The case in point: The recent New York Times stories about the federal income taxes that Trump paid — or didn’t pay — both as a private citizen and after moving into the Oval Office.
I loved many of the details, which ring true to me from my years of writing about financial gameplaying. But there’s one thing I want to warn you about — the idea, implicit in the stories, that because Trump has personally guaranteed some of his companies’ troubled loans, he could well go under when those debts come due in a few years.
I’m skeptical about that because of what I learned about Trump back in the day, when I used to write about his financial problems.
I came to realize that although Trump is good at getting himself into trouble because he lacks impulse control and won’t tolerate strong subordinates who tell him “no,” he’s even better at weaseling his way out of trouble than getting into it.
So let me give you a brief account of how I made the mistake of counting Trump out 30 years ago.
I ran into Trump in the late 1980s, when I began writing a business column at New York Newsday, a now-defunct tabloid. Because I specialized in exposing financial excesses and was used to dealing with people who make up numbers, I realized early that Trump’s real estate and casino empire was doomed.
I also realized that Trump was in big personal financial trouble because, recklessly, he’d personally guaranteed more than $800 million of his companies’ $3.3 billion of debts.
As you might suspect if you know either one of us, Trump and I didn’t get along. We used to go at each other, with his Queens accent and my Brooklyn accent both getting stronger the longer and louder we spoke to each other.
On June 17, 1990, New York Newsday put my column about “The Donald,” as we used to call him, on the front page. The headline: The Party’s Over for Trump.
In this lengthy piece, I provided numerous reasons why Trump was doomed, why he’d fade into the sunset and we’d never hear from him again.
That didn’t quite work out, did it? Despite being involved in six Chapter 11 bankruptcies and numerous other defaults and debacles, he managed to avoid going bankrupt himself and became a national figure thanks to his TV show “The Apprentice,” which showered fame and money on him.
Oh, well. I’ve got a framed copy of that front page to remind myself that I’m not as smart as I like to occasionally think I am.
But although I’m not infallible, I do know how to count. And it’s clear from the Times stories that “billionaire” and “Trump” shouldn’t be used in the same sentence unless we get a trustworthy audited financial statement showing that the value of Trump’s assets is more than $1 billion greater than his debts.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
And don’t hold your breath waiting for Trump to release his returns as presidents since Richard Nixon have done, no matter how many more stories about his tax tackiness appear.
Let me offer two reasons for this refusal: one obvious, one subtle.
The obvious reason: Trump’s tax returns undoubtedly show that his income isn’t consistent with his claims of being a multibillionaire.
The subtle reason: If Trump’s returns became public, liberal tax lawyers would compete with each other to dissect them and offer information and ideas to the IRS to help it prevail in its long dispute with Trump over a big tax refund that’s been the subject of an audit for years.
Now, let me tell you why we taxpayers should care about how much federal income tax our leaders — especially our president — pay.
Our leaders are supposed to set an example, both to help cover the costs of the benefits they get from the government and to encourage tax compliance by regular citizens.
If Trump wants to be a real leader after he recovers instead of trying to play one on television, it’s not too late. He could lead by releasing his tax returns, revealing the games his accountants and tax attorneys have been playing to let him pay taxes at rates much lower than typical blue-collar families, then sponsoring legislation to bring the games to an end.
Alas, I think the chances of that happening are about the same as fish learning to fly. Or Trump keeping his mouth shut in a presidential debate while someone else is trying to say something.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.