USA First Look

What does Trump's 2005 tax return reveal?

Journalist David Cay Johnston says that he received the documents in the mail, unsolicited. They were first reported by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

US President Donald Trump attends a meeting with US House Deputy Whip team at the East room of the White House in Washington, last week.
Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
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Throughout the campaign and into the White House, President Trump has refused to publicly release his tax returns. Two pages of his 2005 return have recently surfaced but – despite expectations – failed to provide the full range of answers that most Americans were looking for.

In 2005, the documents indicate, Mr. Trump reported an income of $153 million and paid $36.5 million in income taxes. That means his tax burden – around 25 percent of his income – outpaced that of the average American, taxed at approximately 10 percent of income, but fell short of the 27.4 percent that most taxpayers who earned more than $1 million were paying.

That’s more tax than many Americans thought Trump might have paid, and he has since sought to end the rule under which he was asked to pay it. Thanks to a tax loophole in the 1990s, his substantial business losses in 1995 – primarily at his casinos – could have been deducted from his tax payments in subsequent years. But the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which is designed to ensure that those with high incomes pay more than minimal taxes, requires some taxpayers, including Trump in 2005, to calculate their taxes twice, under regular and alternative rules, and pay the higher amount. On his campaign website, Trump pledged to end AMT, which is expected to bring in revenue upward of $350 billion between 2016 and 2025.

Trump's tax documents – obtained by longtime tax reporter David Cay Johnston, who said they arrived unsolicited in the mail, and released by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow – are the latest contribution to an ongoing conversation about Trump’s tax returns and their relevance. And that conversation may be particularly significant now, since the legality of publishing these tax documents hinges on their relevance to the public.

Since Richard Nixon, it has been tradition for presidential candidates to release their tax return – or at least a detailed summary of that return – for public scrutiny. As Nixon put it, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.” A candidate’s tax return may help Americans assess his or her fitness for office on the basis of the candidate’s finances, potential conflicts of interest, and honesty, some have suggested. It enumerates a candidate’s charitable giving, income sources, claimed deductions, and earnings from assets, as well as indicating any strategies used to reduce the tax bill.

Trump broke with precedent by not releasing his returns, saying that his lawyers had advised him against it while the returns were under audit by the Internal Revenue Service. Audit does not bar individuals from releasing their returns: The IRS now automatically audits the president and vice president’s returns annually, and that did not stop President Obama and Vice President Biden from voluntarily releasing their returns. 

Trump also briefly suggested, once elected, that the returns were not relevant, saying his win indicated that “People didn’t care.”

The White House reiterated this perspective on Tuesday, drawing a distinction between Trump’s private business and public service.

“Before being elected President, Mr. Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,” the White House said in a statement provided to several media outlets. 

The statement also focused on the “illegal” release of the returns. The unauthorized release of federal tax returns is a criminal offense, punishable by fine of up to $5,000 and up to 5 years in prison.

There has been consistent pressure from Democrats for Trump to release his returns, with House Ways and Means committee member Bill Pascrell (D) of New Jersey asking the committee to use an obscure law to review Trump’s tax returns for any conflicts of interest. And more than 1 million people have signed a petition asking the president to release his returns. 

With that in mind, Ms. Maddow indicated, MSNBC was acting within its First Amendment right to publish information in the public interest.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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