The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump may be guilty of massive tax fraud. Don’t let it fall down the memory hole.

President Trump at a rally in Southaven, Miss., on Tuesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been less than two days since we learned that Donald Trump and his family appear to have engaged in a years-long conspiracy to commit tax fraud on an absolutely gigantic scale, evading hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes they owed to the federal government. We learned this from a mother lode of documents obtained by the New York Times — including tax returns, business records and bank records.

And nearly everyone seems to have already forgotten.

It is difficult to keep track of every Trump scandal, I know. Even in an ordinary week, there are a hundred things competing for your attention and, especially this week, with the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh dominating the news, it can be difficult to turn to something else. But this is no ordinary scandal. It’s positively earth-shaking, or at least it should be.

If you haven’t read the (incredibly long) article, the quick summary is that, in the later years of his life, Fred Trump — the president’s father — with the help of his children, constructed an intricate web of vehicles to escape income taxes, gift taxes and estate taxes, passing more than $1 billion worth of assets to his children while avoiding the taxes that should have been paid on them. While wealthy people often take advantage of the tax code’s numerous loopholes to avoid taxes, what the Trump family did was, as the Times described it, “outright fraud,” including hiding transactions with shell companies, undervaluing properties, creating invoices with fake charges, and what amounted to hundreds of subsidiary schemes and scams.

This scandal may have a political impact, as it should. One of the interesting things it reveals is that, in contrast to Trump’s lie that his father’s help to him consisted solely of “a small loan of a million dollars,” Fred Trump actually passed vast sums to the future president in gifts and “loans” that were never meant to be paid back, the equivalent of $413 million in today’s money. If voters came to understand that Trump is not remotely the self-made man he claims to be, but is actually an heir who has what he does thanks to his father’s fortune, it could certainly undercut his political standing. But that’s not what’s most important about this story.

What’s important is that there appears to be very strong evidence that the president of the United States has committed a series of crimes.

He will likely never be prosecuted for them because the statute of limitations has expired (though both New York state and the federal government can mount a civil case against him, which could force him to pay the taxes he evaded, plus fines). But the Times article contains documentary evidence — shell companies owned by Trump, his signature on documents — showing that he was an active participant in the scheme. Yet, even with all that it reveals, there are still things we don’t know. The paper obtained Fred Trump’s tax returns, but not Donald’s, so it’s entirely possible that, for instance, after Fred evaded gift taxes when he was showering Donald with cash, Donald also didn’t pay the income taxes he should have owed on the same money.

The only way to find out if that happened is to examine Trump’s tax returns. Which he has steadfastly refused to release.

For their part, Trump administration officials seem barely concerned. It’s all fake news! Here’s how Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, addressed it at a briefing on Wednesday:

Reporter: Can you explain what is inaccurate about that story — if there’s anything that is actually inaccurate about it?
Sanders: It’s a totally false attack, based on an old recycled news story. I’m not going to sit and go through every single line of a very boring, 14,000-word story.
Reporter: Can you give us anything —
Sanders: The only thing — I will say, one thing the article did get right, was that it showed that the President’s father actually had a great deal of confidence in him. In fact, the President brought his father into a lot of deals and they made a lot of money together, so much so that his father went on to say that everything he touched turned to gold.
The President’s lawyer addressed some of the specific claims and walked through how the allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100-percent false and highly defamatory. There was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone.
He went on much further and I would encourage you to read every word of his statement, which completely undercuts the accusations made by the New York Times.

You might wonder at how a story containing a copious amount of evidence that the president committed tax fraud is “boring,” or why Sanders would call an article based on a trove of shocking, revealing, never before seen documents “an old recycled news story.” The answer is that she is simply parroting the words Trump used to describe it in a tweet that morning, which is what being a Trump lickspittle requires you to do.

As for the statement from Trump’s lawyer, it did not address any specific claims, did not “walk through” anything, and did not go on “much further” (though it did contain the standard comical threat to sue for defamation). Read it for yourself. It’s two short paragraphs asserting that “The facts upon which the Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate” and insisting that all the Trump family’s financial moves were handled by experienced professionals.

We don’t know who those professionals are, but I would refer you to what Professor Daniel Shaviro, a tax expert and a professor at NYU law school, told me on Wednesday: “Most of the people I know in the New York tax bar, if they were asked to participate in this, they would not only have declined to do it, but they would have wondered if they have a duty to report what’s going on” to the authorities. Why? “They’re not interested in going to jail.”

To repeat, because we have to keep repeating this, we now have hard evidence — not allegations, not hearsay, not suspicion, but hard evidence — that Donald Trump and his family committed tax fraud on a massive scale. What should be done about it now? It has to be followed up by every news organization with the means to do so. It has to be investigated by Congress (though, of course, that won’t happen unless Democrats take back one or both houses of Congress). We have to get the president’s tax returns. And we have to never stop asking questions until all the facts are known, and Trump, one way or another, is held to account. No matter what else is competing for our attention.