Over the weekend, the New York Times revealed that Donald Trump may have avoided paying taxes for 18 years by losing nearly $1 billion through his casinos in 1995.
Trump and his surrogates did not deny the report. Instead, they used it to argue that Trump is brilliant. Trump surrogate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told CNN that “the reality is this is part of our tax code. The man’s a genius.” Trump argued on Twitter that the revelation shows “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.” All of this echoed Trump’s comments at the first presidential debate, when he said he would be “smart” for not paying taxes.
On Monday’s The Late Show, Stephen Colbert mocked the argument: “Yes! Only a genius could lose a billion dollars running a casino.”
Giuliani also argued on Meet the Press that Trump isn’t the only one dodging taxes: “A lot of the people that are poor take advantage of loopholes and pay no taxes. Those are loopholes also, and they pay no taxes.”
Colbert mocked this too: “Yeah, those crafty poor people. You know, those poor people with their loopholes — and don’t get me started on the cunning homeless who have found a way around property tax.”
As Matt Yglesias pointed out for Vox, it doesn’t take a genius to do what Trump did. Trump could only leverage his $1 billion loss — which added up to nearly 2 percent of all net operating losses in the US in 1995 — because he is rich. Yglesias explained:
The truth is that it doesn’t take a genius to lose a billion bucks. Nor does it take a genius to do what the New York Times suggested Trump did and use a single year’s worth of bad business moves to wipe out more than a decade in taxes. There are a lot of complicated accounting shenanigans involved in commercial real estate taxation, but the particular move the Times is suggesting is very simple.
It’s just not one ordinary middle-class families can take advantage of.
If ordinary Americans take a bath on a bad real estate investment — as happened to millions of Americans during the housing crash of 2007-’09 — but are lucky enough not to lose their job to boot, then they still have to pay taxes on their income. They can’t say the real estate loss “cancels out” the money they made at work. Not because they’re not geniuses, but because it’s illegal.
At the very least, being able to get away with a $1 billion loss is something almost no American can relate to. And being able to leverage that $1 billion loss to avoid paying taxes is definitely not something an everyday voter will relate to. As Colbert said, “the idea that Trump hasn’t paid taxes nearly 20 years is bound to be unpopular with what’s the word, uh, people.”