After last week’s revealing New York Times article which speculated that Donald Trump may not have paid federal taxes for at least 18 years, his campaign surrogates took to the microphones in response to all the fuss. “The man’s a genius,” declared Rudolf Giuliani, former mayor of New York City. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the story simply proved how qualified Donald Trump is to overhaul the tax code.
For his part, Trump tweeted: “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president.”
Because if you read the entire Times article, the last few paragraphs featured some pretty revealing insights from Trump’s tax preparer at the time, Jack Mitnick. Here is the first:
“[Mr. Mitnick] had long handled tax matters for Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and he said he began doing Donald Trump’s taxes after Mr. Trump turned 18.”
Think about that for a moment: Donald Trump never, not even once, filed his own tax return. Never completed a 1040 EZ like most of us do when we turn 18 – a rite of passage signaling the arrival of adulthood and full citizenship. Not for Trump – Daddy’s accountant handled that for him.
But surely as his business interests grew along with his assets, he must have learned how to leverage the tax code to his advantage. He must have educated himself on the basics, if only to protect his wealth and maximize its value. Right?
Wrong. Mitnick remembered Trump and his wife when they reviewed and signed the tax returns he had prepared for them.
“[Mr. Mitnick] contrasted Fred Trump’s attention to detail with what he described as [Donald’s] brash and undisciplined style. He recalled, for example, that when Donald and Ivana Trump came in each year to sign their tax forms, it was almost always Ivana who asked more questions.”
If that’s true, Donald Trump may actually know much less about the tax code than the rest of us. He’s never filed his tax returns without professional help, and apparently he expressed little interest in understanding what was on the pages he signed. And yet he boasts that he knows more about the tax code than “anyone who has ever run for president.”
This is what worries me. I don’t actually care that he used the tax laws to his advantage; I am in the same camp with those who say, “Don’t hate the player – hate the game.” The tax code is what it is. I have never heard any American claim to willingly pay more taxes than he legally owes.
I worry because Trump believes he’s an expert in something he knows nothing about. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s part of a pattern. He’s previously claimed to know more about warfare than our decorated military leaders. He repeatedly brags about his outstanding temperament (when he’s in between tantrums or resting his thumbs after a 3 a.m. tweeting session).
But his supporters believe he’s a tax genius, when in reality he probably couldn’t find the signature line without the little yellow post-it arrow his accountant affixes to his returns. If Donald Trump is elected president, he is in for a big surprise when he signs his first tax return in office.
After all, the presidential salary is $400,000. There are few loopholes or offsetting losses from businesses, so a President Trump would likely have real taxable income on which he would pay actual federal taxes.
Possibly for the very first time.