Opinion: Trump’s tax returns are a lot to do for nothing

Editor’s note: Edward J. McCaffery is the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law and Professor of Law, Economics, and Political Science at the University of Southern California. He is the author of « Fair Not Flat: How to Make the Tax System Better and Simpler » and founder of People’s Tax Page. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinions on CNN.


Alleluia! The House Ways and Means Committee has released former President Donald Trump’s tax returns from 2015 through 2020. If nothing else, it will – hopefully! — exempts me from being questioned about the release of Trump’s tax returns, as I have been for over six years now.

There are a lot of things we already knew. In 2020, The New York Times analyzed 20 years of Trump’s tax returns, including some of those released on Friday. And earlier this month, the House Ways and Means Committee released two reports that found the Internal Revenue Service failed to audit Trump in the first two years of his presidency despite Trump’s mandatory audit program. the IRS for US Presidents, and summarized in detail the top-line numbers for the full six years.

What we got from this latest data dump are thousands of pages of returns, shows, schedules, and more. Dedicated accountants and journalists will be poring over these documents and we’re sure to see many headlines like « Trump’s Top 10 Tax Return Surprises » in the days and weeks to come.

But we have long known the basic story. Trump is a bad businessman who seems to lose money on everything from casinos to golf clubs, with steaks and vodka and even a so-called university in between. So the main reason he often pays so little, if any, in taxes is that he often declares a loss. He also lost other people’s money and got big tax breaks for it.

Trump benefited from the huge head start given to him by his father Fred Trump, who continued to pay dividends with large capital gains on the sale of inherited assets in 2018 (which led Trump to pay taxes that year – just under $1 million). And like his father, Trump comes across as an aggressive and rather crass tax dodger, using standard tactics like putting kids on the payroll, writing off personal expenses, overstating in-kind charitable contributions, and the like. Friday’s post already showed, for example, that Trump did not donate his presidential salary to charity in 2020, as he had promised – he made no charitable donations at all in 2020, even though he paid no tax.

Trump’s taxes often push the boundaries of propriety, and his company’s sometimes cross them, as we now know from the Manhattan prosecutor’s criminal conviction of the Trump Organization.

Nothing new there.

But sometimes nothing is history, like the dog that doesn’t bark. So here are some nothings we can solve to do something in 2023.

Nothing is what Trump paid in federal income taxes in 2020 and many other years. Considering his massive and mysterious nearly $73 million tax refund in 2010, Trump may not have paid net positive taxes in his lifetime. And he is not alone. Many billionaires do not pay income tax, and many do so legally.

Nothing is also what the IRS did when it came to Trump’s tax filings in his first two years in office until the Democrats took over and forced them to do something about it. of 2019.

This is unacceptable. When the IRS fails to audit a prominent wealthy person it needs to investigate – whether it’s because it’s too difficult, it doesn’t have the time, or for any other reason – why do the wealthy would they pay anything in taxes?

This is a trick question: the rich already have ways of paying nothing in taxes, see the first nothing above.

And the simple math of the matter is that if the rich pay nothing, then the non-rich pay everything.

Which leads to two last nothings.

Nothing is what Congress has done, over many decades of Democratic and Republican leadership, to get the wealthy to truly pay their fair share of taxes.

And nothing is what Republicans seem to want to give to the IRS, which lacked the resources to do anything to get the wealthy to comply with the law. It’s crazy too.

Maybe, just maybe, 2023 will be a better year for everyone. I can’t write anything on Trump’s tax returns at all. And we can all celebrate that Congress is doing something (providing nearly $80 billion to bolster the IRS as part of the Cut Inflation Act – a good start) to make Americans pay the most rich… something.

It would be better than nothing and more useful than yet another Trump tax filing story.

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