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‘Do as I say not as I do’: Blockbuster NYT report casts new light on Trump’s tax rhetoric

President Trump speaks to reporters after signing the Tax Cut and Reform Bill in December 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The New York Times’s blockbuster report on President Trump’s tax returns answers some big questions we’ve been asking for years. But in some ways, it’s less than surprising. During a 2016 debate, Trump responded to a report that he had paid no income taxes for a couple of years by saying, “That makes me smart.”

He said earlier in the year, when he was still pledging to release his tax returns, that people were “going to be surprised at how little I pay. I fight like hell not to pay a lot of tax. And you know what? Every politician probably does.”

Trump has at times tried to argue that however much he might exploit the tax system, it merely shows how broken the system is. We’ll have to see whether that’s an argument voters accept after the Times’s report shows just how much Trump has sought to exploit that system.

Since 2016, President Trump has cited an ongoing IRS audit as the primary reason that he will not release his tax returns. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

But in other ways, his avoidance of taxes — the Times reports Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017 and precisely zero dollars in 10 out of the previous 15 years — flies in the face of his rhetoric and his claims about himself.

After the report landed Sunday night, social media users pointed to a couple of times Trump argued that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had paid too little in taxes.

@BarackObama who wants to raise all our taxes, only pays 20.5% on $790k salary.” Trump tweeted in April 2012. “Do as I say not as I do.”

Trump has at times also spoken about raising taxes on the wealthy, but he clearly wasn’t doing as he said.

Trump added in July of that year, “Have we ever had a POTUS before @BarackObama who earned over 1/3 of his income from foreign sources and paid taxes to another country?”

The Times reported that Trump earned about $73 million in foreign revenue in his first two years as president. He also in 2017 paid significantly more in taxes to the governments of Panama ($15,598), India ($145,500) and the Philippines ($156,824) than to the United States ($750).

But that’s not the only whiff of hypocrisy in Trump’s past statements about taxes.

In 2013, he retweeted someone who claimed that “Trump is an American that will pay more taxes in one year than you pay in your entire life.” We have now learned that Trump almost always pays less in taxes — not just as a percentage but also as a raw number — than the vast majority of people who are of far lesser means than he.

Trump for a time during the 2016 campaign also attacked wealthy people who pay no taxes.

“I know a lot of bad people in this country that are making a hell of a lot of money and not paying taxes,” he said of hedge fund managers during a Time magazine interview in 2015.

Trump added in 2016, “I’m not going to let Wall Street get away with murder.”

That doesn’t inherently contradict Trump’s own tax avoidance. He might argue that hedge fund managers do less good than people in real estate, for example, because they don’t build things. He has also argued that the problem lies with the system.

But it wasn’t the only time he argued that it was very bad for people to not pay taxes.

About a decade ago, Trump repeatedly attacked Native American casinos for not having to pay federal taxes.

“They’re making a fortune,” he said in 2011, adding that “they give you odds, they give you this, they give you all sorts of things, because they’re not paying taxes. So, what’s happened with the Indian reservations is absolutely unbelievable.”

The same year, Trump decried the number of Americans who pay no taxes.

“The system and the model is broken,” Trump said. “It didn’t used to be broken years ago. Everybody went out and they worked. And they — you look at 50 percent of the people aren’t paying taxes. And it’s an amazing statistic. But tremendous number of people aren’t paying any taxes.”

Trump in 2011 also cited GE and ExxonMobil not paying taxes as “not so good” and “ridiculous,” respectively.

“But for ExxonMobil to be getting subsidies and to be paying not that much in tax relatively speaking I think is ridiculous, okay?” Trump told CNN’s Erin Burnett. When pressed on his own taxes, Trump said, “I don’t mind paying more tax.”

Trump has also at times suggested that he paid plenty in taxes.

The Post’s Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Fahrenthold explain the legal troubles President Trump could face after a New York Times investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump in 2012 was asked about whether rich people like himself pay enough in taxes, and he told the BBC, “Well, we’re paying a lot of tax, and we’re putting a lot of people to work.”

Trump in 2009 also defended Rush Limbaugh for leaving New York because of its tax rates, saying: “Obviously, you have to pay taxes. But they want to pay a reasonable tax.”

And Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt in 2015: “I would certainly [release my returns]. I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I do pay tax. But I’m very proud of what I did.”

We now know that Trump most often hasn’t paid much of anything in taxes, which probably says something about why he has yet to deliver on his promise of releasing his returns. Trump has set himself up in certain ways for this day by casting this as a problem with the tax code and that not paying taxes is justifiable because the government will “squander” it.

But in many ways, the revelations cut to the core of Trump’s appointment of himself as a populist hero. It’s one thing to try to avoid taxes when you can; it’s another to pay virtually no taxes more than two-thirds of the time — even as you’re decrying others not paying taxes and attacking your predecessor for not paying more.

“Signing a recent tax return,” Trump tweeted in 2016. “Isn’t this ridiculous?”

We’ll see whether people agree.