Far from being a self-made man who built a business empire with just a tiny, $1 million loan from dad, Donald Trump is in fact the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars from his father in the 1990s — gifts that were mostly heavily disguised to avoid taxes, and some of which appear to have been outright fraudulent.
That’s the inescapable conclusion of an epic New York Times investigation into the president’s finances that’s based on “tens of thousands of pages of confidential records — bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and canceled checks” including more than 200 tax returns from Donald’s father Fred Trump and various companies and trusts he set up.
But what the Times does not have is what the American people have become accustomed to getting from their presidents — recent personal tax information in the form of returns. Close scrutiny given to Fred Trump’s businesses reveals what appears to be a range of illegal activity. But since he passed away nearly 20 years ago and his main years of business activity ended before that, everything the Times has is fairly old, typically featuring matters for which the statute of limitations has expired and which no longer reflect the current state of Trump’s affairs.
But the fact that the president appears to have been involved in serious financial crimes in the past finally puts a very heavy finger on the most likely reason for his unprecedented lack of transparency — he didn’t magically stop committing crimes in the mid-1990s, he’s just been getting away with it in an era of reduced enforcement and he fears his documents wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.
As a candidate, Trump promised to release these documents. Now that he’s in office, Congress can make him. But congressional Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so. The American people, however, have a right to know whether or not the president is a crook. And the best way to find out is either for the GOP to change its mind about this or for them to lose their majority so Democrats can do the job for them.
Donald Trump, white-collar criminal
The Times’s investigation is exhaustive and, to some extent, defies summary.
But it’s worth recounting perhaps the most egregious thing they uncovered as an illustrative example of the scope of crimes that serious forensic accounting work can reveal. This was basically a two-scams-for-the-price-of-one caper, in which Fred Trump formed a shell company secretly owned by his children. The company pretended to perform useful services for rent-stabilized buildings that Fred owned, allowing him to gift money to his children without paying gift tax, and then its bogus accounting was used to justify rent increases to regulators:
The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.
While this is a particularly shocking crime because of the way it was used to defraud thousands of tenants as well as tax authorities, the Times reveals that it was not by any means unique in terms of Trump cheating on his taxes. And more strikingly, even before the Times’s investigation, we had numerous examples of Trump operating as a habitual criminal.
He got his start as a celebrity after the New York Times published an article detailing federal housing discrimination charges brought against him and his father. The charges were, ultimately, settled without admission of fault — something that would be a pattern for Trump over the years.
That his first foray into the real estate business involved criminal acts didn’t stop him from continuing in that business. When he later branched out into casinos, he got caught accepting an illegal loan from his father to stay afloat and got off with a slap on the wrist. He was allowed to continue in that business as well.
From his empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos to racial discrimination in his apartments to Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases to Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed.
When he was caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss, he paid a fine. There was no sense that this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law, and certainly no desire to take a closer look at his various personal and professional connections to the Mafia.
Even as late as the post-election transition period, Trump was allowed to settle a lawsuit about defrauding customers of his fake university rather than truly face the music. (Interestingly, the fact that the university was fake was not, itself, actionable fraud at all.)
One of Trump’s real insights in life was to see this bug in the system. When it comes to these kinds of crimes, it’s typically in government officials’ interest to agree to a settlement that gives them positive headlines and raises some cash while letting them move on to the next investigation.
But while these decisions can make sense individually, they let serial offenders repeat their crimes over and over again. Meanwhile, throughout the decades of Trump’s rise, the legal climate has only gotten more permissive.
Trump’s tax returns likely won’t stand up to scrutiny
In response to the Times’s investigation, the White House put out a statement that was full of bluster about the many wonderful things Trump has achieved as president but that did not deny any of the specific facts alleged.
Instead, press secretary Sarah Sanders merely observed that “many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions.”
It’s not entirely clear that the IRS did review all of these transactions, but it’s unquestionably true that Trump, in some sense, got away with it. The truth is that lots of people get away with lots of crimes and that doesn’t make it okay. About 40 percent of murders went unsolved in the United States in 2016, which is a very typical number. The IRS, unfortunately, is no more perfect in its work than any other law enforcement agency.
And as a brilliant ProPublica exposé published a couple of days before the Times’s investigation showed, the IRS has been starved of resources in recent years, making it even harder for them to catch rich tax cheats.
This was not, to be clear, a case of austerity imposed by budgetary necessity. The IRS believes that business owners like Trump illegally underpay taxes by about $125 billion per year, based on macroeconomic estimates. Investing in catching those tax cheats would pay off easily, but congressional Republicans haven't wanted to do it because, arguably, they think it’s good that rich business owners are able to get away with cheating on their taxes.
But this also gives tax-cheating business owners very good reason to fear transparency and disclosure. While the IRS is relatively unlikely to get a hard, rigorous look at any particular rich person’s complicated tax submissions, the president of the United States would find his finances heavily scrutinized in the press and by Congress.
Trump got away with tax evasion during an era of generally more rigorous enforcement. It’s very unlikely that he simply stopped doing it during the more recent years when enforcement got laxer. If he disclosed his tax returns, we would find out about whatever scams he’s been running. That’s why he doesn’t want us to see them and that’s why we need to see them.
Republicans are covering for Trump’s shady finances
Trump’s tax returns seem, in many ways, like the Chekhov’s gun of our current political moment.
They initially became a subject of public conversation back when the universal assumption was that Trump wasn’t serious about running for president. The basic thinking was that any real presidential candidate would need to disclose his tax returns, and, obviously, would never do that because they would reveal that he was lying about his net worth — something “everybody” in sophisticated business and media circles already knew.
But, of course, Trump did run, which again simply led to speculation that he would drop out before needing to release his returns. But then he started winning primaries. And while his Republican adversaries wielded the tax return issue against him, he fought back furiously. The focus quickly became the entertaining nature of Trump’s feuds with other high-profile conservatives.
Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2016
Mitt Romney didn't show his tax return until SEPTEMBER 21, 2012, and then only after being humiliated by Harry R! A bad messenger for estab!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
When Trump became the Republican nominee, he started promising he would release his tax returns at some hypothetical future point when a mysterious audit was completed.
Existing law gives the congressional tax-writing committees the authority to obtain and disclose individuals’ tax returns if there is a legitimate public purpose for doing so. Congress could have done this at any point during the general election campaign.
Nevertheless, even though a fairly large number of congressional Republicans declined to endorse Trump in 2016, they all wanted him to do well in the election (if for no other reason to avoid down-ballot losses). So they allowed him to move forward with an unprecedented lack of financial disclosure.
Once he won the election, the case for oversight became stronger, but Republicans who’d once criticized or distanced themselves from Trump became uniformly devoted to the cause of covering for him. Plus, Republicans have uniformly resisted Democratic efforts to force disclosure.
We won’t really know why Trump is hiding his returns until he stops hiding them. But the message of the Times’s investigation is fairly clear: He’s a guy with a track record of doing illegal things with his taxes. That, rather than some vague sense of embarrassment, is probably what he wants covered up.
And while congressional Republicans may tell themselves these returns are no big deal, the truth of the matter is that they have no idea how serious the crimes are that they’re helping Trump hide — in part because the GOP has, as a policy matter, decided that it’s good when rich people cheat on their taxes.
In the real world, however, cheating on taxes is bad. It’s a contributor to inequality, higher interest rates, weaker public services, and a range of other social news. And despite Republicans’ best efforts, it’s still illegal. We need to know if the president has been breaking the law, and all it would take is a congressional committee vote. But to get that vote, we’re going to need a new Congress.