On Sunday evening, the New York Times dropped bombshell reporting on a few decades of President Donald Trump’s tax returns. Some startling (or not-so-startling, depending on how closely you have followed this) revelations have emerged. The headline-grabbing details concern him only paying $750, or zero in most years, and the fact that he deducted some expenses relating to his fame, such as grooming. I have not personally seen the returns, and, as a certified public accountant, it is difficult to fully interpret the scope of alleged misdeeds without all of the background. However, in my 40 years as a CPA, I do have a few questions about Trump’s tax returns:
How deep is the debt?
The question is not, “Why didn’t he pay taxes?” The question is, “If he has such huge losses and has no money as a result, where is his money coming from, and how deep is he in debt?”
Alongside that question is the issue of potential foreign influence over his decisions, due to obligations to foreign governments (not documented in the returns, but which are general knowledge), as well as income earned from those governments at his properties, which could violate the emoluments clause.
Did he deserve a refund?
The $72.9 million refund he received can only happen if at least $72.9 million was originally paid in. The issue is not the size of the refund. The issue is whether or not he was entitled to the refund at all, which is why he is being audited. He is not paying taxes because he is offsetting the refund against tax due, but if the refund is not legit, then he owes a slew of back taxes. Without getting overly technical, if he took a large loss on an investment, but got a percentage of the company back in exchange, that could be a deferred loss and not able to be taken currently. If he is taking an untenable position, he may be in for a rude awakening if the refund is eventually disallowed.
Are the deductions legit?
In my opinion, the largest issue here is the legitimacy of certain business deductions, the most notable of which are $70,000 for haircuts and $700,000 for consulting fees paid to Ivanka (although if she were taking this money and benefiting the company, she would need to claim it on her own return). You can live very nicely on little income if someone else is paying all of your expenses, which appears to be what is happening here. I will also mention that there could be preparer liability if the CPA firm allowed deductions that were obviously egregious.
Was Trump’s New York property rented?
There was a mention of him deducting real estate taxes for an investment property in New York. If that is a legitimate second property, that is allowed, although from 2018 on, state and local taxes are limited to $10,000. However, if he was “renting” that property to his kids, and therefore able to deduct the expenses, that is a no-no. You also cannot depreciate an investment property if that property is not income producing.
The bottom line is that President Trump is deep in debt, with all signs pointing to him as a failed businessman. If he claims that he isn’t a failure, then how could he take these big losses? If the losses are legitimate, how can he be considered successful? He can’t have it both ways.
David A. Caplan is an accountant in Lafayette Hill, Pa.