One of the longest-simmering controversies of Donald Trump's political career came back into the spotlight on Tuesday night, when David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist,gave the public a look at the president's 1040 tax form from 2005—just one of the many, many years of tax returns Trump has refused to release in defiance of longstanding tradition.
The 1040 form, which revealed Trump earned more than $150 million that year, is just two pages of a much longer tax return that should contain more information about the sources of Trump's income, his charitable giving, and many other things.
Johnston's analysis of the returns was first reported on by the Daily Beast, where he is a contributor, and he was interviewed on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. He also posted the documents and wrote about them on his own website, which crashed on Tuesday night. (Maddow's website also posted the documents, and it too crashed.)
According to the Beast's writeup of Johnston's findings:
The documents show Trump and his wife Melania paying $5.3 million in regular federal income tax—a rate of less than 4% However, the Trumps paid an additional $31 million in the so-called "alternative minimum tax," or AMT. Trump has previously called for the elimination of this tax.
There's nothing illegal or even scandalous in that, unless you believe that the relatively low rate ultra-wealthy Americans pay now is a scandal.
In a statement, the White House confirmed that the 1040 form is genuine, but denounced the "dishonest media" and claimed that it was illegal to publish the form. That's not true—Johnston says he received the document in the mail from an unknown sender, and it's perfectly legal to publish documents obtained in that way. That kind of anonymous submission is how the New York Times obtained some of Trump's 1995 tax documents last year.
It's been custom for American presidents and presidential candidates to publicly release tax returns since the Watergate era in the 70s. In Trump's case, given his complicated finances and various allegations of wrongdoing and lying about his income and charitable giving, the returns seemed particularly important in this past campaign, and Democrats have been demanding he release them for months. Trump's old excuse for not doing so was that he was under audit, even though many experts have insisted there's no legal reason he couldn't do so anyway. Since he became president, his team has suggested that he doesn't need to release his returns because people don't care—an assertion that is contradicted by polls showing that yes, they do.
A fuller version of Trump's returns could reveal that he's not as charitable as he says he is—his exaggerations on that score have been extensively reported on by the Washington Post —or that he's not as wealthy as he claims, an idea that Johntson and many others have speculated about. They could also reveal who Trump owes money to, potentially including, as Johnston suggested on Maddow, foreign governments like China. More benignly, they could just show Trump and his accountants taking advantage of tax loopholes, as they did in the early 90s, according to the Times.
The limited amount of information in the 1040 does not speak to any of that, and raises another question: Who among the very small circle of people with access to it leaked this document? Johnston suggested on Maddow that Trump himself might have leaked the documents—he after all has a long career of playing with the press. "With Donald, you never know," Johnston said.
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