National Opinions

OPINION: Trump’s tax returns are only part of the picture

Trump Taxes

Democrats released six years’ worth of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns last Friday, confirming earlier findings outlined in a pair of congressional analyses of the records: Trump took hundreds of millions of dollars of questionable business deductions to lower his tax bills, paid a token amount of income tax in two years and paid nothing at all during the final year of his presidency.

The tax returns also reconfirmed previously reported truths about Trump’s businesses and personal finances. Even though he’s almost 77, he remains a haphazard operator reliant on the financial cushion of his late father’s wealth. He appears to donate little to charity and may not have made good on his promise to give away his presidential earnings. And his filings are pockmarked with tragicomic Trumpian flourishes; in some years, he gave the unlikely name of “Unreimbursed Expenses” to several of his business partnerships.

Trump was the first U.S. president since Gerald Ford to refuse to voluntarily release his tax returns, and the disclosure was long overdue. But some Republicans have indicated that Democrats had only partisan interests in mind when making them public. Beware, they warn, an era of rampant financial transparency is now afoot, and the GOP, which takes control of the House of Representatives today, can now disclose the tax returns of Democrats, members of President Joe Biden’s family and Supreme Court justices.

Let’s hope that’s a promise from Republicans, and not just a threat. Greater financial disclosure from legislators of every stripe, their closest family members (in certain cases) and the Supreme Court itself would be a welcome development and a boon to good government.

The GOP can’t dump on Democrats by calling for the release of Biden’s tax returns because, lo and behold, he has already done so. Biden has also been subjected to the mandatory Internal Revenue Service audit required of all presidents. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was put through that tax review, too. Trump, magically, was not. The House Ways and Means Committee’s report on Trump’s tax returns notes how forcefully officials in his administration tried stymying efforts to release the returns. Perhaps that’s why Trump wasn’t properly audited. Maybe it was just bureaucratic ineptitude. Either way, a robust examination of the lapse is in order.

More disclosure from Trump is in order too -- especially since he plans to run for president again in 2024. It’s handy to have returns for the 2015 to 2020 tax years, but there are ample and important financial disclosures still missing from those documents. It’s also vital that Trump’s returns stretching back to the years long before he became president be released as well.

Taxpayers and voters still don’t have a complete understanding of the possible financial conflicts of interest that surrounded Trump before, during and after his presidency. To what extent was public policy making corrupted by those conflicts? How much of a national security threat is posed by Trump’s global business dealings and other matters buried in his wildly complex and opaque finances?

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We now know how much money Trump reported earning for a handful of years out of decades he spent working as a developer, entertainer, casino operator and snake oil salesman. We still know far too little about exactly who he did business with and to whom he is indebted.

The tax records released last week indicate that Trump had foreign bank accounts in China, Britain, Ireland, and St. Martin. The amount of money held in those accounts wasn’t detailed. Trump had the bank account in China in 2015, 2016 and 2017 even though he claimed during a presidential debate that he shut it before embarking on his 2016 presidential bid.

He had more than $40 million in gross income from overseas operations in 2016 and pulled in more than $55 million in foreign income the following year, according to his tax records. The returns listed reportable dealings in more than 20 overseas countries or territories, including China, the UK, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Panama, India, Qatar, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Israel, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey.

Foreign funds have flowed into earlier Trump projects as well. The partnership that built the Trump SoHo hotel and condominium development with the former president received funding from eastern Europe and included a career criminal in its ranks. Trump spent years trying to craft deals and financial ties in Russia, which offers one of the more plausible explanations for why he cultivated Russian President Vladimir Putin so closely.

All of this remains very messy and very murky. For as long as Trump casts a shadow across the global political stage, it’s also a significant problem. So be grateful that a glimpse of Trump’s finances has entered the public realm, but don’t settle for that. A much fuller picture awaits.

Timothy L. O’Brien is senior executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. A former editor and reporter for the New York Times, he is author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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