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Tax Dodger Donald Trump is Running for Rigger-In-Chief

October 5, 2016

The revelation that Donald Trump may have paid no federal income taxes over the past two decades is a dagger aimed at the heart of his presidential candidacy. For starters, his reported $915 million loss in 1995--his second billion-dollar implosion in five years--makes a mockery of Trump's repeated boasts that he is a "tremendously successful" businessman. Worse still, his past and planned future windfalls at the expense of the United States Treasury show The Donald is a "big-league" beneficiary of the rigged system pretends to protest. As the parasite posing as populist put it in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland:

A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation's most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.

As Matthew Yglesias explained in Vox, "You don't need 'genius' to pull off Trump's tax avoidance -- you just need to be rich."

Rich, that is, and in the real estate business. The key, as tax expert David Cay Johnston documented Monday, is the manipulation of "net operating losses" on top of the "already liberal tax breaks Congress gives big real-estate owners."

Trump dumped the real costs of all this on investors who saw gold in his brand name, but who lost everything even as he was paid tens of millions of tax-free dollars...
NOLs are incredibly valuable. These tax losses can be used to offset salaries, business profits, and income from, say, a television show or making neckties in China. Thanks to his $916 million of NOLs, Trump could earn much over 18 years in salaries, profits, and interest, but pay no income taxes.

Without Donald Trump's tax returns, there is still much we do not know about the shell game that enabled the reality TV star to stiff Uncle Sam. Still, the most grotesque aspect of Trump's schemes may be that most of them are probably perfectly legal. (Most, but not all. Trump's use of the unlicensed charitable Trump Foundation to pay off legal costs generated by his for-profit businesses almost certainly violate laws on "self-dealing." And Trump apparently used his Foundation to skirt taxes on his appearance and speaker fees by having payments made directly to his "charity.")
But the self-proclaimed "blue-collar billionaire" supposedly devoted to "the forgotten Americans" isn't content to rest with the gains--ill-gotten and otherwise--he has withheld from the IRS. Donald Trump has promised that as President, he would implement a new set of windfalls for himself and his children.
Over the past year, Trump has released not one, but three tax plans. In each, the top income tax rate is lowered. (In its current incarnation, that top marginal rate would drop from 39.8 to 33 percent.) But even bigger winnings for the Trump Organization will come from his proposed reduction in business taxes. As he summed it up during his disastrous debate against Hillary Clinton last week:

Under my plan, I'll be reducing taxes tremendously, from 35 percent to 15 percent for companies, small and big businesses.

As Trump spokesman Steven Cheung confirmed on Sunday, that same 15 percent rate will also apply to so-called "pass-through" businesses which pay taxes on revenue as personal income. Businesses, that is, like Donald Trump's.
That one change to the tax code wouldn't just drain an estimated $1.5 trillion from federal coffers over the next decade. That pass-through payday for plutocrats would also redirect millions of dollars from Uncle Sam to Donald J. Trump and family--every year. As Trump's tax attorneys explained in his campaign's March 2016 required financial disclosure:

"You hold interests as the sole or principal owner in approximately 500 separate entities. These entities are referred to and do business as The Trump Organization. ... Because you operate these businesses almost exclusively through sole proprietorships and/or closely held partnerships, your personal federal income tax returns are inordinately large and complex for an individual."

And that would mean really YUGE savings for The Donald.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) recently explained, "Pass-through income is claimed by business entities that aren't subject to the corporate income tax, which currently has a top statutory rate of 35 percent (though most corporations pay an effective tax rate considerably lower than 35 percent). Pass-through income is business income that "passes through" the business and is instead reported on the individual tax returns of the business owners and taxed at the owners' tax rates."
But as CBPP also documented, "'pass-throughs' are not synonymous with 'small businesses' and "pass-through income is highly concentrated at the top:"

Mr. Trump, who has proposed a 15 percent corporate tax rate, proposes a pass-through rate of 15 percent as well. The Trump pass-through proposal would be an expensive tax cut that would flow primarily to the wealthiest Americans. That's because more than two-thirds of pass-through business income flows to the highest-income 1 percent of tax filers.
Many businesses, such as law firms, and groups of wealthy investors choose to be taxed as pass-through entities instead of as corporations and often do so to lower the overall taxes they owe. In recent decades, many businesses and their owners have reaped sizable tax savings by doing so. A special 15 percent tax rate on pass-through income such as the Trump tax plan proposes would offer them another large tax cut.

As the Washington Post reported, "Trump would tax pass-through income at a rate of 15 percent, compared to the 40 percent personal income tax rate a wealthy business owner would pay today." And as the Post's Jim Tankersley explained, one of those wealthy business owners is Donald Trump himself:

A little-noticed provision in Donald Trump's tax reform plan has the potential to deliver a large tax cut to companies in the Republican presidential nominee's vast business empire, experts say.
Trump's plan would dramatically reduce taxes on what is known in tax circles as "pass-through" entities, which do not pay corporate income taxes, but whose owners are taxed at individual rates on their share of profits. Those entities are the most common structure for small businesses and increasingly popular for larger ones as well. They are also a cornerstone of the Trump Organization. On his 2015 presidential financial disclosure report, Trump listed holdings of more than 200 limited liability corporations, which is a form of pass-through.

It's no wonder Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, said "It's a really nice deal" for Trump and pass-through owners like him. And it's with good reason Hillary Clinton calls it "the Trump Loophole."
But it's not the only one The Donald is proposing for himself, Ivanka, Eric, Donald Junior and his other offspring.
As you might recall, his campaign finance disclosures claim he has a net worth of $10 billion and earned $557 million between January 2015 and May 2016. While his income sources are no doubt diverse, President Trump would surely reap millions from candidate Trump's income tax and capital gains tax rate reductions alone. And if he is telling the truth about his net worth, The Donald's heirs could pocket over $7 billion from his promise to do away with the estate tax now paid by only the richest 0.2 percent of family fortunes.

Because Trump refuses to make public even one year of his returns, Americans have no idea how much he makes, how much he pays (if anything) to the IRS, what his tax rate is and what (and whether) he gives to charity at all. The only two thing we know for certain about Donald Trump's taxes? He was lying when he made this boast as he announced the first version of tax plan back in September 2015:

It's going to cost me a fortune -- which is actually true.

Of course, Trump's boast is not true. Far from taking on the rigged system that makes his fortune possible, Donald Trump would only expand it further still. That makes him a charlatan, not a "genius." And that also means he isn't carrying a pitchfork for populist revolt, but carrying water for the wealthiest people in America. People like himself. As his informal adviser and supply-side snake oil salesman Arthur Laffer put it in 2009:

"I mean, you really can't collect much money from upper-income people. They know how to get around taxes."

Not if the American people refuse to stand for it. And not if they make Hillary Clinton, and not Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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