[NOTE: Here’s a link to my recent interview on Viewpoints – https://viewpointsradio.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/too-many-lawyers-not-enough-law-jobs/]
Donald Trump is laying mattresses for the release of his tax returns. His periodically besieged and perpetually angry campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told CBS News that the presumptive Republican nominee for President will provide his returns as soon as the Internal Revenue Service concludes an audit.
As another episode in the reality series that has become the presidential campaign, the interview is worth watching. It exemplifies the Trump approach: Confuse the issue, pivot from defense to offense, and identify a new villain or two. As the questions get tougher, allow the natural bully to escape just long enough to intimidate serious inquirers while invigorating core supporters who embrace anger.
Step #1: Confuse the Issue
The CBS News introduction to the Lewandowski interview starts with the enormous range in the estimates of Trump’s wealth. He now claims to be worth $10 billion. In 2014, he said it was $3.3 billion. Last year, Forbes put it at $125 million.
Lewandowski said that Trump’s income last year was $557 million: “By any standard, that’s success.” Then he repeated it for emphasis: “$557 million.”
At best, his assertion was disingenuous. As Fortune Magazine observed, $557 million were Trump’s gross revenues, not his net income. Surely, he would never tolerate someone running one of his businesses who didn’t understand the difference. Plenty of companies with revenues that were tremendous — hugely tremendous, Trump might say — have gone bankrupt. It’s the net that matters.
Lewandowski then talked about the value of the buildings that he says Trump owns. Among them: “a store on Fifth Avenue that’s worth more than Mitt Romney’s total net worth was…”
What is Trump’s actual ownership share of the properties identified with him? Does anyone really believe that he holds clear title to all of the structures that bear the Trump name? Sadly, the answer is yes — lots of people do. They don’t understand, for example, the difference between owning a hotel and licensing the right to let the real owners put the Trump brand on it — often in great big capital letters.
As for his actual properties, do they have mortgages? Fortune reports that while revenues from his businesses increased from 2015, he added debt — $300 million of new debt generating $47 million in interest expense. What is Trump’s real “net-net-net” number? Lewandowski and Trump aren’t saying.
Step #2: Pivot to Offense
How about Trump’s insistence in 2012 that Mitt Romney release his tax returns? Or Romney’s observation that Trump’s returns have something to hide?
“Mitt Romney is a failed presidential candidate,” Lewandowski replied. “And he hid from his wealth.” Then he did a riff on Romney’s eight-car garage in Malibu. (He got that wrong, too. Romney’s building plans involved a four-car garage with an elevator lift in La Jolla.)
If the issue is the continuing IRS audit, why not release tax returns for 2002 through 2008? Those audits are completed.
Lewandowski’s answer: “It’s like what Bernie Sanders said, there’s nothing to see from 2002 and 2003 and 2004. What you guys are interested in right now is what his tax rate is. His tax rate is as low as possible… So he can provide jobs for people in his corporation.”
Step #3: Identify New Villains
As the CBS interviewers pressed ahead, Lewandowski became increasingly angry.
“Every attorney he’s talked to, including people like Greta Van Susteren, has said, ‘As your legal counsel, if I were to be your counsel, I would never allow you to release those taxes until the routine IRS audit is done.'”
“Routine” kept popping out of Lewandowski’s mouth when he referred to the “audit.” It began to take on a “protest too much” aura. But his substantive point is silly. Trump is not just another wealthy private citizen for whom such advice might make sense. He’s running for President of the United States. Does he fear that the IRS is missing something that others will catch? If so, why should he care? If he’s worth more than $10 billion, he can afford whatever anyone finds, can’t he? Besides, if Lewandowski keeps his promise, Trump’s returns will be available “immediately” after the audit is over.
Then came the new villain:
“This is the fault of the IRS,” Lewandowski said with his first smile of the interview. “Have them go finish the audit.”
Behind the Distraction
What could the “something to hide” be? Charitable giving secrets? Maybe. In April, The Washington Post analyzed a list from the Trump campaign of his charitable contributions over the past five years and concluded, “Not a single one of those [4,844] donations was actually a personal gift of Trump’s own money.”
Instead, they were “free rounds of golf, given away by his courses for charity auctions and raffles,” “land conservation agreements to forego development rights on property Trump owns,” and gifts from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, “which didn’t receive a personal check from Trump from 2009 through 2014.”
But I don’t think the most sensitive items on Trump’s personal tax returns involve his charitable giving or lack thereof. I think it’s the tax breaks that benefit every commercial real estate developer: depreciation and carry-forward losses.
The tax code allows taxpayers to depreciate the cost of a commercial building over its assumed life of 39 years. Each year, one thirty-ninth of the cost gets deducted from income. When you deal in big buildings, even small ownership slices translate into big tax depreciation deductions. It doesn’t matter that most buildings last a lot longer than 39 years. Properly structured, depreciation and other deductions relating to the ownership of commercial property pass through to individual taxpayers. Throw in taxes and other deductions, and the amounts get even larger.
Likewise, if a taxpayer loses money on a business venture — and Trump has ample experience there as well — those losses also offset current income. If total deductions and losses in a year exceed income, they carry-forward to offset income in future years.
“He’s going to pay the smallest amount of taxes possible,” Lewandowski said in reframing the entire issue. “Every deduction possible. He fights for every single dollar. That’s the mindset you want to bring to the government.”
Don’t be surprised if Trump’s personal effective tax rate turns out to be surprisingly close to zero. It’s probably a lot lower than what most of his supporters pay. I guess that makes Trump a winner. It makes those supporters something else.