President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during a news conference at the White House, Sept. 27, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during a news conference at the White House, Sept. 27, 2020, in Washington.

Nearly four years after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump first faced questions about his income tax returns, the issue has returned to the forefront of the 2020 election as Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden prepare for their first debate Tuesday night. 

The New York Times published a lengthy report online Sunday showing that Trump, a billionaire who often has boasted of his business acumen, paid $750 in U.S. income taxes in both 2016, the year he ran for the presidency, and 2017, his first year in office. 

The newspaper said it reviewed nearly two decades of Trump’s tax returns and that they showed that the real estate titan, reality TV show host and now politician lost hundreds of millions of dollars in his business deals that allowed him to write off income and pay nothing in taxes in 10 of the 15 years before he ran for the White House. In all, the newspaper said Trump paid no federal income taxes in 11 of the 18 years of returns its examined. 

Trump, unlike all other U.S. presidents in the last five decades, has refused to disclose his tax returns, saying they were under audit by the country’s tax agency, the Internal Revenue Service, although the IRS says that does not prohibit their disclosure by the taxpayer. 

Asked about the report, Trump called it “totally fake news.”

The New York Times reported that over the last 20 years: 

-After factoring in a large refund, his average federal tax bill was $1.4 million per year

-Mr. Trump had $73 million in revenue from abroad during his first two years in office

-The president has more than $400 million in debts, much of it coming due in the next four years

The Times said the returns it reviewed were “provided by sources with legal access to it,” and that it verified the information by comparing it to publicly available information and confidential records it had previously obtained.

President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a news conference at the White House, Sept. 27, 2020, in Washington.
NY Times: Trump Paid $750 in US Income Taxes in 2016, 2017
Trump, who has fiercely guarded his tax filings and is the only president in modern times not to make them public, paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the past 15 years

The Times reported that its review of Trump’s returns showed the years he paid no income taxes were largely because his declared losses were greater than his income in those years. 

Tax records are not public, but since the presidency of Richard Nixon, candidates have voluntarily released theirs to make public their financial dealings and address any questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“We are publishing this report because we believe citizens should understand as much as possible about their leaders and representatives — their priorities, their experiences and also their finances,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet wrote in a statement.

Trump broke the tradition during his 2016 election campaign, and said then that because his taxes were the subject of an IRS audit, he was not able to release them, while pledging to do so when he was allowed.

The IRS said at the time there was no such prohibition, and that filers were free to divulge their own returns.

“Almost every lawyer says, you don’t release your returns until the audit’s complete,” Trump said when he was challenged on the issue at a September 2016 debate.

He returned to that defense Sunday, telling reporters, “When you’re under audit, you just don’t release them.”  He pledged again to make the records public at some point.

“But I will tell you that I look forward to releasing that. I look forward to releasing many things. I'm going to release many things, and people will be really shocked,” Trump said.

The Times said it summarized its findings in a letter to Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten, who responded that “most, if not all, of the facts appear to be inaccurate.”

“Over the past decade, President Trump has paid tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government, including paying millions in personal taxes since announcing his candidacy in 2015,” Garten said in a statement, according to the newspaper.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech on the Supreme Court at The Queen Theater, Sept. 27, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.

Biden did not make any public comment about Trump’s taxes Sunday, but like Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, the former Vice President has challenged Trump to make his tax returns public.

In July, Biden wrote, “The American people deserve to know what Donald Trump is hiding in his tax returns.”

Biden, who served as vice president for eight years and has made his tax returns  public, has on his campaign website copies of his state and federal returns from 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Those returns, filed jointly with his wife, Jill, show the couple owed $1.5 million in federal taxes in 2018. That figure was $3.7 million in 2017, and in 2016, the last full year Biden was vice president, the couple owed $93,339 in federal taxes.

FILE - U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement late Sunday saying the Times report shows the need for lawmakers to be allowed access to Trump’s taxes for an oversight audit, and highlighted a provision in a bill the House passed last year that would make presidential disclosures of their personal and business tax returns mandatory.  The measure was referred to the Senate Finance Committee with no further action.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said in response to the legislation last year that House Democrats were seeking Trump’s tax information for political purposes and should leave auditing responsibilities to the IRS.

“What they are interested in is using their oversight authority to collect as much information about this President’s finances as they can get their hands on,” Grassley said.

A list of debate topics released last week ahead of Tuesday’s presidential debate did not include any specific mention of the tax issue, but given its history in recent elections the Times reporting makes its inclusion in Tuesday’s event likely.