Trump’s Taxes: A question of Leadership, not just Legality

Overall the president paid no federal income taxes in 11 of the 18 years Times reporters examined.
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[Donald Trump's Taxes]
Richard Nixon: “Make sure you pay your taxes. Otherwise you can get in a lot of trouble.”
Photo: YouTube

Donald Trump's tax avoidance--and perhaps tax evasion--schemes are now being scrutinized because of the bombshell reporting from the New York Times.

“Make sure you pay your taxes,” Richard Nixon told the British journalist David Frost in a 1977 interview. “Otherwise you can get in a lot of trouble.”

The former president knew this from bitter experience. During his first term he took big deductions that looked bad when leaked to the press. President Nixon lost half his net worth before the scandal subsided.

Now President Donald Trump is getting a lot of attention for big deductions – and other tax-reducing financial maneuvers – that have been leaked to the press. A huge New York Times’ story covers over 20 years’ worth of President Trump’s personal financial records.

His situation is far from analogous with Nixon’s, of course. His taxes may seem startling to an average American – he paid only $750 in income tax in 2017. But it remains unclear whether he did anything illegal, or even unusual for wealthy owners of commercial real estate.

However, in one sense the two cases may be similar: the question of leading by example. When it comes to tax loopholes, are presidents ordinary citizens who can fight for every advantage? Or should they treat their tax obligations as symbolic of their character and attitude toward the business of American government as a whole? In their first years as president, Barack Obama paid $1.79 million in taxes, while George W. Bush paid $250,000.

U.S. presidents are both the taxpayer-in-chief and the tax-collector-in-chief, says Joe Thorndike, a tax historian and expert who’s written extensively on the Nixon case. They sit at the top of a system that, in the end, relies on voluntary compliance. The faith of citizens in its integrity matters – a lot.

“We depend on people being honest, and it’s important to know the president is honest too,” says Dr. Thorndike.

The trove of tax information received by the Times represents the clearest and most extensive available picture, by far, of President Trump’s tax obligations and the financial structure of his companies.

Overall the president paid no federal income taxes in 11 of the 18 years Times reporters examined.

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