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The Trump revelation we've been waiting for: The emperor had no dough

Updated 2:13 PM ET, Wed May 8, 2019

Editor's Note: Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" and co-author with Peter Eisner of "The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence." The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author's. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - The New York Times has published great gobs of data from information it received from Donald Trump's Internal Revenue Service tax transcripts between 1985 and 1994. At last some hard facts have been found with which to compare the hype that Trump peddled to claim for himself a spot among the most brilliant moneymakers in the universe.

What are the big takeaways from the numbers? Hold on to your hats because, as Trump might say, the news is yuuuuge.

It turns out that young Trump's claim to great riches was, at times, completely made up. He was, instead, desperately burdened by debt that topped $1 billion. It seems that his business acumen was at best questionable, at worst fake -- as were his vast profits. Says the Times: "Over all, Mr. Trump lost so much money that he was able to avoid paying income taxes for eight of the 10 years." The man Trump presented in his book "The Art of the Deal" was a fiction.

While it may be normal for business owners to take on debt, the extent of Trump's debt is astonishing. As the Times reports, "(Y)ear after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer, The Times found when it compared his results with detailed information the I.R.S. compiles on an annual sampling of high-income earners."

The revelations dismantle the origin story of Donald the Brilliant. The emperor, it seems, had no dough. For a stretch of time, Trump's airline, his casinos and even his Plaza Hotel all lost money during a period when a red-hot economy helped others achieve great wealth.

Nonetheless, Trump practiced his hype so well that Forbes magazine put him on its annual list of the richest people in America. By 1988 he had Forbes convinced he was worth $1 billion. As Trump's red ink formed bigger pools, he somehow got Forbes to up his worth to $1.5 billion the next year.

The tricks Trump used to make others believe his fiction depended on the fact that his businesses were all privately held and were under no legal obligation to issue accurate public financial statements. Trump seemingly took this to mean he could just make things up to win a place on the Forbes list or in the pages of the New York tabloids.

But as much as he wanted money, he seemed to crave attention even more. And he managed to find it from reporters and producers at shows such as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

In reality, wealth wouldn't come for many years. In the meantime, he faked it with stretch limousines and put his name on things -- in big gold letters.

Trump wouldn't have become President but for his fame and the image he could create by hiding the truth about his finances. He has defied long presidential tradition by refusing to make his tax returns public.

Over the years, Trump created the myth about himself through furious borrowing, which paid for all the trappings of a capitalist on the rise. Remember, this was in the '80s, and people were ready to believe in tales of impossible riches. The fictional Ewing family gave us excess on the TV show "Dallas," and at the movies, Gordon Gekko declared, "Greed ... is good," in "Wall Street." When a swashbuckling young real estate mogul taught us "his secrets" in his book "The Art of the Deal," many of us were happy to believe his words.

With the origins of Trump's long con revealed, historians, scholars and the President's political opponents now have facts to counter his grandiose, self-constructed image. His most fervent followers are likely to brush them off, as they argue that Trump broke no laws, and admire his cleverness.

But the most profound reaction to this reporting on his taxes is almost certainly occurring inside Trump's own mind. He has spent so long promoting himself as a nonstop winner that revelations about his many loser years could threaten his sense of self. Of course, Trump has already responded with a swipe at a "highly inaccurate Fake News hit job!" on Twitter, but expect a return to the same old game of self-promotion at any cost. Trump knows no other way.

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