The New York Times' analysis of President Donald Trump's tax returns - which remain private, and which the Times did not share - includes many fascinating details about Trump's epic tax avoidance over the last two decades, but three main ideas emerge. First, it confirms what most Americans had suspected when Trump reneged on his campaign promise to conform to modern tradition and release his tax returns: That the records contain, at a minimum, politically embarrassing details, including the fact that the self-promoting developer and reality TV star rarely paid federal income taxes. That he also took a $70,000 deduction, more than twice the nation's per capita median income, for haircuts is a doozy.
Second, it makes plain that Donald Trump's self-projected aura as a self-made billionaire too rich to accept campaign donations (remember that canard?) and thus beyond the reach of lobbyists was just so much smoke and mirrors. The New York Times' reporting depicts him less as a shrewd Manhattan developer and practitioner of "The Art of the Deal," as he called his top-selling memoir, than as a con man setting up a three-card monte table in Times Square to fleece the gullible.
And third, the U.S. tax code is a complex thicket of incentives and carve-outs that rewards game-players at the expense of average taxpayers. Which means the most valuable asset in Trump's spider web of businesses and properties is the creative force in the accounting department that managed to make someone who took in hundreds of millions of dollars in income appear so overwhelmed with expenses and losses that the U.S. taxpayers wound up paying him money - in one instance, a $72-million tax refund.
Naturally, Trump argued that he did only what the law allows. "I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits," he tweeted Monday.
But that's just it - not everyone is entitled to the maneuvers Trump used. The tax code understandably treats businesses differently from individuals, allowing businesses to deduct not just their legitimate expenses, but also some of their losses from prior years before paying taxes on the remaining profits. That invites unscrupulous people to stretch the definition of expenses and to gin up losses. As liberal activist Michael Linden noted on Twitter, "a worker earning an hourly wage can't deduct 'business expenses' from their income. A teacher can't carry over losses for a decade."
The Times' reporting, in sum, offers yet more evidence that the president is playing the country, and his supporters, for fools. But it's hard to imagine in this time of calcified political opinions - everyone, it seems is either for Trump or against him with hardly any of the traditional independents left to woo - that the report will have much impact on voting that is already underway in some states.
In truth, Trump won election four years ago despite voters' awareness that he actively sought to skirt his tax liability. He bragged about it in a 2016 debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, saying that while "I pay tax, and I pay federal tax, too," he took advantage of depreciation rules to use a $916 million business loss in 1995 to avoid paying federal income for several years. "But I have a write-off," he said. "A lot of it is depreciation, which is a wonderful charge. I love depreciation."
Voters also overlooked his atrocious comments about women, and the infamous "Access Hollywood" video from 2005 in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. "And when you're a star, they let you do it," he said. "You can do anything." He also bragged during a 2016 campaign rally in Iowa about the blind loyalty of his core supporters. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible."
From the get-go Trump's campaign had the aura of a massive con, using the ruse of a presidential election to draw attention to his businesses and his then-flagging "The Apprentice" television franchise. But he also tapped into a significant stream of political disaffection by mainly white voters who resented what they saw as the erosion of their livelihoods and way of life, and thought sending a disrupting force to Washington to "drain the swamp" might help them regain a mostly illusory sense of an imperiled culture.
Instead, Trump has used the presidency to steer business to his hotels, resorts and golf courses, including $1 million in tax dollars for hotel rooms for aides and security teams during his routine visits and weekend rounds of golf at his resorts, while collecting more than $20 million in business from the Republican Party, lobbyists and foreign governments at his properties, including the Trump International hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
If Trump did cross a legal line in his tax filings and business dealings, we hope that ongoing audits and investigations will hold him accountable. But it would be naive to believe that Trump's creative approach to interpreting the tax codes is unique to him; there are more loopholes in the tax code than a macrame wall hanging. What is unique is that so many hard-working, tax-paying Americans seem to find that sort of behavior acceptable for a president of the United States.
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