Donald Trump is about to give me an exclusive look at his finances, but the phone is ringing off the hook. This time, it's a TV producer: "Is this the most handsome, the smartest, the most charismatic man in New York?" He's trying to book Trump on his show. But Trump is fresh from The Today Show, The O'Reilly Factor, Access Hollywood, Larry King Live. He's booked to do David Letterman. And there's a guy downstairs in the lobby of Trump Tower waiting to get a $10,000 check that Trump offered him after he jumped on subway tracks two days earlier to save a man's life. The producer is begging. "I've got to get back to my real job," says Trump with mock exasperation. He's clearly flattered.
Forget The Apprentice, which launched its sixth season on NBC (GE ) on Jan. 7. The real entertainment right now is the Donald Trump show. The real estate mogul is taking on everybody from bombastic talk show host Rosie O'Donnell to author Tim O'Brien. He feels insulted, maligned. The common charge: that America's most famous billionaire isn't so good with money. O'Donnell snickered on TV that he had gone bankrupt. (He hasn't, although his public company did.) And Trump is suing O'Brien for citing, in his 2005 book, Trump Nation, three unnamed sources who pegged his net worth at as low as $150 million. "I lost deals because of that," complains Trump. O'Brien's lawyers say the suit is without merit.
The actual worth of his largely private empire is, of course, hard to pin down. Forbes estimates it at $2.9 billion. Trump has his chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, show me documents that put his net worth at roughly $4.1 billion as of June, 2006, with assets totaling $4.8 billion and liabilities of around $700 million. That includes a valuation of $370 million for Trump Tower which has a $25 million mortgage--"and that's because there's no prepayment clause!"-- as well as $900 million for "club facilities and related real estate" such as 75 residential lots along the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles. Then there's the value of his name, which Trump calls "the hottest brand on the planet." It's not Coca-Cola (KO ), but who else gets equity stakes in prime properties for putting up their name and little else?
Why this is the stuff of lawsuits is another question. By most sane assessments, Trump is rich. When he puts his name on bottled water, vodka, or a business suit, it sells. Trump buildings get a premium. People clamor to hear his speeches, for which he gets as much as $1.5 million a pop. They buy his books. They even still watch his reality TV show, with 9.1 million viewers tuning into the Jan. 7 premiere.
The truth is that Trump likes combat, especially when it's played out in public. He's suing the town of Palm Beach, Fla., for $25 million, with the money earmarked for "returning Iraqi vets" if he wins, because of the town's alleged harassment when it tried to get him to take down an 80-foot flag pole at his private club, Mar-A-Lago. "In life, you have fighters and nonfighters. You have winners and losers," says Trump. "I am both a fighter and a winner."
If fame could be converted to currency, few would doubt Trump's riches. And his media star has risen since his press conference last month to announce that he was letting Miss USA Tara Conner keep her title, despite her hard-partying ways. (Trump co-owns the pageant.) He even seems wistful at the prospect of his public riff with the prickly O'Donnell fading into silence.
But there's work to do. Before subway hero Wesley Autrey comes to accept his check, Vice-President Rhona Graff asks Trump if he wants the media entourage surrounding Autrey to be allowed in, too. Is she kidding? "Bring them all in!" says Trump. Autrey's 6-year-old daughter comes over and sits on Trump's lap. "Would you like to help me run my business?" Trump asks. Cameras are clicking. The whole family gets in with Trump, and then he sits alone, striking a determined pose against the Manhattan skyline. Autrey and the gang of reporters leave. "That guy is amazing," says Trump. The media moment is complete. "And what did it take? Five minutes?" Now, that's $10,000 well spent.
By Diane Brady