Trump's Tax Returns Show How He's Milked the Presidency for Profit

His improbable victory came at a moment when his legacy properties were losing money and hundreds of millions in debt loomed over him.
September 28, 2020, 4:17pm
President Donald Trump speaks before a dinner with National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, right, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, at Mar-a-Lago, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla.

WASHINGTON — President Trump designed his 2016 campaign to be the “greatest infomercial in political history,” according to his former fixer Michael Cohen.

We just learned how badly Trump needed the sales—and how his presidency gave some of his properties a big boost. 

The details of Trump’s tax returns, which dropped Sunday in a bombshell New York Times expose, add fresh support to the long-simmering allegation that Trump launched his unlikely campaign principally as a money-making PR stunt to reverse his declining fortunes. 

Even more damning: They show how Trump spun his improbable victory into a money-making opportunity, at a moment when his legacy properties were losing money and hundreds of millions in debt loomed over him. The tax returns provide the clearest portrait yet of how Trump commingled his personal business interests with his presidency, despite promising to separate them. 

Trump, the first modern president since Richard Nixon to refuse to release his tax returns, has fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep them secret. 

Trump launched his presidential campaign at a moment when his massive, $200 million payday from his hit reality-TV show, “The Apprentice,” was wrapping up; his licensing deals were fading—and his golf empire was hemorrhaging money, according to the Times report. 

At first, Trump used losses at his golf courses to offset his reality TV earnings, a move that allowed him to dramatically reduce tax payments, the Times said. Trump paid zero in federal taxes for 10 of the 15 years before he became president, and just $750 in federal tax during the first year of his presidency, the Times said. 

Yet as his reality television earnings dropped off, his golf losses only accelerated. Trump reported losing a total of more than $315.6 million on his golf properties since 2000, according to the Times. Only his presidency would help staunch the damage.  

Profits at some Trump properties increased dramatically after Trump became president. 

Trump’s ritzy Mar-a-Lago golf club in Palm Beach, Florida, won a flood of new members, and profits spiked compared with the decade before his presidency, the documents show. 

“Profits [at Mar-a-Lago] rose sharply after Mr. Trump declared his candidacy, as courtiers eagerly joining up brought a tenfold rise in cash from initiation fees—from $664,000 in 2014 to just under $6 million in 2016, even before Mr. Trump doubled the cost of initiation in January 2017,” the Times wrote. “The membership rush allowed the president to take $26 million out of the business from 2015 through 2018, nearly triple the rate at which he had paid himself in the prior two years.”   

Two other landmark Trump properties—his Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. near the White House, and the sprawling Doral golf club and resort in Florida — both saw credit card payments spike during his presidency began, the Times said. 

Golf is hardly the only area where Trump’s presidency overlaps with his family business. 

The documents also indicate Trump collected millions in rent payments from companies that regularly lobby or do business with the federal government, or who are subject to federal regulations. Trump’s tax records reportedly show payments of $5.8 million from Goldman Sachs, $3.1 million from Microsoft, $32.7 million from an investment company called Neuberger Berman, and $8.8 million from law firm Kirkland & Ellis. 

Those companies rent office space from partnerships Trump maintains with a firm called Vornado. The CEO of Vornado, Steven Roth, is a close Trump political ally. Trump recently named Roth to his economic recovery council, which is supposed to help the country emerge from the pandemic. Trump named Roth’s wife, Daryl Roth, to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Trump’s political ascendancy hasn’t been enough to set his financial house in order, though. In some ways, it cost him. 

Trump’s incendiary stance against immigrants hurt his television earnings. NBC dropped The Apprentice and said it would no longer broadcast Miss Universe, the beauty pageant co-owned by Trump, after he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” in 2015. 

And Trump’s hotels and resorts still face massive headwinds, along with a global pandemic that’s pummeled hospitality-focused businesses around the world. And then there’s that massive pile of debt: Trump is now personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, according to the Times — and most of which will come due within the next four years.