Why Trump didn’t want you to see his tax returns

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What’s he been hiding?

We’re finally beginning to find out, now that the House Ways and Means Committee has released six years’ of Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Trump’s returns are complex and it could take weeks for experts to suss out whether Trump cheated, or used overly aggressive techniques to lower his tax bill. The committee didn’t release any tax documents for some of Trump’s business entities, so mysteries could remain.

But a few things are quickly apparent from assessing the top-line figures in Trump’s returns. When Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015, he characterized himself as a builder and businessman who could go to Washington and fix what politicians had wrecked. Trump’s self-declared status as a political outsider and business titan were crucial elements of his appeal to voters.

But Trump’s tax returns suggest that his businesses are perennial money-losers, while raising questions about how he manages to finance a gilded lifestyle. For each of the six years from 2015 through 2020, one of Trump’s main business entities, DJT Holdings, lost millions of dollars. The smallest loss was $34 million in 2015. The largest was $64 million in 2016. Combined, those losses total $314 million from 2015 through 2020.

This is not an entirely new revelation. Glimpses into Trump’s finances have long revealed that Trump benefits handsomely from losses incurred in one part of his business portfolio, to offset gains elsewhere and dramatically lower his tax bill. Documents leaked to the New York Times in 2016 showed that a $916 million loss Trump declared in 1995 lowered his tax bills for nearly two decades. As Trump began to earn millions from The Apprentice TV show in the 2000s, losses from teetering real-estate ventures, such as his Atlantic City casinos, helped keep his income tax payments low. These practices are generally legal, though some tax experts think Trump could have stretched legal boundaries.

U.S. House Ways and Means Committee staff members transport boxes of documents after a committee meeting to discuss former President Donald Trump's tax returns on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. House Ways and Means Committee staff members transport boxes of documents after a committee meeting to discuss former President Donald Trump’s tax returns on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

When Trump ran for president in 2016, he said he’d release his tax returns once the IRS finished auditing them. Of course Trump never released any tax returns, and an IRS audit wouldn’t have prohibited him from doing so in the first place. The House Ways and Means Committee finally got Trump’s returns from the IRS on December 20, after Trump lost a four-year legal battle to keep them private. Judges all the way up to the Supreme Court found Congress had a right to see the returns, since it could contribute to legislative activity.

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If Trump had released his 2015 return while running for president in 2016, journalists and political opponents would have drilled into what appear to be vast business and personal losses. His return for DJT Holdings shows gross receipts of $25.1 million but a net loss of $34.1 million. It’s plausible for a company to have losses greater than revenues, because tax law allows carryover losses from prior years. But it’s an awfully bad look to be telling voters you’re a business maven while reporting sizeable losses to the IRS.

The 2015 individual return for Trump and his wife Melania further undercuts his business cred. Trump’s adjusted gross income in 2015 was – $31.8 million. In other words, he supposedly lost $31.8 million, because he’s allowed to claim losses from his businesses against his personal income. His taxable income was $0 and he owed $0 in federal income tax. It’s difficult for ordinary workers earning most of their income from labor to declare negative income, unless they have capital losses or other types of losses in excess of what they earn from their employer.

Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, released her 2015 tax return on August 12, 2016. It showed that she and her husband Bill Clinton had an adjusted gross income of $10.6 million, and paid $3.6 million in federal income tax, for an effective tax rate of 34%. While the return showed that the Clintons are wealthy, they claimed no arcane tax breaks except for a tiny $3,000 capital loss. Trump was the candidate going after meat-and-potatoes heartland voters in 2016, yet Clinton’s taxes were far more relatable.

DJT Holdings declared business losses for each of the next five years, through 2020. On Trump’s personal returns, his adjusted gross income was negative for three years and positive for two. During the six years combined, those business losses drove Trump’s adjusted gross income – $53.2 million, or a $53.2 million loss. His taxable income was $0 for four out of six years.

Trump did face one snag in terms of federal income tax payments—the alternative minimum tax, which raises the tax obligation for some filers, mostly wealthy, who use deductions to significantly shave their taxable income. For four of those six years, the AMT kicked in and raised Trump’s federal tax bill. Including regular income-tax payments and the AMT, it appears Trump paid about $4.1 million in federal income taxes from 2015 through 2020.

If voters had been able to see several years’ of Trump’s tax returns during the 2020 presidential election, it would have appeared that Trump’s businesses lose money every year and Trump as an individual loses more money than he earns, on balance. That’s not the way it really works. Trump has a few very large sources of regular income, such as millions of dollars in interest each year, and capital gains that may come from myriad deals to license the Trump name. That income appears to be consistent and recurring, while losses could occur in a given year or two, but be spread across many years, for tax purposes.

Trumps sometimes bragged about the low taxes he paid, saying that aggressively whittling his tax bill makes him “smart.” Maybe so. It would be interesting to know if it makes him more, or less, electable.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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