Critics of President Trump, including me, have regularly compared him to authoritarian rulers such as Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin. But a more apt comparison may be with Jordan Belfort or Frank Abagnale. Who? you ask.
Belfort is the high-living Wall Street stockbroker who was convicted of fraud and subsequently had his life story dramatized by Martin Scorsese in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Abagnale is the con artist who pretended to be a doctor and airline pilot, among other disguises. His life story was told by Steven Spielberg in “Catch Me If You Can.” That title appears ever-more-appropriate for the Donald Trump life story as more of the president’s scams come to light.
Just this week, Trump’s personal doctor, Harold Bornstein, said he did not write the glowing letter attesting to Trump’s “astonishingly excellent” health that was released under his signature on Dec. 4, 2015.
“He dictated the whole letter,” Bornstein said. That will come as no shock to anyone familiar with Trump’s self-aggrandizement and ignorance of history, given that the letter claimed: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
It is precisely the fact that this fraud — if that’s what it was — is so typical of Trump that this disclosure has received so little attention. Imagine, by contrast, the hyperventilation that would have occurred if Hillary Clinton had been caught deceiving the public about her health — an issue that Trump and his acolytes harped on relentlessly during the campaign.
Another Trump fraud was uncovered recently when former Forbes journalist Jonathan Greenberg recounted in The Washington Post how Trump lied his way onto the magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans. Trump called Greenberg to brag about his riches while pretending to be his own PR man — John Barron — a trick he had pulled before.
Greenberg knew Trump was exaggerating but not by how much. He wrote: “In our first-ever list, in 1982, we included him at $100 million, but Trump was actually worth roughly $5 million — a paltry sum by the standards of his super-monied peers.”
It was not just a matter of vanity for Trump: Appearing wealthy made banks more likely to lend to him and business partners more likely to make deals with him. Trump continues the con to this day, claiming a net worth of more than $10 billion but refusing to release his tax returns.
Trump’s whole business career was littered with broken promises — in other words, swindles. Trump paid $25 million to settle civil suits by students at Trump University who claimed that he had not delivered on his promises to teach them the secrets of his money-making success. Actually, he did: The lesson came in the way they were fleeced.
Yet another apparent Trump scam has come to light concerning his supposed sexual prowess. Jill Brooke, the reporter behind the New York Post’s famous “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” front page in 1990, says the headline came about when Trump called her and demanded a story to counteract the positive coverage that the Daily News was giving to his estranged wife, Ivana, in their divorce battle. “Marla [Maples] says with me it’s the best sex she’s ever had,” Trump told her on the telephone, referring to his mistress who would soon become wife No. 2. For confirmation, Trump shouted, “Didn’t you say it’s the best sex you ever had with me?”
According to the Daily Beast: “A faint ‘yes, Donald,’ was heard in the background and the headline wrote itself to become part of history. Brooke said it was only later she discovered Trump was prone to impersonating associates on the phone, and so she is now unsure if Trump’s second wife ever said any such thing.”
If this was indeed another racket, it wasn’t just about feeding Trump’s insatiable ego. His image as a lady-killer added to his aura of all-around success, which he used to peddle all sorts of tchotchkes to gullible consumers. As The Post notes, “There was Trump deodorant. Trump ties. Trump steaks. Trump underwear. Trump furniture. At one time, there was even a Trump-branded urine test.”
Having gotten in the habit of lying regularly about matters big and small, Trump has set new records for mendacity while in office. The Post reports that he has made more than 3,000 false or misleading claims since the inauguration, and that his rate of deception has increased from 4.9 to 9 falsehoods a day.
Does any of this matter? From a political perspective, probably not. Voters knew what sort of huckster Trump was when they elected him. But it should give us pause to consider what it says about America, circa 2018, that so many of us are so ready to accept a Jordan Belfort or Frank Abagnale — a con man, in other words — as our leader.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. A best-selling historian, he is the author most recently of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”