The mythology surrounding Donald Trump’s wealth has always been suspect. The notion that the son of a fabulously wealthy New York real estate developer was somehow “self-made” or went out into the world with nothing more than a $1 million business loan and turned it into a multi-billion-dollar empire has long stretched credulity. But with this week’s report in The New York Times piecing together much of the historical record of Trump family finances, the tall tale has been laid bare for what it is — a complete sham on par with Trump University or Trump Taj Mahal junk bonds. It’s not just an Alternative Fact of the Week, it’s the alternative fact of a career.
In a nutshell, here’s what The Times discovered: Fred Trump was very, very good to his son Donald. Investigative reporters documented the transfer of assets valued at something north of $400 million in today’s dollars. But much more concerning is how he did it. A generous description would be: creatively. A more accurate might be that his elaborate tax avoidance efforts come close to, if not cross, the line of fraud.
Let’s see, there’s the classic transfer of wealth without bothering to pay gift taxes. There’s the undervaluing of real estate in order to pass properties down without tax exposure. And, in a particularly noteworthy move, there was the creation of “All County Building Supply & Maintenance,” a dummy corporation whose sole purpose appears to have been to siphon off profits from development projects to the Trump heirs. (With the bonus of facilitating the approval of rent increases in rent-controlled apartments.) Talking about being born with a silver spoon, Donald Trump’s was more like gilded — he was on the family payroll at 3 and a millionaire by 8, according to The Times, which reviewed more than 100,000 pages of records.
The White House response has been entirely predictable. President Trump described the coverage as a “hit piece” that is “old, boring and often told.” No doubt it’s old and boring to the president. He probably knows even juicier stuff that The Times didn’t uncover. But it doesn’t appear to be nearly as old and boring to city and state authorities in New York who are now looking into possible tax violations. The White House has denied any fraud or tax evasion took place. And, as one might expect, President Trump is still not inclined to release his tax returns to reveal his actual finances to all Americans — unlike his recent predecessors going back decades.
Perhaps the president just sees the whole tax avoidance thing, legal or other, as normal behavior in his tax bracket and his patently false claims about business success (such as it is after multiple bankruptcies) as just part and parcel of the public relations hyperbole that has long been the Trump standard operating procedure. He’s not just rich, he’s a billionaire. The economy is not simply doing well, it’s the best ever. His tax cut? The biggest ever. It’s just another episode of “The Apprentice” with its heightened realities and melodrama.
But here’s what the president’s behavior is actually telling the nation: Rich people cheat on taxes and don’t get caught. Lying in self-interest is perfectly acceptable. Paying a far smaller percentage of your income in taxes than working class Americans makes you smart, even if you appear to be breaking the law. It’s the P.T. Barnum School of Politics: Your 10-foot-tall Cardiff Giant petrified man is found to be a copy of a phony? Well, just charge your patrons to see the disputed statue and laugh all the way to the bank — or in this case, the next election.
All this can be horribly depressing to average Americans (AKA the “suckers”) who don’t stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars or have publicists and lawyers at their beck and call, or accountants devising elaborate schemes to shield them from shouldering their fair share of the taxes needed to pay and equip the military, finance the latest cancer research, protect the health of the nation’s air, land and water or address a multi-billion-dollar backlog of public infrastructure repair. But there is one possible silver lining. Baltimore’s own Rep. Elijah Cummings has taken note of all this, and he has some questions for Mr. Trump. That may seem irrelevant now, but should the Democrats win a majority in the House this November, Mr. Cummings would be in line to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Demanding a closer look at Mr. Trump’s finances would no doubt be high on his agenda, and he’d have the subpoena power to do it. Now that would be something that the Trump family might finally find taxing.
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