To keep things relatively simple, I’m telling you what I see in Trump’s returns, based on my decades of experience parsing financial filings. I will try not to get bogged down in numbers and technicalities.
Sure, the $900 million-plus of losses reported by the New York Times — losses that could be used to offset income for a total of 18 years — are totally shocking. Legal, yes. But shocking.
But there’s something I consider even more shocking — although it involves a much smaller number.
By my read of the Trump tax return published by the New York Times, he would have been tax-free because of a $15,818,562 loss reported on Line 11 of the return under “Rental real estate, royalties, partnerships, S corporations, trusts, etc.” It looks to me that this loss reflects the outrageous, special tax break that real estate developers that people like Trump can get, but that the rest of us can’t.
What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail
To give you the brief version, people who qualify as real estate developers or managers can use depreciation deductions to offset non-real-estate income. But people who don’t qualify for this special treatment can’t do that. (For full details, ask a tax expert about Section 469 of the tax code.)
Now, to the $900-plus million loss reported by the New York Times — which vastly exceeds any cash losses that Trump would have suffered in the collapse of his casino-hotel-airline empire, which fell apart in the early 1990s and resulted in four bankruptcies. (He had two more bankruptcies, in 2004 and 2009, from a publicly traded company in which he was the primary shareholder.)
I’m guessing, but I can’t tell for sure — there’s not enough information — that the loss has to do with the collapse of his empire. I don’t understand how Trump, who had very little of his own cash invested in his projects in the 1990s but did personally guarantee part of their debt, could end up with tax losses of that magnitude. They’re almost certainly paper losses rather than out-of-pocket losses.
It’s possible that those losses somehow vanished into the ether from which they came — we have no way to tell.
What we can tell, though, is that what I wrote recently about Trump’s “That makes me smart” boast when Hillary Clinton prodded him about not paying taxes was right.
If Trump were truly smart — and wanted to lead by example — he would have disclosed his tax returns, showed the loopholes he used, and vowed to close them.
I have plenty of problems with the Clintons’ financial behavior, as I wrote. But at least Hillary Clinton is proposing tax code changes that would cost her and her family money. Trump, by contrast, is proposing tax changes that would greatly benefit the commercial real estate business, which is his primary field, and would greatly benefit his own family. And when I asked his campaign last week whether he was proposing any tax changes that would cost him and/or his family any money, I got no reply.
This whole column and most of the articles I’ve read are based almost entirely on just one page of Trump’s tax filings — the front page of his 1995 New York return. So, you see, we have learned quite a lot from Trump’s tax returns — and we could learn a lot more when and if more of them make their way into the public domain.