It is tempting for critics of Donald Trump to react to the New York Times bombshell article by accusing Trump of tax evasion, which is a crime. And it’s equally tempting for his defenders to insist that all he did was use legal avoidance techniques, available to anyone. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. But the president’s sheer volume of legally dubious tax positions poses an insidious threat to the rule of law.
The Times was careful to not accuse Trump of tax evasion. Proving criminal tax fraud, the kind that took down Al Capone, is extremely difficult. But respect for the rule of law is more than simply avoiding criminal behavior. It means abiding by our societal responsibilities without trying to game the system.
The Times documents numerous questionable positions, ranging from (relatively) small amounts to millions of dollars. Some of these are easy to follow and almost laughable, such as the $70,000 for hairstyling during Trump’s “Apprentice” years. The Internal Revenue Service and courts have repeatedly stated that personal grooming expenses are not deductible, even when required by an employer. When a Marine pays a barber for a haircut to comply with military rules, he cannot deduct it.
The president sets an insulting and dangerous example when he does so. He brags that he is “smart” for avoiding taxes. But all he does is take risks that ordinary Americans, who cannot afford aggressive advisers and attorneys who can fight the IRS, can’t expose themselves to. He acts like there are two different tax codes, one for the rich and one for everyone else.
Several other dubious positions jump out. Business owners can deduct litigation expenses related to their business, for instance a trademark dispute, but not the costs of running for office. Trump appears to have done just that, deducting expenses associated with the investigation of Russian contacts during the 2016 campaign.
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Under Trump’s signature 2017 tax cuts, individuals may only deduct $10,000 in state and local taxes a year, while business owners face no such limits. Since 2014, he has deducted $2.2 million on Seven Springs, a 200-acre country estate, by claiming he owns it solely for investment purposes. Nevertheless, a Trump website describes the estate as a “retreat for the family” and his sons have referred to it as “our compound.”
Suspicion also mars Trump’s deduction of $26 million in consulting fees. In some cases, third parties who worked on his projects cannot recall any outside consultants. In others, the fees appear to have gone to his daughter Ivanka Trump, who double dipped by also taking a salary from the Trump Organization for her work on the projects.