Trump's America Is a Great Place to Cheat on Taxes

The Paradise Papers. The Panama Papers. Straight-up fraud. "We haven't even gotten to the tip of that iceberg," one expert said.

by Allie Conti
Oct 8 2018, 4:00am

Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty Images

Last week, the New York Times released the most comprehensive look into Donald Trump's financial history ever compiled. Not only did it debunk the president's oft-repeated etiological myth about having only received a $1 million loan from his dad, Fred, which he later had to pay back with interest—it showed how the father-son team systematically cheated on taxes.

Though the Times published a couple of TL;DRs of its own 13,000-word article, here is an even more condensed version: Trump was a millionaire by the time he was eight, in part because his father made him a banker or a landlord on various building projects. His family also used grantor-retained annuity trusts (GRATS) and a fake company called All County Building Supply & Maintenance to ultimately transfer more than $1 billion in wealth to their kids. All of this should have led to a tax bill of about $550 million, but they only paid $52.2 million. (The Trumps also had a tendency to devalue or inflate the value of properties based on their needs, chipping away even more at what little they paid the government.)

The extent to which elites play by their own rules is an old story, one perhaps most glaringly revealed back in 2016, when the so-called Panama Papers leaked. That trove of documents showed how seemingly every 1 percenter in the world was stashing wealth in shell companies created by a now-notorious law firm called Mossack Fonseca, leaving it up to the other 99 percent to pay a disproportionate amount in taxes. The following year, a sort of sequel came in the form of the Paradise Papers scoop implicating more than 120 politicians from around the world in similar schemes of quasi-legal tax avoidance.

But the new Times piece, and the massive amount of documents it relied upon, suggested the best way to grift the government might not be by offshoring (or often legal tax avoidance) at all, but rather by engaging in a series of bald-faced crimes (a.k.a. tax evasion) and hoping the government didn't catch you. Conversations with tax lawyers and experts suggested offshoring remains a huge and sprawling problem that governments need to rein in, and it's worth remembering that Trump's name was sprinkled throughout the Panama Papers. But straight-up tax evasion that doesn't involve tropical locales is an incredible drag on the system in its own right.

"As to which problem is 'bigger,' it is difficult to say without further research, but in terms of sheer number of people involved, I think one would find more non-compliant taxpayers right under the nose of Uncle Sam than basking in a tax haven like the Cayman Islands," Bridget Crawford, a scholar of taxation at Pace University Law School, told me.

Crawford, who described herself as a "classic lefty liberal lawyer" with 25 years of experience giving advice to wealthy families, said that—despite being loathe to admit it—a lot of what was outlined in the Times's expose has tended to be relatively common for the country's elites.

"The notion of creating a partnership with your children, for example, rich families do that all the time to transfer wealth from one another," she said. "That's kind of plain vanilla estate planning for the ultra wealthy."

More galling, she said, was the systematic underreporting of gifts and the invention of the All County company, perhaps the wildest revelation in the Trump expose. Crawford suggested the Trumps got away with all of this in no small part because the IRS simply hasn't been equipped to catch every bad actor. The wealthy know this, and often gamble on it.

"Rich people often call that playing the audit lottery," she said.

This is not likely to get better any time soon. With the rise of the Tea Party, the IRS became an even more politicized entity with mainstream Republicans like Ted Cruz calling to abolish it. And in February, Trump appointed tax lawyer Charles Rettig as head of the agency—a move nonprofit news service DCReport called tantamount to "making El Chapo head of the DEA" because his claim to fame was defending people in court accused of doing some of the very same things Trump's family did.

But how does the amount the average elite saves by avoiding taxes via offshoring compare to what Trump's family saved as revealed in the Times's story? One helpful if imperfect benchmark is that, according to the IRS, in the tax year 2008-2010, under-reporting of individual income tax accounted for an estimated tax gap of $264 billion. Meanwhile, the US accounts for nearly $190 billion of the $500 billion worldwide lost from multinational companies' profit-shifting annually, according to analysis by the Tax Justice Network, a pro-transparency think tank and advocacy group. (The total amount of wealth hidden—legally and otherwise—by both individuals and businesses offshore is estimated to be in the trillions worldwide.)

The comparison isn't exactly apples-to-apples, but it's clear there is plenty of shady behavior going on right here at home.

"In effect, the US is its own tax haven for many wealthy people," Alex Cobham, the Tax Justice Network's chief executive, told me. "The US has among the lowest relative use of Swiss financial institutions, for example, because it's so easy to hide your money in different states of the US. And while Swiss financial institutions have to report bank data to the IRS, a simple anonymous company structure in Delaware or Wyoming can solve the issue for a US citizen—and without any money leaving the country."

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is like the poster boy of everything that Brooke Harrington has been studying for a decade. The professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author Capital without Borders: Wealth Management and the One Percent told me the word "offshoring" may not have appeared in the Times's story simply because it was harder to pull off when capital controls made moving large amounts of currency around more complicated. Back in the heyday of Fred Trump in the 60s and 70s, people often weren't allowed to go on vacation in some locales while carrying serious cash on them.

This was also a time when tax records were kept only on hardcopy, which made it more difficult for officials to detect patterns adding up to fraud. But these days, those capital controls have generally been lifted. And while the US was able to force the big Swiss bank UBS to disclose fraud by American clients years ago—essentially by threatening to bankrupt them—they often can't count on other countries to monitor for illegal activity.

All that said, Harrington insisted it was a false dichotomy to try and separate domestic and international tax schemes—no one engaged in those activities thinks or acts as if the choices are “domestic tax fraud” or “offshoring.” The two are inextricably linked, she argued, part and parcel of what elites like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin engage in as a way to obtain, maintain, and obscure their wealth.

"[Fraud] is the only thing he ever learned from his father that he's ever been any good at, because he sure as shit didn't learn the business," she told me. "Someday, someone's going to write the book about the extent of Donald Trump's international tax fraud, and it will be jaw-dropping. We haven't even gotten to the tip of that iceberg."

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Donald Trump
Panama Papers
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