Congressional committee begins release of Trump’s tax returns

Newly released information from a Congressional investigation shows that the IRS did not pursue timely mandatory audits of former President Trump during his term in office, as required. Russ Buettner of The New York Times joined William Brangham to discuss what we're learning about Trump’s finances and why the IRS oversight didn't take place.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Newly released information from a congressional investigation shows that the IRS did not pursue timely, mandatory audits of former President Trump during his term in office, as is required.

    Our William Brangham has more on what we are learning about former President Trump's finances and why IRS oversight didn't take place.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the new report comes after Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee engaged in a years-long battle with the IRS to obtain the former president's tax records.

    The Supreme Court cleared the way for access last month. The report doesn't yet include the raw returns. But data shows Trump paid as little as $750 in federal income tax while running for president in 2016. But once his income started increasing while in the White House, he paid the federal government nearly a million dollars in taxes. He paid no federal income tax his final year in office.

    The committee will publicly release six years of Trump's tax returns in the next few days.

    Joining me now to discuss is Russ Buettner from The New York Times. He has spent the last several years investigating Trump's financial dealings.

    Russ Buettner, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    What does this summary report tell us about the president's finances? What's new in here?

  • Russ Buettner, The New York Times:

    Well, I think there's two things.

    One, it's sort of a continuation of what we have reported in the past, that he every year logs generally very high business losses overall, that for him to pay income tax is extraordinarily rare.

    That 2018 number was quite a blip, and then also just that these audits — this audit function really just has not worked, as you alluded to there, in exploring his vulnerabilities financially, the places where he could be subject to manipulation, and then also ways that money could be sent to him through business transactions, apparent business transactions that didn't really have any business purpose.

    So,that's a couple of things that were really sort of alarming, that he just has not been looked at. And he is, beyond a doubt, the most sort of financially complicated and at times vulnerable president we have had in a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, the House took the IRS to task for not doing this.

    It is the IRS' responsibility, correct, to do that? They're supposed to do that with every sitting president?

  • Russ Buettner:

    My understanding is that there's a regulation that requires that. It's not yet a law. I think there's talk about making it into a law. But it really does show the need to make sure that this is done, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    As you mentioned, a few years ago, you and your colleagues did this very big dig — this very deep, in-depth investigation into President Trump and his — and his finances during the '80s and the '90s.

    This was during the period where he was promoting himself as the great real estate developer. But your investigation showed that, over that decade, he lost nearly, I think it was a billion dollars.

    So, does this report that came out this week dovetail with what your reporting back then found?

  • Russ Buettner:

    I think it's of a piece.

    Yes, I think he — if you look at his businesses and his financial records up close, not in the ways that he describes it, what you see are the businesses that he controls are generally the less — lowest-performing sort of assets that he has in his portfolio. The things that have done the best for him are the assets that he received through his father, which, over his life, totaled about a half-a-billion dollars in today's money.

    And then also the money he received from being on "The Apprentice," which was completely free of any required business expertise, that money and the licensing money, which was basically just him renting out his name, totaled almost another half-a-billion dollars over the course of his life.

    That has basically underwritten a basket of businesses that overall do not consistently perform very well and offer him huge tax write-offs almost every year.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, in this most recent report, it showed that Donald Trump came into office suffering the same kinds of losses that you were documenting back during the '80s and '90s, but then, while president, his income did spike up that one year or two.

    Do we have any understanding of where those profits came from, where those earnings came from?

  • Russ Buettner:

    There was a blip in 2018. And he reported about $22 million in positive taxable income for the year. That was extraordinarily rare for him.

    It came from the sale of some assets. Part of that, we're looking into now. That's not divulged in the report. But it appears like it may have been part, actually, of his inheritance that was finally sold off that year. So we're examining that.

    And then, after that blip, it wasn't like the businesses started performing well. It was just a one-time big payday from the sale of a couple of assets, and he returned back to his sort of historical pattern of not reporting taxable income.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that Donald Trump resisted what most modern presidents do, which is to give their tax returns over for public scrutiny.

    We may get those in the next couple of days, these six years, from Congress. But I wonder if you could just step back again. You touched on this a bit earlier, but what is the public interest in knowing what a president or presidential candidate's tax returns, what does that really tell us that's in the public interest?

  • Russ Buettner:

    I think there are a few things.

    One, I — I did try to mention this earlier, that, look, if a president is in need of money, that makes him vulnerable to manipulation. And you see times in President Trump's career where he's not been able to make payroll. That just came up recently in the criminal trial of his company in Manhattan, where, at times when he could not make payroll, he would have to come up with several million dollars to support that.

    And we saw that in his tax returns over the years. So, that's the sort of thing, that vulnerability, the subjection to manipulation, is an important thing for the public and for law enforcement authorities to be aware of.

    And then, also, there are just a lot of ways, when you have these kinds of cash-based hospitality businesses, that money can be sent to him in a way that appeared to be a business transaction, but had no legitimacy. For example, if you wanted to take — rent 100 hotel rooms in one of his properties for a weekend, you could easily get him $100,000, $200,000, and not use those rooms.

    And that's basically just a large pot of money you have given the president of the United States that would not show up at all on our financial disclosure forms, and really would not show up on a tax return, unless somebody went and looked at the audit to see whether those appeared to be legitimate.

    So those are the sorts of things that have, I think, real public ramifications that currently we have no other system to capture or highlight in any way.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Russ Buettner of The New York Times, thank you so much again for being here.

  • Russ Buettner:

    Thanks for having me.

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