Trump and Those Pesky Tax Returns

Donald Trump, summoning his inner Hillary Clinton, insists that voters do not care about his tax returns much like Hillary and her team team insist that other than Fox News no one cares about her e-mails.  To Trump, this is a silly side argument that detracts from the larger issues like Clinton’s alleged failing health because she had a coughing attack or 2012’s Obama birtherism side show of which Donald Trump was a major contributor.

A whole cottage industry of conspiracy theories has formed over why Trump won’t release his tax returns.  His own stated reason, besides people just not caring, is that he is being audited and when the audit is over, he will release his returns.  That is a non-starter of an argument.  As any politician or tax expert will tell you, nothing prevents you from publicly releasing tax returns while undergoing an audit.  Richard Nixon did it in 1973 and he had bigger problems to worry about at the time than his tax returns and an IRS audit.

Trump holds himself out as some kind of philanthropy powerhouse bragging about the millions he doles out to worthy causes.  David Fahrenthold- bless his soul- has apparently dedicated his life to tracking Trump donations and his findings thus far are not encouraging for Trump.  We all know that Trump likes to exaggerate and stretch the bounds of the truth and he likely does not actually donate as much as he claims to all these worthy causes.

Unfortunately we do know some causes that Trump has donated to in the past.  One analysis showed 58% of his political donations went to Democrats.  Among them were Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.  Trump says this is for business reasons and that every businessman does this; it is just the way things are.  Ironically, many of his supporters use this as a reason for supporting him.  The strange reasoning goes like this: Being a businessman, Trump knows all the loopholes and who better to get rid of those loopholes than someone who repeatedly takes advantage of the loopholes?

This would be like Bill Clinton standing before someone and justifying a $1 million speaking fee because that is the cost of getting people in the audience to donate even greater sums to the Clinton Foundation.  The problem with Trump’s argument here is that you cannot accuse your opponent of pay-to-play when you yourself are a payer willing to play.  But, quite frankly, this writer cares little about what Trump or Clinton donate to charities.  It’s their money and they can do what they want with it.

A third theory, asserted by some like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, say that his tax returns will reveal that he has ties to organized crime.  The guy is a real estate developer based and operating in Manhattan where it is no secret that the mob has it’s hand in the construction industry.  If Trump didn’t have some ties somewhere to organized crime, that would be a surprise.  This is a silly argument in my opinion.  There is no box on a tax return asking if you have ties to the mob.  Armed with a phalanx of tax experts, does anyone honestly believe that the tax returns will turn up some smoking gun linking Trump to the Mafia?  Maybe they exist, but it would take a forensic accountant months to uncover it and by then the election is over.

Yet another theory asserts that Trump paid little or no taxes.  This goes back to the “he knows the loopholes so he’s best to be President” line of thinking.  If he paid little or no taxes because of taking advantage of current tax law, that reflects less harshly on Trump the businessman than it does on our ridiculously complex tax code.  This is the Buffett theory in reverse theory.  Buffett lamented the fact that his marginal tax rate was less than his secretary’s a couple years back.  If Warren Buffett really felt such guilt, that could be solved by not taking every break afforded on his return.

George Will proffered yet another theory- Trump has financial ties to Russian oligarchs which is why it appears that Russia seems to favor a Trump presidency.  Given Clinton’s “Russian reset” naivete, one would think they would favor her.  But this theory is like the mob connection theory- long on conspiracy and short on fact.  Trump has many international business dealings but none that involve Russia as far as we know.  Is it possible he’s dealt with some nefarious Russian actors?  Probably, but nothing that is going to show up in a tax return.

Instead, the most likely theory is that Donald Trump simply is not worth what he says he is worth.  And that being the case, it would be a blow to his persona and ego to reveal that truth to the American public.  His supporters often cite the fact he is a highly successful businessman, but what if he wasn’t as successful as he claims?  The problem with tax returns is that they are cold hard numbers and hard to argue with.

Trump claims his personal worth at about $10 billion.  Others, like Forbes, puts it at about $3 billion.  Still others say it is less than that.  Most of Trump’s fortune comes off the licensing of his name, or “brand.”  To say it is worth $10 billion makes it a really good name and brand.  At $3 billion, it is still pretty good, but lacks the luster of that double-digit $10 billion.  If less than $1 billion, yeah… not so much.

This may explain why Trump has been reluctant to open up the personal coffers and self-fund his campaign to the degree he said he would when this campaign began.  In fact, there are stories that he has reimbursed his personal coffers for campaign events at several junctures.  We know that he is charging his campaign more than the going rent in Trump Towers for use of space.

The whole Trump phenomena revolves around a veneer of being a successful businessman.  Perhaps he is, but cold hard numbers- not what one thinks they are worth- dictate the degree of success.  What Trump is “hiding” in his tax returns is his wealth which is considerably less than $10 billion.  And being the narcissist that he is, anything that pierces that veneer of ultra-success is antithetical to all things Trump.