(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In a tour de force of hard won reporting, the New York Times has put numerical clothing on what we’ve known about President Donald Trump for decades — that, at best, he’s a haphazard businessman, human billboard and serial bankruptcy artist who gorges on debt he may have a hard time repaying.
The Times, in a news story published Sunday evening that disclosed years of the president’s tax returns, also put a lot of clothing on things we didn’t know. Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he was elected president, and the same amount the following year, when he entered the White House. In many years recently he hasn’t paid anything at all. He has played so fast and loose with the taxman that he’s entangled in an audit. He paid his daughter Ivanka lush consulting fees that he deducted as a business expense even though she helped him manage the Trump Organization. And he’s taken questionable tax write-offs on everything from getting his hair coifed to managing his personal residences.
Step away from the tragicomic tawdriness and grift that the tax returns define, however, and focus on what they reveal about Trump as the most powerful man in the world and occupant of the Oval Office.
Due to his indebtedness, his reliance on income from overseas and his refusal to authentically distance himself from his hodgepodge of business, Trump represents a profound national security threat – a threat that will only escalate if he’s re-elected. The tax returns also show the extent to which Trump has repeatedly betrayed the interests of many of the average Americans who elected him and remain his most loyal supporters.
I have some history with Trump and his taxes. Trump sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” claiming the book misrepresented his track record as a businessman and lowballed the size of his fortune. He lost the suit in 2011. During the litigation, Trump resisted releasing his tax returns and other financial records. My lawyers got the returns, and while I can’t disclose specifics of what I saw, I imagine that Trump has always refused to release them because they would reveal how robust his businesses and finances actually are and shine a light on some of his foreign sources of income. The Times has now solved that problem for us.
According to the Times, Trump has about $421 million in debts which he has personally guaranteed and which are coming due over the next several years. This is consistent with earlier reporting about how much debt he carries, a chunk of which could be gleaned from the personal financial disclosures he is required to file with the federal government. But Trump’s overall indebtedness is greater than the Times tally, I believe.
Russ Choma reported in Mother Jones last summer that Trump’s debts were nearly $500 million and would come due in relatively short order, pressuring the president’s finances. But Trump’s debts are even bigger than that, and he’s worked hard to keep them hidden for decades. Dan Alexander, a senior editor at Forbes, has been covering Trump’s business interests since 2016 and has a new book out about the president’s financial conflicts of interest, “White House Inc.” Alexander, in a helpful tally he shared Sunday evening, estimates Trump’s total indebtedness to be about $1.1 billion. Now that’s more like it.
Trump has been bloviating about being worth $10 billion ever since he entered the 2016 presidential race, a figure that simply isn’t true. He’s worth a fraction of that amount, and the larger his indebtedness becomes, the more strain it puts on his assets. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a particularly brutal toll on the sectors in which the Trump Organization operates — real estate, travel and leisure. If Trump is unable to meet his debt payments, he’s either going to have to sell assets or get bailed out by a friend with funds. Trump has never liked to sell anything, even when it’s hemorrhaging money. So if he’s tempted to save himself by getting a handout, that makes him a mark.
If Trump was still just a reality TV oddity, that wouldn’t be earthshaking. But he’s president, and the trade-offs someone like him would be willing to make to save his face and his wallet taint every public policy decision he makes – including issues around national security. If Vladimir Putin, for example, can backchannel a loan or a handout to the president, how hard is Trump going to be on Russia? Not that we should worry about Trump’s relationship with Putin. That’s just a hypothetical question.
Trump’s own history of avoiding tax payments – and often paying nothing -- is the other issue that should alarm the president’s supporters. Trump and the Republican Party engineered a massive tax cut in 2017 that largely benefitted the most affluent Americans and the largest corporations in the U.S. Now we learn that the president who pushed a tax cut that didn’t deliver the economic stimulus he claimed it would, but feathered the nests of the most privileged, has rarely paid taxes in recent years.
Trump paid $750 in taxes the year he was elected! That’s way less than the $130,000 in hush money he paid Stormy Daniels. In 2012, Trump criticized Barack Obama for “only” paying $161,950 in taxes. That’s a lot more than $750 too! And it’s a lot more than the $0 in taxes Trump frequently paid.
Trump even paid far less than his really wealthy buddies. As Times reporter David Leonhardt noted, “Over the past two decades, Mr. Trump has paid about $400 million less in combined federal income taxes than a very wealthy person who paid the average for that group each year.” It’s even more troubling when you compare Trump’s tax payments to an American household earning about $75,000 in 2016. Those folks paid about $14,000 in federal income taxes — which is also a lot more than $750.
Anyone buying Trump’s tripe about looking out for the little guy while he occupies the White House, or who takes their lives in their hands attending one of his Covid-19-defying campaign rallies, should bear in mind one of the many things the Times’s reporting substantiates: The president of the United States is in it only for himself, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. And he’s laughing at you, too.
(Corrects figure in seventh paragraph to $500 million.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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