MSNBC host Rachel Maddow spent hours touting a massive scoop: She – or more accurately veteran investigative reporter David Cay Johnston – had gotten her hands on President Donald Trump’s 2005 federal tax return.
That return – the political universe speculated – might hold the key to unlocking the single biggest mystery surrounding Trump: His financial affairs. After all, this is a president who broke with decades of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns – any of them – during the 2016 campaign, insisting he was under audit.
The return wasn’t the key. Not even close.
First, the basics. Trump made more than $150 million in 2005 and paid $38 million in taxes that year, according to the two-page summary materials mailed to Johnston this week.
Now, the history. Trump has repeatedly said that he did everything he could to pay as little tax as possible – a position, he insisted, that not only made him smart but also one which lots and lots of voters seemed to agree with. “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible,” Trump told ABC in May 2016.
And, because of Trump’s refusal to pay taxes, there has long been speculation that he may not have paid any taxes at all from the mid 1990s – when we know he reported more than $900 million in losses on his tax returns – until the mid-2000s.
The 2005 tax return shows that the latter supposition is simply not true. Trump paid $38 million in taxes, not $0. And the return also suggests that Trump, as he said, did what he could to lower his tax burden. He paid an effective tax rate of 25 percent, far below the top tax bracket – 35 percent – for individuals at that time.
In short: We didn’t learn anything we don’t already know about Trump. Yes, he is very wealthy. Yes, he – like virtually all very wealthy people – looks for holes in the tax code to lower his overall taxable income. (Sidebar: As a non-wealthy person, I do the same thing.)
For all the hoopla surrounding the unearthing of these documents, there simply was no smoking gun – or anything close to it – here. A brief scan of Trump’s financial status a decade ago shows, roughly, what you would expect it to show. Nothing nefarious, nothing untoward.
That of course doesn’t mean that the fuller 2005 return – or returns from other years – might not be problematic for Trump. But, this one just isn’t.
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