The mystery of where Donald Trump found oodles of cash to buy property after property in the nine years before his campaign for president was solved in part this week by the New York Times, whose investigative reporters have for the moment seized from the special counsel the title of most applauded Trump tormentors.
Theorists have long speculated—for good reason—that Trump came up with the $400 million he spent thanks to Russia-based money-laundering operations, a conclusion supported by the oft-quoted Donald Trump Jr. line from a decade ago: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. … We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Indeed, scores of buyers made all-cash purchases, “totaling $109 million at 10 Trump-branded properties in South Florida and New York City,” McClatchy reported, often using shell companies “designed to obscure their identities.”
Story Continued Below
Trump’s own cash purchases came despite his bankruptcies and the downturn in real estate, the Washington Post noted. The Russia money theory, helps explain Trump’s inexplicably affable relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin: He dare not bite the hand that pays him off. While Russian money is still probably behind Trump’s Putinphilia and will likely surface again when special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s III delivers his report on Putin’s meddling in campaign 2016, the Times report finds a domestic parallel to Trump’s alleged foreign adventures in shady financing. In the opening paragraph of its mammoth 15,000-word investigation, the paper accuses the 45th president of participating “in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud.”
This is very strong meat. The Times investigation, a staggering achievement in forensic accounting, catches Trump and his siblings mounting the real estate empire of their dead father, Fred Trump, like a gang of sea lampreys and sucking it dry before the estate tax could extract the government’s legal share. According to the Times’ calculations, Donald collected at least $236 million (in today’s money) from the sale of father’s empire. According to the Times, “outright fraud” by Trump helped bloat that number.
The most delicious part of the Times story comes when Trump tries to get his hands on his father’s estate before he died by presenting pushing a change to his will in 1990 (Fred Trump died in 1999). The codicil would have allowed the son to “use the empire as collateral to save his own failing businesses”—he was more than $900 million in debt, at the time—but an “angered and alarmed” Fred Trump refused to sign and directed his daughter to find new real estate lawyers. “Protect assets from DJT, Donald’s creditor’s” the lawyer’s notes on her instructions read. Cheating your generous dad out of his estate takes some moxie.
With the Mueller investigation stuck in the doldrums over the past two weeks with little discernible progress surfacing in the press, this week’s Times story presents Trump with perhaps the worst news of his life. He has at his disposable a variety of tricks he could deploy to stymie or slow Mueller, such as firings of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller himself or, if he’s feeling legally lucky, the onanism of self-pardon, the prospect of fighting a tax case in a state court, which is immune to his pardon, has got to be worse in his mind in impeachment. Why? Because when they impeach you, you get to keep your money, but when the tax court takes you down, they can clean you out. CNBC reports brutal civil fraud charges for intentionally underpaying taxes: Up to “75 percent for unpaid federal taxes and double the unpaid state amount.” And don’t forget the potential damages to Trump’s ego. A thorough investigation would clear up once and for all his net worth, which is a touchy subject for him. Back in 2009, he sued reporter Timothy O’Brien for libel because O’Brien wrote that Trump wasn’t a billionaire. (The suit was dismissed.) Legal discovery would likely peg Trump’s net worthy lower than he’d like. Just a couple of days ago, Trump fell another 11 rungs on the Forbes 400 list. He’s now No. 259.
With all the Trump tax documents at its disposal, the Times has all but predetermined that New York City and state regulators will open investigations of the president’s money. An estate tax probe is certain as is one in real estate transfer taxes. Even the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal is getting in on the action because the Trumps appear to have fraudulently used padded invoices to justify rent increases on its rent-controlled apartments. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has asked the IRS to take its flensing knife to Trump’s tax returns.
This gray, gray news will turn positively black for Trump should the Democrats take either the House or Senate in November and take command of the investigative apparatus of the congressional committees and begin the issuing of subpoenas of witnesses and for his tax papers. As with state investigations, Trump will be powerless to stop a Democrat-led congressional investigation. This time next year, Trump might be looking back with nostalgia at the Russia investigation as he drops the slogan “No collusion, no obstruction” for “No evasion! No fraud!”
As a low-tax libertarian, I’ve got to hand my hat to the president for his creative accounting. Send tax evasion tips to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have subpoenaed my Twitter feed for the tax preparation it did for my RSS feed in 2017. My RSS feed has moved to Bahrain, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.