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[OPINION] An unprecedented President

Since we’ve been mostly confined at home during the pandemic, many of us have turned to TV series and movies for entertainment. Streaming apps like Netflix (which is outside the jurisdiction of the MTRCB as it is not broadcast TV, cable TV, or publicly exhibited in cinemas) have helped many of us pass a lot of time. The vast majority understands that TV is entertainment. While we enjoy the shows, most would probably draw the line at literally hiring the actor who played Harvey Specter as their lawyer, or the one who played Dr McDreamy as their doctor.

On the other hand, quite a few people out there think that Donald Trump is a good businessman, perhaps because he played one on The Apprentice. On September 27 in the US (the wee hours of the 28th in the Philippines), the New York Times released a bombshell report that revealed the truth of Trump’s finances over the last two decades. In the majority of those years, he paid no income taxes at all, due to the huge financial losses that he reported on almost all of his businesses.

An unprecedented President

In contrast to his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who each regularly paid well over $100,000 in taxes during their respective years in office, Donald Trump is the President of a federal government that he has paid almost no taxes to. In the year that he won the presidency – because the Electoral College is structured so sparsely populated states’ votes trump the popular majority vote – Donald paid $750 in federal income taxes, the same amount that he paid in the first year of his administration. During this same time, Mar-a-Lago, which the president calls his “Winter White House” was pulling in about $5 million a year from people who signed up for memberships to rub elbows with the president and his entourage. In 2017, the first year of his administration, Trump again paid $750 in taxes to the US federal government, less than the $156,824 in taxes that Trump-owned companies paid to the Philippines, and less than the $792.81 that President Richard Nixon paid on $200,000 of declared income in 1970.

In case you are not familiar with Mar-a-Lago, it is a resort and golf club that Trump owns in Florida, and one of his favorite destinations not just for meetings with world leaders, but for endless rounds of golf, including 1 in 5 days during 2019. While he brags about declining the $400,000 yearly salary of the presidency, Trump’s golf excursions have cost taxpayers the equivalent of over 300 years of a president’s salary, as the president is always accompanied by a retinue of Secret Service agents, state police, local police, an ambulance, and the aide who carries the nuclear football with the launch codes to America’s arsenal.

Sick and tired of winning so much

While Trump claims to be a billionaire and very stable genius, his tax returns paint a very different picture. Most of Trump’s golf clubs and hotels report significant losses every year, including Trump International Hotel DC, which famously hosts many events and diplomatic visitors from many nations in open defiance of the Constitutional clause against accepting emoluments from foreign governments. In the first two years of his presidency, Trump declared $73 million in revenue from overseas sources, including $3 million from licensing his name to overpriced condos in Makati.

Between 2016 and 2017, another favorite Trump destination, his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, reported a five-fold increase in its general and administrative expenses, without very much explanation in his tax returns. This increase in expenses contributed to the loss incurred, with the effect of lowering his tax bill. In fact, since 2000, Trump has reported losing more than $315 million at the golf courses he brands with his name in big gold letters.

Although taxes on wealthy Americans have declined over recent decades, most affluent people still pay a lot of federal income tax. Between 2000 and 2017, the top .001% of American taxpayers paid an average of $25 million a year in taxes to the federal government. In this same span, Trump paid an average of $1.4 million a year. That is $200,000 less than the Secret Service paid a private jet company to fly along with candidate Trump while he was campaigning in the last election. This company, TAG Air, Inc., is owned by Trump, and the money comes from the American taxpayer. 

Dagdag bawas, bawas dagdag

Trump is obviously not the only person to employ creative accountants that find or make loopholes in the law, but he takes it to extreme levels. While he was filming The Apprentice, Trump deducted $70,000 in business expenses to style his signature combover. Another $100,000 in deductions was taken for the salary of his daughter Ivanka’s stylist. One year, Ivanka herself received another couple hundred thousand in “consulting fees” that her father deducted as business expenses from the Trump Organization, despite her drawing a regular salary from the same. Between 2010 and 2018, Trump deducted $26 million in taxes from such miscellaneous consulting fees.

Bankruptcy has also been used as a weapon. In Trump’s 1995 return, he declared almost $1 billion in losses from the collapse of his businesses. This generated a tax deduction that he used to not pay taxes until 2005. By then, his 50% share of the profits of The Apprentice totalled over $400 million, and combined with other streams of income, resulted in a $70 million tax bill between 2005 and 2007. However, in 2008 and 2009, Trump again reported significant losses in almost all of his businesses, and in 2010, he claimed and received an income tax refund worth $72.9 million, wiping out all the income tax he paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest.

Ace of base

Like science and reason, math and accounting might be anathema to Trump’s base, which has held at a steady 40% of the American population that support their man no matter what. The faux news crowd is already crying wolf on social media as this piece is being written, and there will surely be some who applaud their hero for being wily enough to outwit his tax collectors.  They might not be living life as lavishly as Trump, but as long as he delivers reliably right-wing jurists, they don’t care how many norms he breaks. 

Much like a carnival huckster or televangelist, the man who likes to see his name in big golden letters somehow still has the golden touch to make people disbelieve what their eyes should see. But ask yourself this: how much did you pay in taxes? The average tax rate in the Philippines is about 32%, which is higher than the 24% paid by the average American taxpayer. An average middle class Filipino might pay more in taxes per year than a President that claims to be a billionaire, and the average middle class American taxpayer almost certainly pays more. Some may want to be apprentices to a magician who can make his taxes disappear, but hopefully rational minds will realize it’s time to say, “You’re fired.” –

Jath Shao is a Filipino-American attorney who helps clients achieve the American Dream.