While the details reported in The New York Times do not appear to prove criminal activity, they do provide evidence that Trump likely benefited from illegal tax avoidance.
In a revelatory story released on Sunday, September 27, The New York Times reported President Donald Trump has paid no income taxes in all but five of the previous 15 years. In the two most recent years in which Trump’s tax information was available – 2016 and 2017, his first year as president – Trump reportedly only paid US$750 per year.
Trump denied the Times’ reporting, dismissing it as “fake news." Trump’s business practices and tax avoidance have been a regular subject of speculation and reporting ever since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. Critics allege Trump’s entire persona as a brilliant businessman is built on deceptions and fraud.
The NYTimes report on Trump’s taxes
The Times’ report on Sunday, the first of multiple reports the paper will be publishing, is based on the review of tax forms and documents obtained from people with legal access to the information. While the details found in the financial documents do not appear to prove criminal activity, they do provide evidence that Trump likely benefited from illegal tax avoidance.
The most readily accessible take-aways from the report are printed in the first few lines: “Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”
The Times found that trump “is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, with most of it coming due within four years.” The report states that in direct conflict with Trump’s “self-made-billionaire image,” he was in actuality “a businessman-president in a tightening financial vise.”
The tax information gives credence to one common theory that Trump ran for president in large part to boost his lagging personal brand and help pull himself out of a financial hole. In addition to the personal debt, Trump could be facing a US$100 million penalty from the IRS if it is found he illegitimately claimed a US$72.9 million refund in 2010.
Other questionable tax schemes include paying his own children as “business consultants” instead of employees, thus allowing Trump to write off their salaries while keeping the money in the family. As previously reported, Trump has used bankruptcies and losses to avoid paying off contractors and debts.
From 2000 to 2017, Trump did pay US$24.3 million for the “alternative minimum tax,” a tax that affects mostly the highest earners in the country and was created to ensure all earners paid at least a minimum in taxes. Yet tax refunds and credits more than negated that payment.
Referencing his reality television show, “The Apprentice," the Times concludes of the president, “Ultimately, Mr. Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life.”
Sunday’s report echoes 2019 reporting by the Times, also based on tax information, that Trump was in dire financial straits from the mid-80s to mid-90s. In 2018, the Times reported that Trump’s wealth and public persona were at least partially built on tax fraud on the part of his father, Fred Trump.
Trump denies the reporting
In Sunday’s report, Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s Chief Legal Counsel, did not address the specifics of the Times’ story. Instead, he said, “most, if not all, of the facts” in the story were false.
He also alleged, “Over the past decade, President Trump has paid tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government, including paying millions in personal taxes since announcing his candidacy in 2015.”
Trump personally responded to the reporting Sunday night with a tweet stating simply, “FAKE NEWS!” He also responded to questions about the reporting in a press conference Sunday evening.
Trump claimed he did pay taxes and people would be able to see that as soon as his tax returns were released. He immediately walked it back, though, saying he could not release his taxes because they were under audit by the IRS. Trump has repeatedly made this claim going back to the 2016 campaign, even though the tax agency has said that he can release his taxes.
Trump refuses to release his tax returns
For a decade, the real estate mogul has been teasing the release of his taxes but never going as far as actually releasing them. It began with his false “birtherism” claim that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Trump said in April 2011 that he might release his taxes if Obama released his birth certificate. Obama did later release his birth certificate, but Trump did not release his taxes.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, Trump repeatedly pledged to release his taxes at some point in the future. When pressed on why he would not release his taxes immediately, as all other 2016 candidates had, Trump often claimed it was either due to an ongoing audit or because of how complex his taxes were.
In an MSNBC interview with Chuck Todd in January 2016, Trump said his team would be releasing his tax returns in “a period of time.” Pressed on what that meant, Trump replied “I don’t know.” The then-candidate added he hates what the country does with the money and therefore, “I try to pay as little tax as possible.”
In September 2016, two months prior to Election Day, CNN uncovered a 2014 interview Trump did with Irish TV in which he stated, “If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely. And I would love to do that.”
Since entering office, Trump has actively fought the release of his tax returns, despite subpoenas from both the New York District Attorney and the US Congress. In August this year, the Supreme Court ruled Trump had to comply with New York’s subpoena, but not Congress’. Nonetheless, Trump’s legal team is still fighting the release of his taxes to the New York prosecutor.
The Democrats hit back
The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden immediately utilized the Times’ story to create an attack ad. The brief video spot highlights multiple professions and the average taxes that each pays in the US. For instance, it lists the average income tax for teachers at US$7,239 and the average income tax for nurses at US$10,216.
The ad ends with the text, “Federal income taxes paid: Donald Trump $750.”
On Sunday, Maya Harris, sister of Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, posted a video to Twitter that shows him seemingly admitting he paid no taxes. In a 2016 debate between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Clinton said the reason Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns was likely because he didn’t want Americans “to know he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”
In response, Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”
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