by Terry H. Schwadron
Wow. For a moment there, hearing last night that copies of presidential tax forms had found their way to a reporter’s mailbox took me back 40 years.
The president was Nixon, and the reporter was Jack White — Newport Jack White as we called him to distinguish him from the other Jack White — at The Providence Journal, a friend and teacher whose story of unwarranted presidential tax write-offs led to a count in the Watergate legalisms and to a Pulitzer Prize for Jack.
Now here was David Cay Johnston, another reporter and friend, on television sharing leaked summary pages from President Donald Trump’s 2005 federal tax filings.
That both were reporters who had received leaked documents and that both were friends of mine was momentarily unsettling. Both guys were bearded, both affable and gregarious, both incredibly hard workers who had developed sources so that the leaks could happen, and otherwise totally different personalities. Jack died too young; David, a former colleague at both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, just started a new website called DC Report.
These tax summaries lead nowhere particularly. They show that the President earned $150 million that year, wrote off another $100 million in business losses or investments and that he paid a big number in taxes, though less than he might have been forced to pay. It was a year in which a couple of big Manhattan buildings were sold, and shows that the summary pages do not tell you that much about his overall business operations.
As David, who actually knows a great deal about both Trump and the federal tax systems, noted that $31 million of the $38 million paid were under the minimum alternative tax, which Mr. Trump wants to eliminate. This tax exists to guarantee tax payments by wealthy individuals; without the alternate minimum tax, Mr. Trump would have paid $5 million. It also included $2 million in late payments and interest.
In neither case, of course, did the presidents involved want to disclose information about their taxes. Mr. Trump has refused to follow the practice of presidential candidates since Nixon in making public any of his tax forms, variously teasing out unverifiable information over time about his business holdings and claiming his net worth. He says that his taxes for the last several years remain under audit, which is not a bar for sharing them.
So, the release of tax forms, even old forms, has an inherent public interest here. But these couple of pages of summary do not offer the kind of detail that shows the source of his income, the nature of his wealth, any ties to foreign lenders and the like. These, of course, are the questions raised by Mr. Trump’s inexplicable liking for all things Russian as investigations of Russian interference in the U.S. elections get under way.
As always, there were curious elements at play here, including the unfounded suggestion that it was Donald Trump himself or someone close to him, who released the tax forms, perhaps to further deflect attention on a health care bill in trouble or some other perceived political problem.
It was curious, for example, that that the White House released its predictable statements about the tax forms even before Rachel Maddow started her television show on MS-NBC where the forms were disclosed. Those statements had the effect of confirming the authenticity of the tax form summaries. Mr. Trump followed this morning with a tweet to throw shade at the reporter.
And the summary pages themselves were stamped with “Client Copy,” which further limits who might have access to them. The Trump Organization Inc. is a small, family-run company.
As for claims of an “illegal” leak, there is nothing illegal about reporting on the tax forms. The IRS is barred from sharing information about tax forms, and even will not confirm that Trump taxes are under audit.
For me, the release of the tax forms underscored exactly the issue in Washington: By withholding information or being so selective about release of information as to come across as withholding, officials just make things worse for themselves, the public and for general understanding. And even with actual data in hand, the television pundits split in interpretations: Maddow made the most of the business write-offs, while on Fox, Sean Hannity ridiculed the effort and focused solely on the huge tax payment made by Mr. Trump, who paid more proportionately than various Democrats whom Hannity named.
The New York Times last fall published some Trump tax information from 1995, showing business losses of nearly a billion dollars that could defer taxes for the next 18 years. Tim O’Brien, another former New York Times reporter, wrote a book on Mr. Trump’s businesses that estimated his net worth at closer to $150 to $250 million than the billions of net worth that Mr. Trump claims. Mr. Trump sued him, and they settled out of court.
None of this would even be worth the time and effort to understand it if Mr. Trump had simply released his income statements during the campaign. Instead, we are left to wonder if there is something that should come to light.