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October 5, 2021

Donald Trump is worth an estimated $2.5 billion, leaving him $400 million short of the cutoff to make this year’s Forbes 400 list of America’s richest people. The real estate mogul is just as wealthy as he was a year ago, when he stood at No. 339 on the ranking, but he is down $600 million since the start of the pandemic. Technology stocks, cryptocurrencies and other assets have thrived in the COVID era. But big-city properties—which make up the bulk of Trump’s fortune—have languished, knocking the former president out of the nation’s most-exclusive club.

If Trump is looking for someone to blame, he can start with himself. Five years ago, he had a golden opportunity to diversify his fortune. Fresh off the 2016 election, federal ethics officials were pushing Trump to divest his real estate assets. That would have allowed him to reinvest the proceeds into broad-based index funds and assume office free of conflicts of interest.

Others in the executive branch have little choice but to listen to ethics officials. People who hold assets that might conflict with their day jobs in government run the risk of violating the criminal conflicts-of-interest law. The president, however, is exempt from that statute, as Trump proudly noted during a press conference nine days before entering the White House. “I could actually run the business and run government at the same time,” he told a crowd of reporters assembled in Trump Tower. “I don’t like the way that looks, but We would be able to do that if We wanted to. We would be the only one that would be able to do that.”

Trump decided to hang onto his assets. At the time, they were worth an estimated $3.5 billion, after subtracting debt. If he had instead chosen to sell off everything off, there is a chance that he would have had to pay significant capital-gains taxes. Trump acquired his five most-valuable holdings long ago, so he likely has huge untaxed gains locked in each of them. If he paid the maximum possible capital gains tax—23.8% to the federal government, plus 8.8% to the New York State authorities on every penny he owned—that would have shaved about $1.1 billion off his fortune, leaving him with $2.4 billion on the first day of his presidency. But what would have appeared to be a huge sacrifice at first could have turned into a lucrative realignment. By plowing that $2.4 billion in an index fund tracking the S&P 500, for example, Trump’s fortune would have ballooned to $4.5 billion by now, leaving him 80% richer than he is today. His refusal to divest, in other words, cost him $2 billion.

00:13 How much has Trump lost since the pandemic?
00:45 Trump's perilous business decision
01:22 How the presidency damaged the Trump brand
01:50 What would have happened if Trump invested his money into the S&P 400?
03:17 Trump's history with the Forbes 400 List
04:52 The Trump metric for success

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