On Tuesday, Donald Trump told the Associated Press that he doesn’t plan to release his tax returns before the presidential election in November. “There’s nothing to learn from them,” he said. Then, on Wednesday, he said he would release them. “I’ll release. Hopefully before the election I’ll release,” he told Fox News. “And I’d like to release.” (Doesn’t seem like it.) “You learn very little from a tax return,” he added. Maybe, but you learn a lot from someone’s ambivalence about releasing them.
The release of the tax returns is often a contentious topic in presidential campaigns: The Obamas released theirs in 2008 while sniping at the Clintons for using tax shelters in the Cayman Islands. Even vulture capitalist Mitt Romney released his tax returns (sort of) in 2012, though not until after much hemming and hawing.
Trump has said that he’s not releasing his returns because he’s under audit from the Internal Revenue Service. But the IRS has said he is free to release his returns regardless of what they are (or are not) doing. In fact, Joseph Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project, noted to Bloomberg Politics, President Richard Nixon released his return when he was under audit, in 1973: “Presidential candidates don’t live by the same standards as everyone else—they agree to disclose a lot to voters. This is required by tradition. There’s no good explanation for him not to release his returns.”
As he never fails to remind us, Trump’s appeal to voters hinges largely upon the idea that he is so wealthy that he is insulated from the influence of lobbyists and donors and those who seek to sway him. He even put it on a pin: “I love America, I love Freedom, and I cannot be Bought.” This is the same argument that Michael Bloomberg made to New Yorkers in 2001, and which was persuasive enough that it carried him through three consecutive terms as mayor. (Now, New York finds itself out of the frying pan and into the fire.)
In January, Trump assured voters that everything was in order: “I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we’ll be working that over in the next period of time.” But we don’t actually know that. (And how long is the “next period of time,” anyway?) So while there may be no good explanation for Trump not to release his returns, there is certainly an explanation—and it is probably that he simply doesn’t want anyone to see them. And why not? Maybe because they’re not as big or beautiful as he’s led everyone to believe.
Reporters have spent the better part of three decades trying to pin down precisely how much Donald Trump is worth. In 2006, Trump sued New York Times reporter Tim O’Brien, the author of the book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald. A year earlier, Trump had claimed he was worth “five to six billion” dollars; O’Brien wrote that that number was probably somewhere between $150 million and $250 million.
Trump’s tax returns were entered into evidence in the course of litigation, but they were filed under seal. In one deposition, Trump told O’Brien’s attorneys that his assessment of his own value was largely guided by “feelings,” both others’ and his own. “Yes, even my own feelings as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day,” he said.
“Then you have a September 11th, and you don’t feel so good about yourself and you don’t feel so good about the world and you don’t feel so good about New York City. Then you have a year later, and the city is as hot as a pistol. Even months after that it was a different feeling. So yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself.”
What an emotional rollercoaster! Phew. Anyway, a superior court judge in New Jersey threw out Trump’s suit in 2009, and an appeals court upheld the decision in 2011. “Essentially the judge just said, ‘Trump is too famous,’” Trump later told The Atlantic, paraphrasing the judge’s ruling. “‘He’s so famous that you’re allowed to say anything you want about him.’ Well, I disagree with that.” (That is not actually how libel law works, but sure.)
Trump issued his most recent estimation of his own worth last summer: In June, he waved a one-page summary of his finances over his head at a press conference, claiming to have been worth $8.7 billion a year earlier. In July, he filed a 92-page personal financial disclosure that his net worth was actually more than $10 billion. (He valued his personal brand at $3.3 billion.) Later that month, taking into account both documents—neither of which carried an accountant’s signature—Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index concluded that that Trump’s net worth was slightly less than $3 billion.
By adding up all the revenue that Trump claims as income, a clearer picture emerges of the GOP frontrunner’s business interests. His enterprise looks a heck of a lot smaller than the real estate colossus the candidate claims—and that most of his supporters believe—he presides over. Although, by the way, it’s still impressive.
As far as taxes are concerned, Trump may be paying a relatively small amount to Uncle Sam simply because his business isn’t huge. (Indeed, given the projected modest size of his business, he may be paying an even smaller amount in taxes, thanks to the advantages real estate developers enjoy in our tax code.)
None of this implies that Trump is hiding anything. (Although you have to assume that a successful businessman like Trump would know the difference between revenue and income.) Most of the evidence is right there in the filing. The wonder is that no one has looked at the distinction between income and revenue. It’s one thing to have free cash flow, or taxable income, of $500 million a year. Your bottom line shrinks considerably if you have revenues of $500 million a year.
Meanwhile, property-tax records unearthed by Crain’s New York revealed that for the past three years Trump has been receiving a $300 tax credit issued to New Yorkers whose household income is less than $500,000 a year. His campaign manager said the tax benefit was “an error on the part of the city of New York.” Who knows? Maybe it was just a rounding error. Or a misplaced decimal!
To qualify for that tax break, Trump would have had to supply New York state with a copy of his federal income-tax return, which would have shown his income to be less than $500,000 per year. “He should not have received the abatement and should return the full value to state taxpayers,” a mayoral spokesperson said.
There are at least two ways to interpret this pattern of nickel-and-diming: (1) Donald Trump is rich, but he’s not that rich; (2) Donald Trump has a very good accountant. These are not mutually exclusive possibilities. The latter scenario involves the kind of tax avoidance that is common among people who can afford to pay for the kinds of mechanisms that empower them to pay less money to the government than they otherwise would. It’s how capital accrues to itself over time and across generations.
For now, there’s no real reason to believe that Donald Trump has lied to the government; there is, however, reason enough to suspect that he may have lied to voters. The story he tells about himself is one of purity and rebirth. “I know the system far better than anybody else and I know the system is broken,” he said during the debate in March. He continued:
“I know it so well because I was on both sides of it. I was on the other side all my life and I’ve always made large contributions. And frankly, I know the system better than anybody else and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system, because that system is wrong.”
The wealth that Donald Trump claims is transcendent—it sanctifies. He has so much money that he doesn’t need any more money, and certainly not from anyone that would demand anything from him in return. The entire Trump mythology is derived from an impression that he has rigorously overseen, that he alone floats across an ocean of corruption and deceit, borne on a raft of money. Without it, he’s no better than the rest of us: drowning and desperate for something to keep us afloat.
(And, not for nothing, but journalists lend this mythology credence when we describe Trump as a “billionaire.” Or even just as “wealthy.”)
In a way, the Trump mythology is the shadowy inverse of the Bernie Sanders narrative: Sanders strides through the fallen world, untempted, while Trump’s gaudy posturing signifies his intimate familiarity with the decadent and depraved. In his grasping hedonism he has sucked the world dry of all solace and pleasure. Now, finding it lacking, he decides that it should be remade.
But the closer we get to Election Day, the more unstable Trump’s mythology becomes. It might all fall apart even without the tax returns. Last week, he appointed banking scion Steven Mnuchin his national finance chairman. “I wouldn’t in any way say I distanced myself from Wall Street,” Mnuchin—whose father worked at Goldman Sachs for 30 years, and who made partner at the firm himself after just 17 years—told the New York Times. “I have very good friends on Wall Street.”
“I’m not a traditional fundraiser,” Mnuchin said. Still a fundraiser, though.