He’s an actual taxpayer, after all.
Much of the news coverage of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return has focused on the tussle between MSNBC, which overhyped its live reveal of a mere two pages of tax material, and the White House, which stole the network’s thunder with its own pre-emptive release of the information. Overlooked: Trump actually paid a sizable tax bill for the year in question, at a tax rate higher than many other wealthy filers pay.
The suspicion, of course, is that Trump exploits various types of deductions and loopholes to skirt income taxes altogether. But he didn’t in 2005, at least. His leaked return for that year shows he earned about $153 million, putting him comfortably in the top niche of earners. He paid $38 million in federal income taxes, for a tax rate of 24%. That’s below the top income-tax rate, which was 35% for that year—but it’s still relatively high, given all the deductions and offsets available in the tax code.
Investors who earn income from long-term capital gains pay a lower tax rate—15%, and that’s before deductions. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, paid an effective tax rate of about 14% in 2010 and 2011, on income averaging about $18 million per year. His rate was lower than Trump’s because most of his income came from investments. On Trump’s 2005 return, he listed about $32 million in income from capital gains, or 21% of his total income. Most of the rest came from real-estate rents and royalties and Trump’s business operations, including activities related to his role on the TV show “The Apprentice.”
Many partners in private-equity firms also pay a lower tax rate than Trump did in 2005, because they benefit from the controversial “carried interest” provision that treats partnership income as if it’s a capital gain, to be taxed at the 15% rate. Trump has said such investors are “getting away with murder,” and vowed to kill the carried-interest loophole. But that hasn’t yet emerged in proposed legislation.
Even Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, pays a lower effective tax rate than Trump did in 2005. Obama and his wife Michelle earned $436,065 in 2015, and paid $81,472 in federal income taxes, for a tax rate of 18.7%. The Obamas had no capital gains and claimed a $3,000 loss, but cut their tax bill by donating $64,066, or 14.7% of their income, to charity, generating a large deduction.
Many unknowns on Trump’s taxes
Trump’s 2005 return still leaves much unknown. Since the leaked material only included the first two pages of his 1040 form, there’s no detail about the deductions Trump took, expenses he claimed or a precise breakdown of income sources. One curiosity is a $103 million loss Trump logged on the first page of the form, which lowered his adjusted gross income for the year to about $50 million. The White House said the writeoff was related to a construction loss, but we don’t know on what project, or when it occurred, since some losses can be carried forward from prior years.
There’s also the question of whether Trump’s 2005 tax return is typical, or anomalous. It’s possible Trump was at the peak of his earning power in 2005. The real-estate market was going gangbusters then, while Trump was starting to rake in licensing income derived from his fame as star of “The Apprentice,” which had been on-air for a year at that point.
Yahoo Finance has previously documented the extent to which Trump was able to cash in on his fame by charging licensing fees for the mere use of his name, on buildings and resorts constructed by others—without risking any of his own money developing projects himself. In a single deal negotiated in 2005, Trump was due to earn $19.3 million on one building constructed in Ft. Lauderdale. He had many other such deals underway at the time.
So it’s still possible Trump avoided taxes in prior and subsequent years, much as he did in 1995, according to documents published by the New York Times. Trump’s four business bankruptcies occurred in 1991, 1992, 2004 and 2009. The first two filings led to the huge writeoffs seen on Trump’s 1995 return. The last two undoubtedly produced additional writeoffs Trump would have claimed in later years. That’s why some critics speculate that Trump himself may have leaked the 2005 return, or authorized someone else to—it may be the biggest tax bill he ever paid, during a peak earning year that validates his claims of exceptional wealth. Even with the glimpse into Trump’s 2005 return, it’s fair to say his history as a taxpayer remains shrouded in mystery.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman