Why we should all care about Trump’s tax returns by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Donald Trump smilesIt’s staggering that millions of voters are prepared to vote for Donald Trump with less information on what’s under his hood than they would ever accept from a used car salesman.

Since Watergate days when Richard Nixon sought to dispel the idea that he was a crook playing fast and loose with his taxes, all major party nominees have disclosed their tax returns as a gesture of transparency .  Tax returns seldom tell the whole story, but, as Mitchell Zuckoff wrote in Saturday’s New York Times,  they can provide important information to measure against campaign rhetoric.

Hillary Clinton, often criticized for her untrustworthiness , and Bill Clinton have shared their tax returns for every year going back to 1977. But not Donald Trump. And he is unlikely to do so, unless the negative consequences of withholding his returns were to exceed the benefits.

He now no longer hides behind a tax audit but claims releasing returns could cost him the election. Four years ago, Trump chided Romney for not releasing his returns. I wonder what those defending his right to withhold now would say if Hillary had done the same.

All pressure to date has been ineffective. Ron Fournier,  writing in The Atlantic, proposed that the news networks not cover Trump until he does. That’s not likely. The post-1963 Parkland Hospital lesson is to cover presidential candidates, and budget- strapped news media aren’t going to pay reporters without having them report something.

Perhaps at minimum they can stop describing Trump as a self-made billionaire, “ardent philanthropist” or using other terms that indicate measures of great success or generosity. They should use qualifiers such as “self-described” billionaire and “alleged” philanthropist. Without his tax records, we don’t know if anything he says about himself is true, and, given his track record, it may well be blue smoke and mirrors.

The press should not tire of the pursuit. If they stay with the story, even some of Trump’s unqualified supporters may begin to question his character and wonder if they’re just being played for suckers by another huckster.

From what we know, Trump is nowhere as wealthy as he claims to be. He claims he is worth ”in excess of $10 billion.“ Fortune in May wrote that he was worth $3.9 billion.  Bloomberg in July pegged him at  $2.9 billion.

Since his serial bankruptcies, Trump doesn’t actually build anything anymore. He licenses his name to others to put on their properties, and he collects management fees. His personal brand is his wealth and, according to Forbes, the value of his licensing income is $125 million not $3.3 billion.

Although Trump claims in his Federal Election Commission filing that his annual income is $557 million, Fortune estimates it at $160 million. And New York City officials said based on his filings he’s been receiving tax breaks for people making less than $500,000 per year.

It’s possible Trump pays no taxes and has avoided doing so for years. The Washington Post and Politico found in two different earlier decades he had paid nothing. The tax code provides lawful loopholes for property developers to use real estate depreciation rules and other business “operating losses” provisions. There are myriad tax games afoot in how he plays with his golf courses and “conservation easements.”

Self-dealing among his approximately 500 businesses could hide still more income. And what would his populist acolytes say about his use of Delaware holding companies, Cayman Islands and other offshore tax dodges or carried-interest tricks used by hedge fund managers? Make America great again? He may already be getting all our nation’s great public services [from defense to Medicare] for free. Is   his tab as citizen  something to be picked up by the little people?

How much does he really donate to charities? He’s cultivated the image of philanthropist, but he may well make no charitable contributions out of his own pocket. According to The Washington Post, his gaming charitable deductions are shocking.  Add to this information how much he writes off his lavish lifestyle as a business expense. How many of the perks he receives are reported as taxable income? Tax returns alone would not make this clear.

George Will in Real Clear Politics has  warned that Trump doesn’t want to release his tax returns “because he’s deeply involved with Russia.”  Dark Russian interests may well be silently bank-rolling his businesses. Indeed, the mysterious  roles of  campaign manager Paul Manafort and energy adviser Carter Page   suggest that, if Trump isn’t a Manchurian candidate, he may well be just a gold plated  dupe. If these allegations are not true,  he deserves to have the cloud removed. But until this is clarified, the press must dig deeper. Tax returns could disclose his partners and parties to whom he owes money, but it’s unlikely that dealings with either the Russian mafia [or American mobsters]  would result in the exchange of 1099 forms.

Nominees for ambassadorships and cabinet posts have their taxes and personal finances screened carefully. Shouldn’t the same standard apply to presidential candidates?  Shouldn’t Congress act on this? The Sunlight Foundation thinks so. Is it too late to have the Commission on Presidential Debates make release of returns a prerequisite for participation?

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify. “ Until we know what’s in Donald Trump’s tax returns, nothing he says about himself should be trusted. As one blog commenter said: “The ad writes itself. ‘Donald Trump: Cheats on his wives. Cheats on his taxes. Cheats on America.’ ”

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