When Donald Trump submitted financial disclosure forms to election regulators, he bragged that his portfolio included some of the “finest and most iconic properties in the world.” Among them was Trump National Golf Club Jupiter in Jupiter, Fla., which Trump valued at more than $50 million.
That came as a surprise to officials in Palm Beach County, where the golf course is located. A few months earlier, for the third straight year, Trump’s attorney had gone to court to argue that, for the sake of calculating his tax bill, the property was worth “no more than $5 million.”
A Washington Post review of local property records revealed the same pattern across most of Trump’s U.S. golf courses. For eight of the 10 courses on which he pays taxes, Trump reported in his May filing to the Federal Election Commission that the courses were worth tens of millions of dollars even as his attorneys have pressed local tax officials to value the properties at a fraction of those amounts.
The contrasting figures add to the mystery surrounding Trump’s personal finances, which have emerged as a campaign issue as he has refused to release his tax returns. And they reflect what critics say is Trump’s willingness to calibrate his wealth claims depending on the circumstances — going high to impress voters and back up his claim that he is worth $10 billion, a figure questioned by many experts, and going lower to argue for smaller tax bills.
It is not unusual for corporations and other property owners to aggressively petition for lower taxes, and differences between the market value of a business and the assessed taxable value of its real estate are commonplace. Nor is there a legal issue for Trump in the gaps between his federal disclosures and local filings, according to ethics experts, because the disclosure forms are designed to show potential conflicts of interest — not to provide precise estimates of asset values.
But tax analysts say it’s rare for values to shift as much as those of Trump’s clubs. It’s also unusual that a business owner would provide potentially contradictory information in a different forum, as Trump has done with his financial disclosure.
“He will tell everyone his courses are worth $50 million or whatever, that they’re the greatest courses in the world, but then go to the county assessor and, under threat of perjury, sign documents that the market value is under $10 million,” said Arthur E. Gimmy, a veteran California appraiser who has assessed golf courses in 20 states. “It’s total nonsense.”
In rural Iredell County, N.C., for instance, Trump’s lawyers have argued successfully to shrink the taxable value of his course there since he bought it in 2013. The $167,000 annual reduction in revenue to the county is a “pretty big chunk,” said Wes Long, an appraiser there, adding that the money comes from “whatever taxable money goes toward: salaries, raises, roads, schools, police.”
Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s executive vice president and general counsel, defended Trump’s tax disputes as a legal, prudent way of doing business and saving cash. The higher values listed on the federal form reflects the unique merit of the Trump brand, he added, which can boost the courses’ sales value in a way that won’t be reflected on local tax rolls.
“When you’re talking about properties that are owned by Mr. Trump, there is an intrinsic value associated with those properties because he is associated or owns those properties,” Garten said. “There’s never been anyone like Mr. Trump, with his net worth, to run for the highest office in the land.”
Trump’s strategy in arguing for smaller tax assessments matches his aggressive devotion to fighting, as he has said, “very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”
Government and legal records show that Trump piled up deductions to pay nothing in federal income taxes for at least five years in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Some tax analysts say that it is likely that Trump has used those same deductions to pay little to no income taxes in recent years.
Trump has routinely sparred with analysts who he says undervalue his fortune, including suing author Tim O’Brien, whose book, “TrumpNation,” alleged that Trump was not a billionaire. Yet Trump has admitted to influencing valuations solely by what’s in his own head.
“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings,” Trump told lawyers in a 2007 deposition for the O’Brien case. When asked what he bases his net worth on, Trump said, “My general attitude at the time that the question may be asked. And as I say, it varies.”
Trump’s clubs have been a fixture in his campaign. He has used them as venues for rallies and primary election-night victory speeches, such as his infomercial-style appearance on Super Tuesday in which he showed off a stack of Trump Steaks and other branded products.
The business executive turned to golf-course development for a new and glamorous identity in the downtrodden years between his first casino bankruptcies and his TV resurgence in “The Apprentice.”
He bought courses out of bankruptcy, made deals with troubled sellers and leased some land from local governments, allowing him a relatively cheap way to attach his name to high-profile developments that projected luxury.
The golf-course business has struggled in recent years, gutted by the overbuilding of golf-course subdivisions during the housing boom and shrinking interest in the game. More than 800 American courses have closed in the last decade. Others, including Trump’s, have seen their revenue sink.
Trump pays property taxes on 10 U.S. golf courses. In the case of eight of those courses, the actual assessed value is far lower than the values Trump claimed in his FEC financial disclosure filing. The FEC form requires candidates to list assets in value ranges, with $50 million and above as the highest category.
The combined value of the 10 courses, as determined by local officials, is roughly 60 percent of the $385 million Trump gave as a minimum estimate.
Trump’s approach in lowering tax bills is evident in his company’s handling of the Iredell County course.
The company bought the property in 2013 for $6 million. It then pledged $10 million toward renovations of the existing country club, about a 45-minute drive north of Charlotte, for what’s now known as the Trump National Golf Club Charlotte.
Trump personally vouches for the club on its website, saying, “As an avid golfer, I can tell you that this club and setting are truly something special.”
Soon after Trump took over, the company began lobbing appeals at the local tax assessor — and winning. Since 2013, while the club invested in upgrades and the broader real estate economy flourished, the club’s tax assessment has plunged 58 percent, from $22.7 million to $9.6 million. Trump’s FEC filing lists the club’s value as between $5 million and $25 million.
Trump representatives at the club, which boasts a sweeping course designed by golf legend Greg Norman and a 500-person lakefront ballroom, argued that the club’s sinking income warranted a lower valuation. In Trump’s election filings, he said the club made $14 million in revenue between July 2015 and May 2016.
A club membership coordinator last week said that the club is now offering golf memberships at “a reduced initiation fee of $25,000,” down from the typical $60,000.
“He seems to inflate everything, except for this,” said Long, the local tax official. “He gets as many breaks as he can.”
One of the most stark gaps in value assessments is centered at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester, a private club in the small village of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. After he rebuilt and reopened the course in 2002, Trump gloated about its majesty to a New York Times reporter, asking, “How would you like to see the single most expensive hole in the United States?”
In his financial disclosures, Trump valued the course at more than $50 million. But last year, his attorneys filed papers with the state declaring the “full market value” of the course was far lower: about $1.4 million.
Trump lawyers have since upped their estimate, to $9 million, though town officials say they could still lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tax funds if the Trump appeal succeeds.
Trump bought one course in Ranchos Palos Verdes, Calif., for $27 million in 2002; said in 2006 that he would pour more than $260 million into its remodeling; and then, in 2008, requested that Los Angeles assessors tax it as if it were worth $10 million. Trump has since won three appeals to lower the club’s taxes, and it is now appraised at about $14 million — far below the value in Trump’s recent election filings of more than $50 million.
To carry out his strategy, Trump has turned to a cottage industry of private, on-the-ground tax agents who can aggressively press their case against public officials — and, in some cases, outplay or outlast their opponents in local government. Tax assessors said they spend several months out of the year, as well as thousands of dollars on property experts, to defend their valuations against disputes such as Trump’s.
“[Trump’s tax agents] are well-versed in the ways to argue that position, whereas local jurisdictions may not,” said Hughlene Burton, an associate professor of accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
He has also fought for lower tax bills at courses that seem to be pulling in strong business. Lawyers have met with Miami-Dade County officials every year since 2012 to lower the assessments at Trump National Doral, the elite South Florida club that Trump bought for $150 million in 2012 and pledged to boost with a $250 million makeover.
Repeated Trump appeals, including at a special hearing in June, helped knock the club’s value down from roughly $100 million in 2012 to $75 million this year, even as it bloomed with renovations. The club’s revenue, Trump said in election filings, totaled more than $131 million in the 10 months that ended in May. Trump’s election filing says the club is worth at least $50 million.
The dispute has become a political issue in Doral, where the city council is scheduled to debate a resolution Tuesday urging the Miami-Dade property appraiser to reconsider the assessed value.
“By not paying his fair share, he is depriving the residents of Doral and the people of Florida as a whole,” said Sandra Ruiz, a Doral city council member.