Weekend Catch-Up: How Did Donald Trump Lose $916 Million?

Surprisingly, I had some real-life stuff to attend to this weekend, which means I’ve only just caught up on the latest Trump meltdown. I might as well share it with you, since maybe a few other people need to catch up too.

On Saturday, the New York Times published copies of the first page of Donald Trump’s 1995 state tax returns from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They show that Trump declared a net operating loss that year of $916 million—about $1.5 billion in today’s dollars. Questions abounded:

  • Where did the tax returns come from? They were sent to the Times anonymously, so no one knows. But rumors swirled around Marla Maples, Trump’s second wife, who might have gotten them as part of her divorce proceedings in 1999.
  • Did Trump really lose that much money in a single year? It seems all but impossible. Among millionaires who declared losses in 1995, the average amount was $614 thousand.
  • It seems likely, then, that Trump’s gargantuan loss was basically an accounting fiction of some kind. John Hempton, an Australian hedge fund manager and former expert on tax avoidance for the Australian Treasury, has a theory that Trump may have “parked” the debt from his bankruptcies with a dummy party offshore, where it was never collected but never officially forgiven. This would allow him to declare $916 million in losses even though he never truly lost anything.
  • What was the point of all this? Most likely, the Times speculates, it was used as a tax loss carry forward, which allowed Trump to declare zero income—and thus pay zero taxes—for as long as 18 years.

So how did Team Trump respond to this? Notably, nobody denied anything. Rudy Giuliani declared that Trump was an “absolute genius.” Chris Christie also applauded Trump’s genius, and remarked improbably that this was a “very good story” for Trump. Trump himself said nothing except that he had paid lots of other kinds of taxes, and that yes, he is a genius:

Needless to say, Trump knows nothing about tax law at all. He has accountants and tax advisors who do all this stuff for him. Nonetheless, the main message from Trumpville is that Donald Trump is a genius.

Elsewhere, reaction was a wee bit more restrained. It turns out that lots of people think that billionaires probably ought to pay income tax. All of us little people have to, after all.

So what’s next? Well, when the New York Times was asked if they have any more of Trump’s tax returns, they answered “No comment.” That might mean there’s more to come. Next Sunday’s debate should be fun, shouldn’t it?

POSTSCRIPT: Team Trump is trying to bury this story by directing all their attention to Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades; suggesting that maybe Hillary has cheated on Bill; and blathering about Hillary being mean to the women who accused Bill of misdeeds in the 90s. It’s not working. Nobody really cares much about this stuff anymore, and even the small interest that remains was wiped out by the tax story.


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as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

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