WASHINGTON - Last week The New York Times published a detailed report about U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax returns -- the documents Americans file each year with the government that are used to calculate their income tax.
Unlike all other U.S. presidents in recent decades, Trump has declined to release his returns, saying that he cannot while he undergoes a long-running audit with federal tax authorities. The newspaper said it obtained years of Trump’s tax return data from sources who were legally allowed to view them but who wished to remain anonymous.
Here is a summary of the newspaper’s key findings and some questions raised by the disclosures.
What news did The New York Times uncover in its reports on the president's taxes?
In a report released the evening of September 27, The New York Times revealed that it had obtained what it described as “tax-return data extending over more than two decades for Mr. Trump and the hundreds of companies that make up his business organization, including detailed information from his first two years in office.”
The newspaper offered up a long list of details about the president’s finances, revealing that his business empire has, for years, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in losses that allowed him to reduce his income tax liability to zero in 10 of the last 15 years, and to a mere $750 in 2016, the year he won election, and 2017, his first year in the White House.
During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Trump said, “I paid millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars of income tax,” adding that “I paid $38 million one year, I paid $27 million one year.” However, he provided no documentation.
The paper also revealed that Trump has hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding debts coming due over the next few years -- debts that he has personally guaranteed. It laid out some questionable practices, such as paying his daughter Ivanka, an employee of his company, as an outside consultant, and then deducting the expenses as a cost of doing business. Other details included tens of thousands of dollars in tax write-offs associated with styling Trump’s hair for TV appearances.
Where did the newspaper obtain these records?
The Times has been very careful not to reveal much information about how its reporters came into possession of the president’s tax information. This includes refusing to publish or make available the source data on which its stories on the topic are based.
In a note accompanying the initial publication, Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, wrote, “We are not making the records themselves public because we do not want to jeopardize our sources, who have taken enormous personal risks to help inform the public.”
Why are the records just coming into public view now, after years of speculation about what's in them?
It is unclear why the president’s tax information was revealed to the Times now, though the proximity of the 2020 presidential election seems like a probable contributing factor.
Going back to the early 1970s, presidential candidates from both major parties have voluntarily released their tax returns to the public in order to demonstrate that they had no financial conflicts of interest that might affect their behavior in office, and no outstanding debts that could be used to exert pressure on them.
Early in his run for the presidency, Trump said that he would eventually release his returns, but has used the fact -- confirmed by the Times -- that he is under audit as an excuse to delay making them public. There is no legal barrier to an individual releasing tax returns that are being audited.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden this week released his 2019 tax returns showing that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, paid $299,346 in federal income tax on $944,737 in income.
The president’s returns have been the subject of much wrangling in both state and federal courts. After the administration declined to obey a federal law requiring it to release the returns after a formal request from Congress, Democrats sued the administration in a case that remains ongoing. Prosecutors in New York state are also fighting in court to get access to the president’s tax records.
What does the White House say about the newspaper's reporting?
The president’s first reaction to the Times story was to declare it “fake news,” as he does with much unfavorable media coverage. Trump and his spokespersons have declared that, contrary to the Times story, the president has paid “millions” of dollars in taxes over the years in question. However, the wording in those statements is often vague, and there has been little to no pushback from the administration on specific details of the story.
During his debate with Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump again insisted that he paid millions in federal income taxes for 2016 and 2017, and appeared to argue that to the extent he took action to lower his tax liability, it was legal.
“It was the tax laws-- I don't want to pay tax,” he said. “Before I came here, I was a private developer. I was a private business [person]. Like every other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws and that's what it is.”
What do Republicans and Democrats say about the reports?
Republicans in Congress were largely silent about the details in the Times report, but some were extremely angry that the information was provided to the newspaper in the first place.
Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxation issues, said, “While many critics question the article’s accuracy, equally troubling is the prospect that a felony crime was committed by releasing the private tax return information of an individual - in this case the president’s.” Brady and other senior Republicans called for an investigation to identify the paper’s source.
Democrats used the revelations to attack the president. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in interviews and on social media, declared the revelations of the president’s massive personal debts “a national security issue.” She also noted that the reports indicate Trump has paid far more in personal income taxes to foreign governments than he has to the United States.
“The President of the United States paid $750 in federal taxes,” she wrote on Twitter. “Yet he paid other countries more. What leverage do they have over him? What is he hiding? The people have a right to know.”
What do tax experts say about the disclosures in the reporting?
Tax experts may have been among the Americans least surprised by the revelations in the New York Times report. It has long been understood that the U.S. tax code is complex enough to allow the wealthy many opportunities to avoid paying what most would consider a fair share of their income. Nowhere is that more true than in the president’s chosen field of real estate development.
“I don't think, actually, all that much is new to people who really follow the news,” said C. Eugene Steuerle, institute fellow and Richard B. Fisher chair at the non-partisan Tax Policy Center in Washington. “There were some particular details that were enticing, you know, like the personal expenses for getting a new hairdo, that titillate. But many of those were not big picture issues. I mean, the big picture issue is the extent to which the president, but as it turns out, many real estate developers, can avoid paying income tax.”
What do national security experts say about the disclosures in the reporting?
While the administration itself has largely been silent on the question, retired national security and intelligence professionals have reacted with alarm to the report, particularly to the extent to which the president is personally in debt.
Larry Pfeiffer, a former chief of staff at the CIA and the current director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence at George Mason University, told The Washington Post that the debts are “an outrageous vulnerability,” that would cause any other senior official to have their security clearance revoked.