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5 things to consider about Trump’s tax returns ahead of the debates

Nicole Goodkind
·5 mins read

President Donald Trump paid just $750 in income taxes the year he entered the White House, far less than any recent sitting president and about the same amount that a single worker who made $18,000 would be expected to pay. According to a report by the New York Times, the president didn’t pay any taxes during 11 of the last 18 years, largely due to huge business losses. 

The investigative report explains why Trump has been so reluctant to share his tax returns with the American public—his large losses directly contradict the image he’s projecting to the public as a successful businessman and his liberal use of write-off tactics (which are potentially unlawful, according to some legal experts) paint a picture of someone who doesn’t respect the system. 

The president has long told the American people that he has no problem exploiting the IRS to get ahead. During his first presidential debate in 2016, Trump clearly stated that he would “take advantage of the laws of the nation.” Not paying taxes, he said, made him “smart.” 

Still, the president has criticized his predecessor for paying far more than he did. “@BarackObama who wants to raise all our taxes,” Trump tweeted in 2012, “only pays 20.5% on $790k salary. Do as I say not as I do.”

The president defended his tax practices yesterday. “The Fake News Media, just like Election time 2016, is bringing up my Taxes & all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information & only bad intent,” the president tweeted, though he didn’t refute any of the specifics. His advisors, meanwhile, pointed out that the news was released suspiciously close to the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Below are five important takeaways from the New York Times report, many of which will likely be brought up at the debate Tuesday evening. 

The president is in a lot of debt, and it’s due soon

Trump is in hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, and he’s expected to repay that money soon. Based on returns, the Times estimated that the president owes about $421 million in personally-guaranteed loans, most of that money is due by 2024 (which would be the last year of a second term in office). The IRS is investigating a tax rebate of $72.9 million, and if their investigation turns against Trump he could have to return all or some of that money, with penalties and interest. Finally, the president owes a $100 million mortgage on Trump Tower due in 2022. 

His business expenses are precarious 

Seventy thousand dollars for hairstyling, $2.2 million for his home, Seven Springs estate in Westchester County even though his 2017 tax plan allowed $10,000 in property tax write offs a year. He also wrote off aircraft and plane rides and his golf courses. The president appears to have taken a liberal understanding of what a tax write-off entails, some of which tax courts have repeatedly rejected.

The president has received more money from foreign sources and interest groups than we knew

According to the Times, since 2015, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has received a $5 million per year jump in membership. The president’s companies have produced a number of overseas projects and received $3 million from the Philippines, $2.3 million from India and $1 million from Turkey. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, meanwhile, spent nearly $400,000 at the president’s Washington D.C. hotel in 2017. 

He may have paid his family members “consultancy fees” to reduce taxes

The president wrote off more than $25 million in “consultancy fees” which went largely unexplained in his filings. He did not list who these consultants were, but in many cases the amount paid out matches exactly what his daughter, Ivanka Trump, claimed as income on her own tax returns. Ivanka Trump’s tax returns showed $747,622 in payments from a consulting group that she co-owns. The president’s tax filings show the same amount paid out to someone who consulted on two hotel projects. Because Ivanka was on the staff of the companies at the time, there are some questions as to whether she could be considered an independent contractor and whether her fees could be written off. 

This isn’t normal

Wealthy Americans have resources, a team of accountants and consultants, on their side to figure out how to best toe the line of legality when it comes to paying taxes and get away with paying less. It’s also significantly more difficult for the IRS to go after these people, and so often they don’t.

The IRS audits the working poor at about the same rate that it audits the 1%, and spokespeople have admitted that it’s easier to retrieve money from lower-income Americans than it is from the wealthy. The president himself signed a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill into law in 2017 that benefited corporations and the wealthy more than working-class and low-income Americans. The CARES act, which was signed into law this year as relief from the COVID-19 pandemic also included a number of breaks for the wealthy. The richest 400 families in the U.S. pay a lower tax rate than the middle class.

But among his wealthy peers Trump is still an outlier. While the top 1% of Americans have low effective tax rates—just 26% for in 2015—they still pay billions in personal income tax every year. In 2016, the top 1% of taxpayers paid $538 billion in federal income tax, more than the bottom 90% combined.

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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com