trump thought that helped his brand. Therefore, in his mind he'd been paid more than $1 million, even though his actual payment was $400,000.

"Do you actually say that, when you say you got a million dollars publicly?" Ceresney asked.

"I don't break it down," Trump said.

As the deposition went on, the lawyers led Trump through case after case in which he'd overstated his success.

The lawyer played a clip from Larry King's talk show, in which King asked Trump how many people worked for him. "Twenty-two thousand or so," Trump said.

"Are all those people on your payroll?" Ceresney asked him.

"No, not directly," Trump said. He said he was counting employees of other companies that acted as suppliers and subcontractors to his businesses.

Another one. In O'Brien's book, Trump had been quoted saying: "I had zero borrowings from [my father's] estate. . . . I give you my word."

Under oath:

"Mr. Trump, have you ever borrowed money from your father's estate?"

"I think a small amount a long time ago," Trump said. "I think it was like in the $9 million range."

Another one. In one of his own books, Trump had said about one of his golf courses: "Membership costs $300,000. I think it's a bargain."

Under oath:

"In fact, your memberships were not selling at $300,000 at that time, correct?"

"We've sold many for two hundred" thousand, Trump said. Then, Trump pushed it upward: "We've sold many for, I think, two-fifty."

But this was not the place to push it.

The lawyer had an internal Trump document that showed the true figure - "$200,000 per membership," Ceresney said.

"Correct," Trump acknowledged. "Right."

Trump passes the blame

LAWYER: You didn't correct it when you read the book?

TRUMP: Well, I did correct it, and she didn't correct it.

But you could have her in as a witness, and I'm sure we'll bring her in as a witness because what she wrote was - I asked her to change it to "billions of dollars in debt," and she probably forgot.

LAWYER: And when you read it, you didn't correct it?

TRUMP: I didn't see it.

LAWYER: You didn't see it.

TRUMP: I read it very quickly. I didn't see it. I would have corrected it, but I didn't see it.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

In some cases, Trump acknowledged he was wrong - but not that he was at fault. Instead, he sought to turn the blame on others.

"This is somebody that wrote it, probably Meredith McIver," Trump said at one point when confronted with another false statement. "That is a mistake."

McIver, a staff writer with the Trump Organization, blazed into the public eye last month for having inserted plagiarized material - taken from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech - in the convention speech of Trump's wife, Melania. McIver said it had been an innocent mistake.

But in this deposition more than eight years earlier, Trump was blaming her for a mistake in one of his own books, "How to Get Rich." In the 2004 book, co-written with McIver, Trump described his massive debt load during a low period in the early 1990s. "I owed billions upon billions of dollars - $9.2 billion to be exact," the book said as it retold the story of his rise back to success.

The depth of that financial hole made it seem even more impressive that Trump had climbed out again. But the figure was wrong. His actual debts had been much less.

"I pointed it out to the person who wrote the book," Trump said, meaning McIver.

"Right after she wrote the book?"

"That's correct," Trump said.

Then the lawyer showed Trump another book he'd written with McIver, three years later.

"In fact, I was $9 billion in debt," Trump read aloud. A similar error, repeated. It was McIver's fault again.

"She probably forgot," Trump said.

"And when you read it, you didn't correct it?"

"I didn't see it," Trump said.

"You didn't see it."

"I read it very quickly," Trump said about a book he was credited with writing.

Trump makes unsupported claims

LAWYER: When you wrote, "O'Brien . . . threatened sources by telling them he can, quote, 'Settle scores with enemies by writing negative articles about them,' " what was the basis for that statement?

TRUMP: Just my perception of him.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

I don't know that he indicated anything like that to me, but I think he probably did indirectly. Just my dealing with him.

In other cases, the lawyers prodded Trump into admitting that he had made authoritative-sounding statements without any proof behind them. These statements were another kind of untruth.

They were not necessarily false. They might have been true.

But Trump said them without knowing one way or the other.

"What basis do you have for that statement?" Ceresney asked in one case, about an assertion from Trump that O'Brien had been reported to the police for stalking.

"I guess that was probably taken off the Internet," Trump said.

On to the next one.

"You wrote, 'O'Brien . . . threatened sources by telling them he can, quote, settle scores with enemies by writing negative articles about them,' " Ceresney asked, reading Trump's words from a legal complaint. "What was the basis for that statement?"

"Just my perception of him," Trump said. "I don't know that he indicated anything like that to me, but I think he probably did indirectly."

The most striking example was a question at the very heart of the legal case: What was Trump's actual net worth?

Trump had told O'Brien he was worth up to $6 billion. But the lawyers confronted him with other documents - from Trump's accountants and from outside banks - that seemed to show the real figure was far lower.

The lawyers asked: "Have you ever not been truthful" about your net worth?

Trump's answer here was that the truth about his wealth was - in essence - up to him to decide.

"My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings," Trump said. "But I try."

The interrogation finally ended after two days. Trump's attorney made a final demand.

"I want the record to be crystal clear that every single word, every question, every answer, every word, is confidential," said the attorney, Mark Ressler.

In 2009, a judge dismissed Trump's case against O'Brien. Trump appealed, but in 2011 that was denied, too.

Along the way, this once-confidential deposition became part of the public record when O'Brien's attorneys attached it to one of their motions.

In a brief statement this week, Trump said he felt the lawsuit was a success, despite his loss.

"O'Brien knows nothing about me," Trump said. "His book was a total failure and ultimately I had great success doing what I wanted to do - costing this third rate reporter a lot of legal fees."

O'Brien, now executive editor of Bloomberg View, said Trump got that wrong. The publisher and insurance companies covered the cost.

"Donald Trump lost his lawsuit and, unlike him, it didn't cost me a penny to litigate it," he said.

- Washington Post

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