According to a piece posted late Saturday, an anonymous source mailed Susanne Craig, who has been a dogged investigator of Trump’s real-estate holdings, an envelope containing three pages of tax information from 1995: the first pages of his returns for New York, where he was a resident, and New Jersey and Connecticut, where he was required to file nonresident tax returns. The secret source, perhaps mischievously, used Trump Tower, the candidate’s home, as well as his business and campaign headquarters, for the return address.
Trump is the first Presidential nominee of a major party to refuse to release his tax returns since the seventies, when the practice became routine after questions were raised about Richard Nixon’s taxes. Trump has claimed that because he is under audit by the I.R.S., he cannot release his returns, though the I.R.S. has said that there is no prohibition against Trump making them public. At last Monday’s debate, on Long Island, Trump argued that his financial-disclosure form filed with the Federal Election Commission included more important and detailed information than his taxes. “You don’t learn that much from tax returns,” he said.
Not true. Trump’s full tax returns, which, according to a picture Trump once tweeted, are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of pages long, would reveal how much he donates to charity, what tax rate he pays, whether he pays federal taxes at all, and whether he receives income from foreign sources that could create conflicts of interest. They would shed light on whether his net worth is as high as he claims.
The Times’s bombshell about Trump’s taxes doesn’t answer all of these questions, but it does advance the story considerably. The reporters tracked down Trump’s Long Island tax preparer, Jack Mitnick, whose signature appears on one of the documents. “This is legit,” the eighty-year-old told the paper.
The giveaway for Mitnick was line 18 on the New York return, where Trump and his wife at the time, Marla Maples, declared their federal adjusted gross income: -915,729,293. Mitnick noticed that the first two digits of the eye-popping, near-billion-dollar loss were curiously misaligned. As he explained to the Times, his tax software in the mid-nineties couldn’t handle more than a seven-digit loss, so, after printing the document, the accountant ran the page through his typewriter and added the extra digits.
Most of the Times piece focuses on the analysis of tax experts, who conclude that by declaring such a staggering loss in 1995, Trump could have avoided paying federal taxes for eighteen years. As the Times notes, Trump may have been carrying over losses from the near-collapse of his empire in the early nineties, when he went on a buying spree that included Atlantic City casinos, the Plaza Hotel, Trump Air, and the Princess, his twenty-nine-million-dollar yacht, which he was later forced to sell at a loss.
Back then, when he was on the edge of personal bankruptcy (his companies have declared bankruptcy four times), Trump’s future was in the hands of the numerous banks to whom he owed money. The bankers made a fateful decision: they needed Trump, whose name was on everything he owned, to survive financially in order to maintain the value of his assets as they sold them off. In effect, despite Trump’s poor business decisions, his skills as a self-promoter saved him and allowed him to climb out of bankruptcy.
Trump soon shifted the focus of his business ventures to full-time self-promotion. The 1995 tax documents are artifacts from a moment when Trump was about halfway between his old, failed career as a real-estate mogul and his newly emerging career as a brand that he licensed to properties around the world and as a personality that he monetized in TV deals, commercials, and get-rich-quick seminars.
Thanks to the quirks of the U.S. tax code, the staggering losses of his failures in the early nineteen-nineties may have helped Trump avoid federal taxes through his late-nineties comeback, the springboard that launched him into politics. The danger for Trump is not that the Times scoop exposes him as a rapacious capitalist who took advantage of the U.S. tax code. He essentially admitted, in the first debate, that there were years when he paid no federal taxes. The bigger threat to him is that the scoop reminds the public that Trump is not a great businessman, but he is a great con man—and his latest mark is the American voter.