The following editorial originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
The New York Times’ analysis of President Donald Trump’s tax returns — which remain private, and which the Times did not share — includes many fascinating details about Trump’s epic tax avoidance over the last two decades, but three main ideas emerge.
First, it confirms what most Americans had suspected when Trump reneged on his campaign promise to conform to modern tradition and release his tax returns: That the records contain, at a minimum, politically embarrassing details, including the fact that the self-promoting developer and reality TV star rarely paid federal income taxes. That he also took a $70,000 deduction, more than twice the nation’s per capita median income, for haircuts is a doozy.
Second, it makes plain that Donald Trump’s self-projected aura as a self-made billionaire too rich to accept campaign donations (remember that canard?) was just so much smoke and mirrors. The New York Times’ reporting depicts him less as a shrewd Manhattan developer and practitioner of “The Art of the Deal,” as he called his top-selling memoir, than as a con man setting up a three-card monte table in Times Square to fleece the gullible.
And third, the U.S. tax code is a complex thicket of incentives and carve-outs that rewards game-players at the expense of average taxpayers. Which means the most valuable asset in Trump’s spider web of businesses and properties is the creative force in the accounting department that managed to make someone who took in hundreds of millions of dollars in income appear so overwhelmed with expenses and losses that the U.S. taxpayers wound up paying him money — in one instance, a $72 million tax refund.
Naturally, Trump argued that he did only what the law allows. “I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits,” he tweeted Monday.
The Times’ reporting, in sum, offers yet more evidence that the president is playing the country, and his supporters, for fools. But it’s hard to imagine in this time of calcified political opinions that the report will have much impact on voting. In truth, Trump won election four years ago despite voters’ awareness that he actively sought to skirt his tax liability.
From the get-go, Trump’s campaign had the aura of a massive con, using the ruse of a presidential election to draw attention to his businesses and his then-flagging “The Apprentice” television franchise. But he also tapped into a significant stream of political disaffection by mainly white voters who resented what they saw as the erosion of their livelihoods and way of life.
Trump has used the presidency to steer business to his hotels, resorts and golf courses, including $1 million in tax dollars for hotel rooms for aides and security teams during his routine visits and weekend rounds of golf at his resorts, while collecting more than $20 million in business from the Republican Party, lobbyists and foreign governments at his properties.
If Trump did cross a legal line in his tax filings and business dealings, we hope that ongoing audits and investigations will hold him accountable. But it would be naive to believe that Trump’s creative approach to interpreting the tax codes is unique to him; there are more loopholes in the tax code than a macrame wall hanging. What is unique is that so many Americans seem to find that sort of behavior acceptable for a president of the United States.