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Trump brags that he's a billionaire, but he doesn't act like one

by Michelle Singletary

People lie about their financial situation all the time.

Some do it on purpose. Most do it unconsciously, because they are too embarrassed or afraid to face the truth.

I regularly help people straighten up their financial mess. As part of the process, I get to see the intimate details of their budgets. I also make everyone prepare a net-worth statement. And – this is key – I check the veracity of the numbers they put down by examining the underlying supporting documents.

It’s humbling to be so transparent. But I can’t help the financially challenged if I don’t know exactly what’s going on. And they won’t change for the better without admitting to the reality of their situation.

Without forcing folks to face the real numbers, they will swear, for example, that they don’t spend a lot of money eating out. Or they’ll say, “I don’t shop that much.”

But their bank statements tell a different story. Examining their net worth – assets minus liabilities – reveals the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The real numbers don’t lie.

Like so many other Americans, I’ve been listening to and reading the accounts of the payment by President Trump’s attorney to porn star Stormy Daniels, and Trump’s reimbursement of the money. As bits and pieces of the truth – or what we are told are the facts – come out, it reveals something about Trump. He doesn’t act like a billionaire.

Trump loves to boast about his tremendous wealth.

“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” he said in one interview.

Without Trump’s tax returns or a verifiable account of his personal net worth, we have to take his word for it.

But I know that behind their gold-plated lifestyles, a lot of self-proclaimed rich folks have incredibly bad money-management practices and a choking amount of debt. On the outside, they look supremely rich. Upon closer inspection, however, they’re only playing the part of a truly wealthy person.

Sure, they live in a palatial mansion, but it’s leveraged through the roof. One job layoff or bad business deal, and their financial house crumbles.

That’s what I think when I look at what we know about Trump and the Daniels hush money. It’s just one snapshot, but it’s very telling.

Fact: Trump attorney Michael Cohen said he made a $130,000 payment to Daniels to keep her from disclosing an alleged sexual affair with Trump. Cohen has acknowledged that he got the money from using his home equity line of credit.

Fact: Fellow Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in numerous interviews, before beginning to contradict himself, that Trump repaid Cohen. But it was the detail about how the money was repaid that is so revealing.

Giuliani said Trump essentially reimbursed Cohen in monthly installments of $35,000, which Giuliani called routine retainer fees.

“If he didn’t pay it every month, he paid it many months,” Giuliani said.

Giuliani also said that Trump used his personal money – not campaign or corporate funds – to repay Cohen.

We may not ever learn the truth about what happened between Trump and Daniels or when he first learned about the payment. But there’s a lot we can discern by looking at the situation from a personal finance point of view.

Let’s start with Cohen’s claim he used a home equity line of credit to pay Daniels, which makes me wonder about his financial standing.

Why would Cohen borrow money using his personal residence to make a payment for a client? In my experience, people turn to home equity only when they don’t have the cash to do what they want. It would have made more financial sense for Cohen’s firm to cover the payment to Daniels and then bill Trump.

“At first blush, Cohen looks like a pretty rich man. He drives a white Rolls Royce, sports a $50,000 watch and owns a fair amount of Manhattan real estate,” according to a recent Bloomberg article on Cohen’s financial troubles. “But just as his loyalty to Trump is coming under scrutiny, a more tenuous financial picture is emerging. A taxi business he and his wife built is deeply in debt and losing money daily, his commercial real estate is throwing off only modest income.”

Then there’s this: Why would Trump, who claims he’s a multibillionaire, need to set up what looks a lot like a payment plan to reimburse his personal attorney for a relatively small six-figure expenditure?

“What kind of billionaire pays for stuff in installments?” “SNL’s” Weekend Update co-host Michael Che joked.

What kind indeed? Because really rich folks don’t act like this.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.