Months after he said he would release his tax returns, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has decided that the American public doesn’t need to see how much (or little) he has paid in taxes until after the November elections, marking a shift in the vague promises he previously made to release the records to the public.
He solidified his position in an interview published by the Associated Press today, in which he said that “there’s nothing to learn from them.” Trump has also claimed that he is in the process of being audited by the IRS, and that releasing his returns for the year under audit would be imprudent, despite the agency confirming that being audited doesn’t legally interfere at all with the ability to release one’s tax records.
As far back as October 2015, Trump promised to release his tax documents. “I’m not going to say it, but at some point I’ll release it,” he said at the time. In that same interview, he also said, “I pay as little as possible, I’m very proud to tell you.”
In January, Trump said again that he would release his taxes soon. “We’re working on that now. I have big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we’ll be working that over in the next period of time,” he said. Months later, they still haven’t been released.
Then again on May 8, just days before his announcement that he wouldn’t release his returns, he said, “Sure. If the auditors finish. I’ll do it as fast as the auditors finish.You don’t learn much from tax returns. But I would love to give the tax returns. But I can’t do it until I’m finished with the audit.”
But how little does Trump actually pay in taxes? David Cay Johnston, who spent three decades covering Trump as he moved from one business venture to another, noted that in 1978 and 1979 the businessman had paid exactly $0 in taxes.
He further explained how wealthy Americans like Trump use the tax code to their advantage, writing:
It’s all about tax rules that require you to depreciate, or reduce, the value of buildings over time, even if the market value of the structures is going up. If your depreciation is greater than your traditional income from work and businesses, Congress lets you report negative income. If these paper losses are just a dollar more than traditional income, it wipes out your income taxes for the year.
If Trump’s returns show he has paid no income taxes in some years, that could be a reason he has not yet released details.
Congress says most Americans can deduct no more than $25,000 of real estate depreciation against their income. But if you work two days a week managing real estate and own enough that the depreciation exceeds your salary and other income, Congress lets you live income-tax-free. And for as long as you keep buying buildings and depreciating them, the tax does not come due.
There are numerous reasons why Trump wouldn’t want to release his taxes. First, he has amassed his fortune partly by using tax loopholes that allowed him effectively pay no income tax for years — possibly up to the present day. More recently, he changed his tune, saying, “I am willing to pay more, and you know what, the wealthy are willing to pay more.” America should be thankful Trump wants to pay more than… whatever he’s currently paying. It could be nothing at all.
Second, the tax returns could show that he has far less money than he claims. This possibility was seized upon by anti-Trump Republicans who have tried to coerce Trump into releasing his returns. During the opening shots of the fight against the racist billionaire’s takeover of the party, Mitt Romney raised the possibility, saying, “Either he’s not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn’t been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay.”
There is evidence to back up Romney’s claim. Forbes calculated Trump’s worth to be $4.5 billion at most. “Trump has filed statements claiming he’s worth at least $10 billion or, as he put in a press release, TEN BILLION DOLLARS (capitalization his). After interviewing more than 80 sources and devoting unprecedented resources to valuing a single fortune, we’re going with a figure less than half that–$4.5 billion, albeit still the highest figure we’ve ever had for him.”
Even harder to explain is the jump in Trump’s cash-on-hand. The National Review wrote that his organization showed documentation for cash and cash equivalents of $307 million in 2014. This year, that number jumped up to $793 million, sans documentation, making it difficult to believe that he actually has that much money. “I’m running for President,” said Trump in an interview with Forbes. “I’m worth much more than you have me down [for]. I don’t look good, to be honest. I mean, I look better if I’m worth $10 billion than if I’m worth $4 billion.”
Trump’s obstruction has not only served his purposes, but that of his likely rival, Hillary Clinton. During the Democratic debate in Brooklyn last month, she responded to a question about her speech transcripts with a criticism of other presidential candidates, namely Trump, who didn’t release their tax returns.
“There are certain expectations when you run for president,” said Clinton. “This is a new one but I will tell you this, there is a longstanding expectation that everybody running release their tax returns.”
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves during a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jake Parrish