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What new financial details reveal about Trump’s business empire

Congressional Democrats are expected to decide Thursday whether to go to court to obtain President Trump’s recent tax returns. Though there has long been curiosity over Trump’s taxes, which he declined to release in 2016, interest in them resurfaced after a New York Times investigation uncovered past tax records and large business losses. William Brangham talks to Times reporter Ross Buettner.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressional Democrats are expected to decide tomorrow whether they will go to court to obtain President Trump's recent tax returns.

    The president broke with modern tradition by refusing to release his returns. Democrats and other experts have questioned whether there could be information about foreign investors, about debts or other business arrangements in those returns.

    Today, the New York State Senate approved a bill that would allow the president's state tax records to be turned over to Congress.

    As William Brangham tells us, this line of inquiry picked up new fuel overnight after a New York Times investigation shed light on the president's past tax records and his large business losses.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, The Times' investigation found that at the very moment Donald Trump was portraying himself as the most successful dealmaker of the 1980s and '90s, his actual balance sheet told a very different story.

    The Times' analysis found Mr. Trump lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994. The report says — quote — "Year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer." Those combined losses, the article contends, enabled him to avoid paying income taxes for eight years.

    The president and his legal team have called The Times' report inaccurate.

    I'm joined now by one of the reporters who broke this story, Russ Buettner of The New York Times.

    Russ, thank you very much for being here.

    You have painted this really remarkable portrait of this decade in Donald Trump's financial life. Help us understand, why was he losing so much money during this time?

  • Russ Buettner:

    Well, if you look back at the records from that era, he was buying things at extraordinarily high prices, and then taking on even more debt to build them out to his design.

    And then the revenues that he brought in never supported that debt load. So, with each acquisition, he would go further into the red ink, and the losses just mounted as the years progressed.

  • William Brangham:

    And what were these ventures, for people who are not that familiar with his history?

  • Russ Buettner:

    He originally started building apartment buildings. He would make a condominium building. That would sell through and he would keep the retail space.

    Then he branched out into a variety, a very eclectic collection of things. He bought an offshoot of the NFL. He bought a football team. He bought an airline. He started opening casinos that were extraordinarily expensive. He bought a landmark New York City hotel.

    And all of that just mounted up to about $3 billion in debt he took on over just about a five-year period.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as your report points out, he did have some successful ventures, but, in any given year, it seems, the losses from other ventures swamped those returns.

  • Russ Buettner:

    That's exactly right.

    He would — he's constantly sort of changing focuses. There was a period of time that lasted about two years where he would buy, with borrowed money, large holdings in a public corporation, leak news that he had bought that, and that he might take the company over, and as soon as the stock went up, he would sell.

    He made about $60 million over a couple of years doing that. And then the market figured out that he wasn't going to take over the companies, and it stopped reacting. That sort of ended.

    But it was — like that, there were these ventures that he did make money on. But the losses from his company, his companies, his other enterprises, would wash away all his tax liability for even those extraordinary gains.

  • William Brangham:

    The president, as you know, has said, first off, that everybody was doing this back in the '80s and '90s. And then he also said that your reporting was inaccurate.

    Given that you don't actually have a signed copy of President Trump's tax returns, how did you compile this data? And how do you know it is actually accurate?

  • Russ Buettner:

    What we have is a printout from President Trump's tax transcript, which is a printout from an official database the IRS has kept since the 1960s of every tax return that's filed by every individual every year.

    There are internal quality controls on that data. It's used for a variety of policy-setting reasons. They use it to target audits. And they bring printouts from it to audits. And if you wanted to request yours, you could file that request with the IRS, and they would give it to you as an official record of the return you filed.

    It's, in fact, a very reliable record. It's been used for very important things for a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, this is, of course, coming amidst the fight of congressional Democrats trying to get more recent tax returns from the president. What might those returns tell us that we don't now know?

  • Russ Buettner:

    We're guessing into a vacuum a little bit, because we just really don't know.

    But we could certainly tell for the first time maybe if his claims of wealth are really accurate. We would be able to see how profitable his businesses are. He's reported on his disclosure forms revenue figures, not profitability. And profitability has been a problem for Donald Trump throughout his career.

    We could tell what the sources of those incomes are. We could tell whether he has any properties that are in jeopardy. We could tell if he's got partners that he hasn't disclosed. We could tell if he's got more debt than what he's allowed and who he's borrowed money from.

    And we could look for conflicts of interest that might not be apparent now between his public policy and all the countries around the world where he has investments in money-earning properties.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Russ Buettner of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Russ Buettner:

    Thanks for having me.

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