Can’t see Russia from here: NYT exposé on Trump taxes a dud?

At least from the perspective of Congress, it certainly looks that way. House committees have sued for access to Donald Trump’s tax returns, ostensibly to determine whether he had financial connections to Russia that could explain how and why the Putin regime conducted its interference operations, but likely more interested in campaign-ad dirt. A new report from the New York Times based on “long-concealed records” shows lots of inside information about Trump’s business and personal income that might pay off in election-cycle attacks, but on Russiagate, it turns up nothing at all:

The New York Times has obtained tax-return data extending over more than two decades for Mr. Trump and the hundreds of companies that make up his business organization, including detailed information from his first two years in office. It does not include his personal returns for 2018 or 2019. This article offers an overview of The Times’s findings; additional articles will be published in the coming weeks.

The returns are some of the most sought-after, and speculated-about, records in recent memory. In Mr. Trump’s nearly four years in office — and across his endlessly hyped decades in the public eye — journalists, prosecutors, opposition politicians and conspiracists have, with limited success, sought to excavate the enigmas of his finances. By their very nature, the filings will leave many questions unanswered, many questioners unfulfilled. They comprise information that Mr. Trump has disclosed to the I.R.S., not the findings of an independent financial examination. They report that Mr. Trump owns hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable assets, but they do not reveal his true wealth. Nor do they reveal any previously unreported connections to Russia.

The returns from 2018 and 2019 aren’t germane to the House subpoenas anyway. The demand was made on a predicate that Trump had refused to release the returns because he was hiding a financial relationship with Russian sources, which fueled collusion between Trump and the Russians in the 2016 election. If the New York Times now says they’ve seen all the data from 2017 back and there aren’t any previously disclosed Russian connections, then the House case is completely moot.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily impact Cyrus Vance’s subpoena, which is being fought in a separate lawsuit. The Manhattan DA wanted to look at Trump’s returns to see if he committed tax fraud in paying off Stormy Daniels, only Vance took aim at Michael Cohen so as to get to Trump’s records indirectly. Courts have stalled Vance’s progress on the subpoena, and maybe it’s just as well, since that effort also turns out to be a bust, according to the NYT:

The data contains no new revelations about the $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford, the actress who performs as Stormy Daniels — a focus of the Manhattan district attorney’s subpoena for Mr. Trump’s tax returns and other financial information. Mr. Trump has acknowledged reimbursing his former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, who made the payoff, but the materials obtained by The Times did not include any itemized payments to Mr. Cohen. The amount, however, could have been improperly included in legal fees written off as a business expense, which are not required to be itemized on tax returns.

So much for the criminal conspiracies. So why didn’t Trump just release the returns and get it over with? Trump claimed that an IRS audit kept him from being able to release the returns, and he’s telling the truth about the audit, anyway:

The records that The Times reviewed square with the way Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited, without explanation, an ongoing audit as grounds for refusing to release his tax returns. He alluded to it as recently as July on Fox News, when he told Sean Hannity, “They treat me horribly, the I.R.S., horribly.”

And while the records do not lay out all the details of the audit, they match his lawyers’ statement during the 2016 campaign that audits of his returns for 2009 and subsequent years remained open, and involved “transactions or activities that were also reported on returns for 2008 and earlier.”

That’s not to say that there’s nothing at all in the NYT report useful to Trump’s critics and opponents. The audit centers on a refund of $72.9 million he received in 2010, which the IRS first approved and then began to investigate. Business losses have allowed Trump to pay nearly nothing in taxes for years, which the NYT uses as its lead while burying the Russia-nothingburger aspect of the report underneath it:

Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.

He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.

Here we come to the difference between income and wealth. This is a typical tax-avoidance strategy for the wealthy — to show business losses against income while expanding wealth and assets in other ways. It’s perfectly legal, as long as it’s done legally, of course. The audit is in part looking at that question, but nearly a decade later, the IRS has not brought any charges against Trump, nor does the NYT specify any concrete violations.

Perhaps this might be enough for class-warrior attacks on Trump over the next few weeks, but Democrats had been making that argument since 2015 anyway. When they accused Mitt Romney of being a “vulture capitalist” at Bain, Romney responded by attempting to defend himself as a nice guy. Trump has taken the opposite strategy, to better effect: he paints himself as a ruthless yet legal businessman who takes advantage of every corner-cutting measure Congress has created. And since he’s up against someone whose family members have gotten wealthy by trading off his name while in public office for nearly 50 years, that’s not going to be the dunk Democrats might believe it to be.

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