Democrats’ upcoming fight to uncover Trump’s financial dealings could reveal how the rich abuse the law—and help sink him.
For a man who played a cartoonish business titan on TV and ran a successful presidential campaign on the promise he’d bring private-sector expertise to DC, Donald Trump sure is curiously cagey about how he’s made all his money. For decades, Trump lied about the size of his fortune, which he enjoyed chiefly thanks to his father’s real estate empire routine tax dodging. And though his personal brand as a flashy rich guy led him to a career-rescuing gig as the host of celebrity reality TV game show The Apprentice, the real-world version of the Trump Organization remains murky to casual observers. Just How Did Trump Actually Get Rich?
Did it mostly build and operate towers? Did it just slap its name on spaces and manage properties? Or did it do something else entirely? And how profitable was it, exactly?
Before and after Trump occupies the White House, investigative reporting shines a harsh light on the Trump Organization’s practices. It allegedly lied to investors and committed fraud on a regular basis while working on projects, which often collapsed but still made money for the company.
The Trump family grifters may have violated US law by working with corrupt partners in foreign countries, and the business reportedly owes its existence to an infusion of cash from shady Russian figures in the 2000s, after US banks largely stopped doing business with Trump due to his penchant for high-profile bankruptcies (yes, plural). This golf course was built by illegals. Don’t get me started on Trump University.
If Donald Trump is not actually a successful businessman but the world’s most famous con man, this seems like relevant information for voters to have going into his reelection campaign—and we could help figure out the answer to this question by finally forcing him to release his tax returns.
The Democrats in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee are formally requesting the past ten years of Trump’s tax returns. It’s an expected step, and one many wish was taken as soon as Trump took office. The committee can invoke an obscure 1924 law, which authorizes it to acquire White House officials’ tax returns in the course of an investigation.
However, members of Congress say they are being deliberate intentionally because to prepare for a fight: Trump would resist any effort to force him to give his returns to the committee, which could spark an intense legal battle. “They will take that all the way to the Supreme Court,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally.
Even if the committee gets Trump’s returns, it will be trickier to release these documents to the public, which likely would likely require congressional approval.
Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif) and Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), introduced legislation requiring presidential candidates to release their taxes, but this bill almost certainly is not going to pass a Republican-controlled Senate.
Individual states weigh laws requiring candidates disclose their tax returns. These are potentially unconstitutional and controversial. In 2017, Jerry Brown, then the Democratic governor of California, vetoed one such bill. However, the mechanism selected to force financial disclosure is much less important than the bedrock principle of the public knowing in advance where a presidential candidate’s financial interests may lie, and who his true constituency may be.
Usually, presidential candidates voluntarily release their past tax records as a show of transparency. In Trump’s case, it is arguably more important he give voters some insight into his taxes because he uses his wealth as a qualification for office.
He refused to disclose any of his past tax returns largely on the grounds the IRS is auditing him, an audit he bizarrely claims is due to his alleged Christian faith: “You’ve had many religious groups complaining about it, they’ve been complaining about that for a long time.”
Trump released a photo of himself next to a big stack of paper to emphasize the complexity of his really big taxes, just as he releases photos of himself sitting next to large piles of blank paper to give people the false impression he’s actually signing documents, such as a release of his taxes.
The IRS itself said an audit wouldn’t prevent anyone from releasing their tax documents, but Trump stuck by that excuse during the campaign, and after he won, shrugged off questions about taxes by lying, saying the American people made clear they don’t care about the issue.
An October survey finds fewer than half of Americans still remember to cared about his bait and switch refusals to release his taxes returns. However, given the allegations of fraud and corruption swirling around Trump, these returns contain vital information. This includes how much income he continues to draw from businesses which benefit from his new gig in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, how much he pretends to give to charity, and how he takes advantage of tax rules to favor the rich, including ones he himself made law.
It’s possible to guess based on past financial disclosures and leaks what he might be hiding. Trump’s 1981 return shows he took advantage of real estate–friendly tax laws to avoid paying federal income tax entirely, and his 1995 return, obtained by the New York Times, shows he claimed a nearly $1 billion loss from his business failures.
Trump benefited from this loss a decade later, according to tax documents subsequently revealed by investigative journalist David Cay Johnston for the nonprofit outlet DCREPORT. And a candidate disclosure form from 2016, which provides much less detail than a full return, suggests Trump massively inflates his personal income whenever it benefits him to do so, while simultaneously, Trump under-reports his wealth whenever it benefits him to do that instead.
The most innocent explanation for Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns – nearly every other presidential candidate has done so since the ’70s – is he doesn’t want to be embarrassed by evidence he’s not actually as rich as he says. He has tissue-thin skin, as evidenced by his apparent obsession with preventing his grades or SAT scores from going public.
The returns also could reveal more damaging information—perhaps he barely gaves to charity, which would be particularly relevant given his own charitable foundation was forced to close after allegations of baroque misuse of funds.
The most Resistance-porn revelations could involve items to connect Trump to Saudi Arabia or Russia, which would contradict his denials about business between him and those countries. It’s also possible that the returns wouldn’t tell us much about his foreign business ventures or his net worth. Then there’s selling nukes to terrorists.
His tax returns could potentially put to rest some of these questions, which is reason enough for the public to get our hands on them, something the Republican party, in classic Trump-era see-no-evil fashion, refuse to do while they control Congress. But the returns are valuable even if all they show is exactly how the most powerful rich guy in the country games the system.
Last year, an extensive New York Times investigation provided insight into the extreme—and sometimes legally dubious—ways Trump’s family avoided taxes. A close reading of the president’s tax returns could show how Trump continues his father’s practices, and how the tax cut giveaway to the rich scam he signed as president benefits him personally.
All this investigation into Trump’s business dealings might not connect the dots for the Russian collusion “he’s a spy” narrative, so will we be allowed to change the subject if/when provable allegations of Trump family grifter financial fraud are uncovered?
The world’s oligarchs routinely hide their wealth from governments to hoard their own stashes cash from becoming tax revenues. At the same time, these oligarchs flood the US electoral system with “dark money.” Now one of those oligarchs is in the White House. Shouldn’t we know more about his money and who he is beholden to?