The New York Times reports that Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns and that he may have legally avoided paying taxes for 18 years by deducting that loss. The Times based its conclusions based on three pages of Trump’s 1995 return, which were sent to a reporter in the mail.
While a $916 million loss is obviously substantial, it doesn’t necessary mean that Trump was insolvent, or even considering declaring bankruptcy. But 1995 was a year of reckoning for Trump: His Atlantic City casinos had been failing for years and his 1988 decision to purchase the Plaza Hotel for nearly $410 million was a bust. According to the Times, Trump used these failures to protect himself, taking advantage of a variety of loopholes and tricks that are often exploited by the wealthy:
Although Mr. Trump’s taxable income in subsequent years is as yet unknown, a $916 million loss in 1995 would have been large enough to wipe out more than $50 million a year in taxable income over 18 years.
The $916 million loss certainly could have eliminated any federal income taxes Mr. Trump otherwise would have owed on the $50,000 to $100,000 he was paid for each episode of The Apprentice, or the roughly $45 million he was paid between 1995 and 2009 when he was chairman or chief executive of the publicly traded company he created to assume ownership of his troubled Atlantic City casinos. Ordinary investors in the new company, meanwhile, saw the value of their shares plunge to 17 cents from $35.50, while scores of contractors went unpaid for work on Mr. Trump’s casinos and casino bondholders received pennies on the dollar.
The Trump campaign’s response to the story has been characteristically incoherent. They neither confirmed nor denied the story to the paper, but insisted that “hundreds of millions” had been paid in tax:
“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required. That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes.”
But at the same time, Trump and his team called the records “illegally obtained” and threatened to sue the newspaper. (He probably won’t.)
Trump and some of his surrogates have argued that this story represents Trump in a good light. (It does not.) Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani have argued that it shows that he’s a good businessman, while Trump himself made the case that it shows that he can fix our tax laws:
Finally, there’s the million dollar question. Is this the reason why Trump has not released his tax returns to the public? There’s plenty here to suggest that Trump was either trying to avoid public knowledge of the $916 million loss, which would undercut his assertion that he is a brilliant businessman and dealmaker, or to cover up the fact that he used that loss to avoid taxes for a substantial period of time.