n 1995, Donald Trump and I paid the same amount in taxes to the IRS. Trump, at that point, owned a slew of multimillion-dollar buildings bearing his name and his gold-plated brand, and claimed to have had a net worth of $2bn. I was learning what colours were while trying to kick an addiction to thumb-sucking.
Documents released to the New York Times reveal that the Republican presidential candidate was able to cash in on $916m in debt to shirk federal taxes that year, and potentially payments on all other taxable income over the next 18. This raises several questions about Trump’s taxes: what his returns have looked like since 1995; where his personal net worth stands now; and the extent of his debts.
One thing that is already painfully clear, though, is that there are two vastly different sets of rules governing Americans’ economic lives – one for poor and working people, and another for Trump and the rest of the rich and famous. The odds of him rewriting those rules are about as great as the amount of money he shelled over to the IRS in 1995.
The weekend’s news has left the Trump surrogates who’ve attached themselves to his faux economic populism in an awkward spot. Echoing the campaign’s official response, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani called Trump an “absolute genius”’ on CNN yesterday. “He knows how to operate the tax code for the people that he’s serving,” Giuliani added, pivoting quickly to discuss Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
During last year’s primary, meanwhile, Trump chided “people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax”, saying, “I think it’s unfair.” Anyone familiar with Trump should know better than to expect coherence. But this weekend’s revelations highlight the outright hypocrisy on which his bid for the presidency has been built.
Promising to make America great for the worst off, Trump packs giveaways for his friends on Wall Street into nearly every policy he writes. His “America First” economic plan, for instance, is as regressive as they come, setting out to slash taxes for the wealthy, bring those on corporations down from 35 to 15%, and repeal the estate tax on couples with more than $10.5m to pass to their next of kin.
Like so many others, the tax system is already rigged in favour of Trump and his comrades at Mar-a-Lago. He’s no genius, as Giuliani says. He just had the good fortune to inherit and then amass enough wealth to buy a small army of accountants, all trained to seek out the many loopholes in the tax code for the 1%. The most troubling thing about Trump not paying taxes, then, is that it was completely legal.
As his campaign continues to argue that Trump will use his business smarts to run the country like his personal empire, those looking for a more grounded preview of what economic life under Trump might look like should pay closer attention to those who’ve already been on his wrong side. Instead of Giuliani, major networks might do better to talk to one of the 253 “little guy” contractors who Trump stiffed after opening Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal casino in 1990, or the students who felt swindled by Trump University, which American regulators did not recognise as a university. They might also ask some of the millennials born in 1995, who – if they were lucky enough to attend college – will graduate this spring with an average of $37,172 in student loans. For Trump, debts almost 30,000 times that have been a boon to business. For ordinary Americans, financial hardships are a daily struggle.
Whatever populist mask he puts on, Trump is a candidate of and for the 1%. If he gets the chance to “fix” this country’s tax laws, as he claims, those who come out on top will be the people already there.