Unanswered questions about Trump’s tax returns
By David Goldman, Allison Morrow and Alicia Wallace, CNN
After years of legal battles, pontificating and theorizing, former President Donald Trump’s tax returns from 2015 to 2020 are now part of the public record. Many critics and political opponents have theorized that Trump fought the public disclosure of his tax returns because they potentially provided evidence of illegal or politically damaging behavior.
It’s not immediately clear that they do either.
However, Trump’s tax returns raise numerous questions about the former president’s finances, his business activities, foreign ties and his charitable donations, among other issues.
Why did Trump work so hard to keep all of this secret?
Trump broke with decades of tradition in becoming the first elected president since Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax returns to the public When Democratic lawmakers demanded them, Trump fought for years to keep them private, taking the battle to the Supreme Court — a legal fight he ultimately lost.
He frequently claimed during his 2016 presidential candidacy that he couldn’t release his taxes because they were being audited, a claim that was debunked last week when the House Ways and Means Committee disclosed that Trump’s 2015 and 2016 taxes weren’t audited until 2019.
For now, the thousands of pages of documents offer only more questions about what Trump’s finances, and may offer potential avenues for new investigations.
What was Trump doing with a Chinese bank account?
Trump reported having foreign bank accounts, including a bank account in China between 2015 and 2017, his tax returns show.
The tax returns do not show what the bank account was used for or how much money passed through it or to whom. The New York Times first reported about Trump’s Chinese account in 2020, and Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten told the Times that the account was used to pay taxes on the Trump International Hotels Management’s business push in the country.
Trump did not report the Chinese bank account in personal financial disclosures when he was president, likely because it was listed under his businesses. Yet he may have still been required to report accounts to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
What’s the scope of Trump’s foreign business operations, and who are his partners?
Trump’s companies and business interests span the globe. On his tax return, Trump listed business income, taxes, expenses or other notable financial items from or in Azerbaijan, Panama, Canada, India, Qatar, South Korea, the United Kingdom, China, the Dominican Republic, United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Grenada, US territory Puerto Rico, Georgia, Israel, Brazil, St. Maarten, Mexico, Indonesia, Ireland, Turkey and St. Vincent.
But the tax returns don’t explain what business ties he had in those countries and with whom he might have been working while he was president.
Unlike previous presidents, Trump declined to divest his business interests while he was in office. Critics said his many foreign holdings compromised his ability to act independently as a politician.
His 2020 tax return showed zero charitable donations. Did Trump actually donate his presidential salary to charity, as he promised he would?
During his presidency, Trump pledged he would donate the entirety of his $400,000 salary to charity each year. He frequently boasted about donating parts of his quarterly paycheck to various government agencies.
If he donated his 2020 salary, he didn’t claim it on his taxes. Among the six years of tax returns the House Ways and Means Committee released, 2020 was the sole year in which Trump listed no donations to charity.
That doesn’t mean his salary wasn’t donated, but it’s unclear if he made good on his promise in 2020.
Why was Trump loaning money to his adult children? And did Trump claim gifts to his children as loans?
In each year of Trump’s presidency, Trump claimed that he had loaned three of his adult children — Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric — undisclosed sums of money on which he collected interest.
The tax returns don’t say how much he lent them or why he gave them loans in the first place.
Between 2017 and 2020, Trump claimed he received exactly $18,000 in interest on a loan he gave his daughter Ivanka Trump and $8,715 in interest from his son Donald Trump, Jr.. In 2017 to 2019, Trump said he received exactly $24,000 from his son Eric Trump, and Eric paid him $19,605 in interest in 2020.
The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation said the loans and the amounts of claimed interest could indicate Trump was disguising gifts to his children. If the interest Trump claims to have charged his children was not at market rate, for example, it could be considered a gift for tax purposes, requiring him to pay a higher tax rate on the money.
How did Trump’s business operations and income change when he was president?
Trump entered the US presidency with a vast web of business holdings, including hundreds of limited liability companies, corporations and partnerships with operations both domestically and overseas.
The massiveness and intricacy of his business operations — including companies nested within each other like Matryoshka dolls — brought a level of complexity not seen before in the US presidency and spurred concern about potential conflicts of interest, especially with foreign entities.
Friday’s public release of Trump’s 2015 to 2020 personal and business tax filings may shed some additional light as to how those operations evolved during and shortly after his time in office. But they don’t spell out where money was going and to whom.
Why didn’t the IRS do its job?
Since 1977, the Internal Revenue Service has had a policy of auditing every president’s personal tax returns while they are in office. But the IRS didn’t do any examination of Trump’s tax returns until the Ways and Means Committee requested an audit in April of 2019.
When the committee asked Treasury Department representatives about the apparent lapse, they declined to provide information about the actual operations of the mandatory audit program, according to the committee’s report.
It remains unclear whether Trump received special treatment or, as the committee noted, the IRS was hamstrung by an acute lack of resources.
The lack of an audit looks especially suspect after representatives for Trump’s predecessor and successor said they had been subjected to annual audits by the IRS. A Biden White House spokesman told the AP that the IRS audited Biden in both 2020 and 2021. Representatives for former President Barack Obama told the New York Times that the IRS audited him each year he was in office.
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