The story of the campaign at the moment is that Donald Trump has possibly not paid taxes for almost two decades, as the New York Times reported Sunday. The Times based this on Trump’s partial 1995 return, which shows he claimed a $916 million loss on that year — “a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years.”
There are a few problems with the story.
The Times was right to pursue it and Trump’s threats to sue the newspaper are typical of his bluster. But there’s no way to know what Trump has paid on his taxes at this point except in 1995. There’s no way to extrapolate from that year alone, especially on the basis of a partial return of which the Times admits it received only three pages.
All we know for sure is that Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his return 21 years back, in a year he lost money. It’s possible he paid taxes every other year, or at least every other year that he made money. I seriously doubt it, but the Times taffy-stretched its story well beyond what the three pages showed.
Second, if the source wanted to get the full story out, why didn’t he or she send the whole return? They only had three pages? That seems highly unlikely. There was some speculation that Marla Maples, who was married to Trump at the time, was the source of the three pages but she presumably would have had the whole return. Whoever leaked the pages very clearly wanted to shape the Times’ coverage by only sharing a tiny component of what they knew. And they succeeded.
Third, the tax system is rigged in favor rich people like Trump but claiming a carry over loss is not only legal, it’s fair if you’re proving accurate information. Last year I had an epic loss on a book project that fell apart. I was not allowed to claim the full amount of the loss on my taxes last year so I’m going to carry over part of the loss on my 2017 return. Hillary Clinton and the New York Times use this same provision, as do a lot of people I know.
(I still paid plenty of taxes last year because I’m not able to use all the real loopholes that people like the Trumps and Clintons do.)
As a presidential candidate Trump should have released all of his returns a long time ago, and the fact that he refused shows he’s hiding something. And this story has been a huge success for the Clinton campaign. As if by magic, Saturday Night Live even had a skit about Trump’s taxes the night before the story officially broke.
But in the end, this story may be less powerful than it first appears. And that leads, possibly, to Roger Stone, the unofficial Trump advisor. Stone, I’m told by someone who is very familiar with his methods, has a long track record of mailing out leaked documents to reporters using for a return address a location that has some significance to the story. (In this case, Trump Tower.)
Stone, you may recall, famously used the media to bring down Eliot Spitzer, at the time Wall Street’s most feared enemy. The New York Times even ended up winning a Pulitzer for its reporting on the topic.
OK, so why would Stone want to leak this information about Trump? Well, the story is damaging, but the Times has already basically said that Trump hasn’t paid taxes for almost two decades. That’s what the public has, quite rightly, concluded from its story.
What happens if Trump releases information that disproves that? Maybe he paid very low taxes for many years, but paid a more typical rate — for rich people, anyway — for many years? At this point a two percent return is better than nothing and he’ll shift the narrative to how the Times misreported this story and his supporters will lap it up.
I’d lay odds that the source for the Trump tax story was someone hoping to set expectations downward, and that would suggest Stone or someone else in the Trump camp. I could be wrong, obviously, but there’s so much bullshit being spread right now by both campaigns it’s hard to know who’s behind all the stories. In any event, this is going to be a long month of October Surprises and every big story needs to be read with a grain of salt.