Leaked Returns Give Insight Into Trump's Taxes

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 15, 2017 10:32 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two pages of President Trump's tax returns are now public. And they show a few big numbers indicating the president's income in 2005. That year, he reported $150 million in income and paid about a quarter of that in taxes. The president has refused to release his tax returns. But somebody mailed those pages to reporter David Cay Johnston of dcreport.org. And he's on the line. David, welcome back to the program.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. So he paid 25 percent of his income in taxes. What's the big deal here?

JOHNSTON: Well, he paid 24. But he would have paid 35 percent if it wasn't for this $103 million of negative income, presumably from a tax shelter that Congress shut down but let people who had already bought it keep. He actually would have paid less than 3.5 percent - his regular federal income tax, 3.5 percent, which is lower than the rate paid by the poorest half of Americans.

INSKEEP: I guess we better explain that. When you talked about a hundred - more than a hundred million dollars in losses, he says the income for the year is $150 million. That's after subtracting some losses. And you're saying that those losses, even though you don't have all the pages, appear to be some kind of tax shelter that reduced his apparent income?

JOHNSTON: That's right. He had $153 million of income. He had $103 million of what's called negative income. That left him with less than $50 million. Then he had some deductions that left him with 30 million. Then he would pay $5 million. But there's another tax which Trump wants to eliminate, the alternative minimum tax, that added $31 million back because it didn't - it disallowed most of the negative income. If he - we had only had the tax system Donald Trump wants - no alternative minimum tax - on a positive income of over $150 million, he would have paid less than 3.5 percent, which is less than the poorest half of Americans pay.

INSKEEP: Now, the White House released a statement. They didn't appear to explicitly confirm the authenticity of the tax return. They do confirm a couple of numbers in it. And then they say that the leakage of this return was illegal. Are they correct?

JOHNSTON: It depends on who leaked it. It's not illegal for me to receive it, as I did, or to publish it. Journalists do that all the time. And I don't know where it came from. But the assertion that the leakage of it was illegal may or may not be true. They also inflated the amount of taxes the president paid. And I notice both The Washington Post and The New York Times didn't skeptically think about that. And they took the White House number, even though it's not what the tax return shows.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So you're saying that these returns do show a little bit different story than what the White House says. And you just received this in the mail, like, literally, you went to the mailbox, and there's two pages?

JOHNSTON: I was actually in Palm Beach looking at Mar-a-Lago for a new biography of Trump that I'm writing when I got a phone call from one of my grown children who said it had come in the mail at my house in Rochester, N.Y. And I got on a plane (laughter), came home.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Good that somebody checked the mail for you then, I suppose.

JOHNSTON: Yes.

INSKEEP: There have been some other tax documents that have been released, one from the 1990s showing that he wrote off $900 million dollars or so. In just a few seconds, do you feel you have a better sense of the president's finances?

JOHNSTON: Oh, yes. And I hope we get more information. But that 900 million, the banks wrote that off. Trump, through a tax shelter, also got to write it off. And it was such an odious tax shelter that Republicans in Congress, as soon as they found out about it, shut it down. But you know what they always do, Steve? They allowed those people who already bought the tax shelter to keep their ill-got tax savings. And that's what happened with Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: OK, so a little bit more is known about the president's finances, much still not known, including the remaining pages of that tax return, only two pages of which were leaked. David Cay Johnston, thanks very much. Pleasure talking with you.

JOHNSTON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He broke the story at dcreport.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.