Nov. 1, The New York Times on Donald Trump avoiding taxes:
Donald Trump’s claim that he was smart for figuring out how not to pay federal income taxes was obnoxious when he said it, at least for the millions of Americans who pay their fair share. Now we learn that he was able to avoid some of those taxes decades ago with a tactic that is illegal now and was highly dubious even then.
In the 1990s, with his Atlantic City casinos and other businesses tottering on the verge of collapse, Mr. Trump negotiated a deal under which his creditors — investors and banks — would forgive part of the debt in exchange for equity in partnerships he controlled. Without such swaps, Mr. Trump would have had to report the forgiven debt as income, offsetting a big portion of the $916 million loss he claimed on his tax return in 1995. That loss allowed him to avoid paying taxes for up to 18 years.
It is impossible to know whether the Internal Revenue Service challenged Mr. Trump’s use of the swaps because, unlike every major party presidential nominee for nearly 40 years, he refuses to release his tax returns. But as The Times reported last week, the maneuver was so suspect that his lawyers advised against it.
And it’s clear that even then tax officials and federal lawmakers were hoping to end the practice because it allowed businesses and rich individuals to avoid taxes by swapping forgiven debt with equity that was worth little or nothing. Indeed, even as Mr. Trump’s lawyers were advising him against this approach, one tax expert wrote that trying to find legal support for it was like trying to find evidence for “the existence of the Loch Ness monster.”
Congress barred such swaps by corporations in 1993, and by partnerships, the business structure Mr. Trump uses, in 2004.
As is its habit, Mr. Trump’s campaign chose to regard these latest revelations as yet another display of his genius. But like any other effort to game the tax system, his tactics imposed real costs by shifting the burden to taxpayers who have no recourse to such strategies and must pay full freight, including people whose taxes are withheld and cannot shelter their income even if they want to.
It has become ever more difficult for the I.R.S. to police the kind of tax avoidance Mr. Trump has engaged in. The Republican-controlled Congress cut the I.R.S.’s budget by about $500 million in 2015, and last year the agency audited just 0.8 percent of individual taxpayers, down from 1.1 percent in 2010. Its enforcement staff has shrunk by 23 percent since 2010, to 39,000 people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The latest disclosures about Mr. Trump’s taxes also further undercut the argument that he is uniquely qualified to fix what he has called a rigged system. Why would a man who has spent most of his professional life avoiding the shared responsibility of taxes all of a sudden care about helping others, especially those less fortunate? The truth is, of course, that he has no intention of doing so; according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Mr. Trump’s tax proposals would confer by far the greatest advantages on the wealthiest Americans.
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