While the headline from the Times investigation is that Trump has paid practically no taxes in most years this century—likely galling to anyone who’s had to pay the IRS more than $750, the nominal amount he paid in 2016 and 2017—the bigger revelation is how much money the president loses.
The tax returns reveal Trump to be an awful businessman, rescued only by his father’s largesse and his own skill in playing the part of a mogul on The Apprentice. Flush with cash from the TV show, Trump splurged on high-profile properties, but they have turned out to be liabilities, rather than assets. In filings to the government, Trump reported losing tens of millions of dollars on those properties. The Times story also shows the extent to which Trump has blended his personal and business lives. Lavish dinners, expensive haircuts for himself and his family, private-jet travel, and a historic mansion outside of New York City: Trump has claimed all of these as business expenses for tax purposes. He has engaged in a number of legally dubious maneuvers to transfer money to his children.
Now, however, the snare is tightening around Trump. He is in a lengthy battle with the U.S. government over a refund of nearly $73 million he has claimed. Worse, he has hundreds of millions of dollars in loans that he personally guaranteed coming due in the next few years. To plug the holes, Trump has sold hundreds of millions in stocks and bonds, draining his reserves. He has few options left; late last year, his company even put a crown jewel, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the sales block—though the hotel carries substantial debt, and the market for major properties has frozen.
Trump has faced difficulties like this before, and he’s managed to wriggle out mostly unscathed. His companies have had to declare bankruptcy at least four times, but he has avoided personal bankruptcy by finding ways to delay a reckoning, and by burning lenders, which is one reason few banks will now loan him money. The Times report is only the latest indicator that Trump’s run for the presidency was actually designed as a promotional gimmick for the struggling Trump Organization.
David A. Graham: Why would a billionaire charge the Secret Service $650 per night?
Nevertheless, Trump ran for president promising to bring his experience from the private sector to the White House, and while his record of honesty is poor, he has kept this promise. He has installed his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as top advisers. He has made a series of short-term bets, taking on enormous long-term risks and lacking a plan to deal with them.
Having ignored any boundaries between his business and personal interests in his private life, he has adopted the same approach in office. Trump has used the presidency as a marketing opportunity, spending roughly a third of it at his own properties. The Trump International and Mar-a-Lago have become hot destinations for anyone trying to curry favor with Trump, whether political allies or foreign diplomats. He has charged the U.S. Secret Service exorbitant rates to stay at his own hotels, even when the hotels were closed. He invited a delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence to stay at his Doonbeg resort in Ireland, then charged taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for it. He attempted to host the G7 summit at his Doral resort (which the Times reveals to be perhaps his greatest white elephant), but backed down in the face of disapproval from even Republican allies. Trump has also charged huge bills for the use of his properties to his reelection effort, even as the campaign burns down its once-fearsome reserves.