From the moment in June 2016 that Donald Trump formally declared he was a candidate for president, the hue and cry went up from Democrats and others: Show us your taxes.
Three years later, at the start of another presidential election cycle, Trump’s taxes are still just as shrouded in secrecy as ever. If Trump has his way, and he has so far, it will stay that way. His acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, bluntly says as much.
Now, technically, there’s no legal requirement that a presidential candidate, or even a president, make public his taxes. It’s simply a matter of custom, courtesy and recent tradition, for candidates and presidents to do that. This is supposedly a nod to openness and transparency, nothing more.
There’s a century-old IRS provision law that allows several congressional committee chairs to request an individual’s tax information for investigative purposes. Democrats have pounced on this provision and have demanded to see Trump’s returns. Still no go. The duck, dodge and obfuscation are in full Trump mode.
Trump’s invisible taxes are a political tug of war for several very good reasons. He has been in business a very long time. His dealings span a dizzying range of enterprises from real estate to sports ownership. Along the way he’s gone global, with many attempts at dealing with a lot of global players, most specifically the Russians.
It’s this part of the Trump business machinations that has made his refusal to pony up his taxes deeply suspect. The question is: what, if anything, is he trying to hide, and if there’s something there to hide, the scent is clearly of something illegal that Trump doesn’t want to come out.
He has long and loudly bragged that he’s a billionaire, a real estate magnate and someone who you want to do business with. Someone whose name is branded and worth gold to anyone who buys into it.
His tax filings, though, may paint a far different picture of what he is really worth, and whether he’s the super-rich guy that he purports to be. If he isn’t, this could have a disastrous effect on his image, persona, and ultimately his bottom line. After all, if the guy’s business riches are a mirage and a con, who’d want to drop more dollars into it?
There’s also the question of his taxes, or rather how much did and does he really pay? Corporations have an endless array of dodges to knock down or outright avoid paying a nickel in taxes. From the skimpy returns that have been wrung out of Trump and made public, there’s strong evidence that he has seized on every loophole, legitimate and questionable, if not outright fraudulent, to pare down to almost nothing his tax payments.
He’s done that by setting up a tangle of corporate front and dummy operations as well as taken piles of loans to claim that his businesses have been money losers, and thus escape tax liability. There’s also evidence that Trump has shamelessly manipulated the tax laws on nonprofits to use his foundation as a piggy bank for his businesses while giving almost nothing to charitable causes, not named Trump.
Trump hides behind the vagueness of public disclosure on taxes in another way. He doesn’t have to tell who his investors are. This brings it back full circle to the Russians, or more particularly, which Russians have invested in his businesses and why.
There have been some slips of the tongue from Trump family members about the Russians being involved in Trump’s business operations, but those slips have quickly been walked back.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller zeroed in on this point in his hunt to get Trump’s taxes to see what if any dots could be connected here, and whether Trump broke any laws in his business dealings with Russia. What if anything Mueller found in whatever tax information he got from Trump is anybody’s guess since his report has been effectively stonewalled by the White House.
Trump has boasted that he loves depreciation. His point being that those who are trying to nail him as a tax cheat and a crook are barking up the wrong tree. He’s paid little if no taxes because he’s able to take the legally allowed write-offs, mainly depreciation, for his real estate holdings.
And all those loans also can be chalked up as losses and as legitimate write offs. Since no one has been able to take a look at those taxes to see if that’s true, we still only have his word to go on that that’s actually the case. Short of a direct court order for Trump to release his taxes, and the loss of an appeal of that order to the Supreme Court, it will stay that way. That is even more reason why we need to see what’s in Trump’s taxes.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “The Russia Probe: What Did Trump Know, And When Did He Know It?” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.