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Trump lost $1 billion over 10 years, New York Times report shows

So much for Trump’s brand as a savvy, self-made business leader.

Donald Trump at a signing for his book Trump: Surviving at the Top, circa October 1990, in New York City. That year, he reported some $250 million in losses to the IRS.
Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

We just got more information on President Donald Trump’s taxes, and what we’re seeing doesn’t paint a picture of a wildly successful business leader. In fact, quite the opposite: Trump lost more than $1 billion over the course of the decade in the 1980s and ’90s.

Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig at the New York Times on Tuesday published a blockbuster report providing insight into Trump’s business practices and taxes from 1985 to 1994. The report is based on printouts from his official IRS tax transcripts and figures from his federal tax form the Times obtained from an unnamed source with legal access to the information. Buettner and Craig went on to match those printouts to individual filings in the public, anonymized reports of the top earners that the IRS publishes each year.

Trump reported losing $46.1 million from his “core businesses” (meaning casinos, hotel, and apartment building retail space) in 1985 and kept losing money the years after, totaling $1.17 billion by 1994. Because of the losses, he avoided paying any income taxes in all but two years — in 1987, when he paid $124,344, and in 1988, when he paid $1.4 million after he recorded a $67.1 million salary stemming from a deal to buy the Taj Mahal casino. (The IRS could have changed his tax bills later because of audits.)

The Times story paints a picture of an ambitious businessman whose public boasts of his successes often did not match what was going on behind the scenes. He would borrow tens of millions of dollars to take big risks and subsequently incur hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, which he would then use to avoid paying taxes. And as the Times notes, because the money often belonged to banks and bond investors who lent him money, Trump’s standard of living didn’t take a hit. Trump would also buy stock in a company, publicize that he was considering buying the company to pump up its stock price, and then later sell his shares without ever taking over the company.

Of all media publications, the Times has been most successful at digging into Trump’s taxes. In October 2016, it obtained information from Trump’s 1995 tax returns showing he declared a $916 million loss that year, which could have allowed him to legally avoid paying federal income taxes for nearly two decades. And in October 2018, the Times outlined how Trump and his family, including his father, Fred Trump, engaged in schemes to avoid and lower taxes throughout the years.

Trump has made a habit of inflating his wealth and exaggerating his business prowess over the years, and since he entered the political arena, the matter has been subject to an increased level of public scrutiny. The president has refused to release his tax returns — a presidential tradition meant to improve public transparency dating back to Richard Nixon — and is currently locked in a battle with House Democrats to turn them over.

The information the Times uncovered doesn’t shed light on the years that Democrats are looking for — they’re trying to get six years of Trump’s most recent tax returns. But they do hint at why Trump may be so reluctant to hand them over: They may show that his financial situation is not what he paints it as.

Trump appears to have had a rough go of things, business-wise, during the early parts of his career

After comparing Trump’s tax information with those of other high-income earners, the Times estimated that he “appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.” Their report outlines multiple instances where Trump’s business ventured incurred major losses. Here are a few:

  • In 1990 and 1991, Trump lost more than $250 million each year, double the losses of the nearest taxpayers reported to the IRS those years. That appears to be tied, in part, to the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino, which opened in 1990 with more than $800 million in debt.
  • Trump brandished his reputation as a business leader to buy into stocks, suggest publicly that he was going to take over the company he’d bought into to move the stock price up, and then sell the stock — for a profit — without ever actually making the acquisition. It worked for a while; for example, he did it with United Airlines in 1987 and with Hilton Hotels, Gillette, and Federated Department Stores in 1988. But eventually, investors caught on, and the tactic stopped working.
  • 90 percent of Trump’s total wages from a 10-year period came in 1988, when he made $67.1 million in salary. That stemmed from a deal with media mogul Merv Griffin, who agreed to pay Trump $63 million to buy out Trump’s contract to manage the construction of the Taj Mahal casino and settle a dispute between the two.
  • Trump reported $52.9 million in interest income in 1989, much more than he did in other years. The Times was not able to identify where that came from.
  • While Trump was losing tens of millions of dollars in 1990 and 1991, his father, Fred Trump, made money. But his only loss was an investment in an endeavor of his son’s.
  • Trump was publicly bragging about making money while he was actually losing it. He said that 1990 had been “good financially” while reporting negative $400 million in adjusted gross income on his tax returns that year.

According to the Times, Trump’s team has offered shifting responses on his tax information. Initially, a senior Trump official said that Trump got “massive depreciation and tax shelter because of large-scale construction and subsidized developments” and that’s why he’s called for a change in the tax laws. (Trump, of course, signed into law a new tax bill in 2017.) Charles J. Harder, a lawyer for Trump, told the Times that the information it had obtained was “demonstrably false” but did not cite any specific errors. He also said it was unfair to compare a real estate developer’s taxes to other taxpayers’.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted in defense of his tax practices, saying that real estate developers were “entitled to massive write offs and depreciation” that would show tax losses “in almost all cases.” He also slammed the Times report as a “highly inaccurate Fake News hit job!”

Meanwhile, #BillionDollarLoser, #BiggestLoserTrump, and “The Art of the Deal” trended on Twitter.

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