"The beauty of me is that I m very rich." Donald Trump said that in 2011, when he was talking about a White House run. In 2015 he took his ride down a golden escalator and made his super-patriot s promise to use his unmatched business skills to make America great again, as great as he was. Enough people believed it to win him the Electoral College (losing the popular vote) and the Oval Office.
Now that The New York Times has exposed 20 years worth of Trump tax records, the world knows that he is not quite so beautifully rich.
And the patriotic part? Instead of contributing a fair share of taxes to the country -- money that built the roads for his limo and keeps the skies safe for his jet, Trump paid nothing from 2010 to 2014, the Times reported. In 2015, as he was declaring he was worth more than $8 billion, he actually paid almost $642,000 in income taxes. But then in the year he gained office, the bottom line was $750.
You read that right. In 2016, Donald Trump threw $750 into the $1.7 trillion income tax pot that covered things like Head Start pre-schools and the salaries of soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. That amount would have covered two weeks of base pay for the lowest-ranked enlisted man or woman with $25 left over.
No wonder Trump, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, once allegedly said that those who die fighting for America are "suckers." (The writer, Jeffrey Goldberg, cited "four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day.") Trump has denied making the statement.
Trump long ago decided the world was divided into the suckers who lose and the smart guys who win. As the Times report on his taxes confirms, Trump and his team have invested enormous effort into making him at least appear to be a winner as, year after year, the businesses that he operated racked up great losses. Sometimes these deficits were offset by revenues from his television performances and shares in businesses operated by others. But by 2012, according to the Times, he was awash in red ink.
The paper s sprawling article can be hard to follow, especially as the Times team describes the way Trump used depreciation and losses to offset his liability. And after the report published, he called it "totally fake news," and "made up." The Trump Organization s lawyer, Alan Garten, told the Times that "most, if not all, of the facts appear to be inaccurate" and claimed that Trump s paid "tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government" over the past decade."
Even so, certain facts and incidents the Times reported are illuminating because they cut through the myth Trump has promoted about his business prowess.
Most noteworthy is a Manhattan development run by someone else -- the giant Vornado Realty Trust. The 30% share he secured in two office buildings after his partner sold Trump s stake to Vornado, over Trump s objection, nonetheless earned him reliable income year after year, according to the Times account. In comparison, much of what Trump has touched has turned into, well, the opposite of gold. His golf courses have lost him more than $300 million, the Times notes. The Trump hotel in Washington lost $55.5 million in two years of operation.
Altogether, the Trump who emerges from his tax records is the very same man who became notorious for not paying his bills and whose companies have declared bankruptcy multiple times.
Trump has never seemed capable of running complex businesses -- witness his failures with a Trump branded airline and many casinos -- and the record should have caused the country to doubt his ability to run something as vast at the United States government.
But he kept saying he was winner, and he had played one on his TV show "The Apprentice" for so long that nearly 63 million Americans expressed their confidence in him, with their votes.
What happens now that the man who seems to hate the masks that protect us from the coronavirus has been thoroughly unmasked for what he is? Those who long suspected the truth about Trump will find in this news an explanation for his tragic mishandling of the pandemic. For them, the over 7 million cases and more than 205,000 Covid-19 deaths are proof that Trump s only talent is for self-promotion.
Trump will likely ask the faithful, who apparently accepted his 2016 argument that his bankruptcies proved that he was a smart exploiter of the system, to accept something similar in 2020. I expect the President to say that his tax avoidance shows he s a brilliant businessman who gamed the system. He may even say that as a champion tax avoider, he s best positioned to fix the tax code for good.
Trump s base should abandon him now, and his re-election campaign should crash and burn. But does anyone expect that to happen? What if his fans have already factored in his huckster qualities? What if they like him precisely because he s a con man and they are more interested in throwing a wrench into politics than fixing it?
The true Trumpers adore him over regular politicians whom they suspect are equally untrustworthy but not as amusing. As long as he is in office, the President will keep complaining about the "fake news" and keep insisting that his bankruptcies and tax avoidance only prove that he s smart.
The problem for Trump is that last time around he squeaked into office while losing the popular vote by nearly three million. The Times report could push some fence sitters and yes, some who voted for him last time around, to deny him a win in November. Then Trump will face the reckoning with federal and state tax authorities, which he surely dreads more than Joe Biden.