At long last, the New York Times has Donald Trump’s tax returns. The picture they paint, put shortly, is one of epic financial malfeasance, likely criminal tax avoidance on a massive scale, probable bank fraud, opulent living at taxpayer expense, unethical self-dealing and wild recklessness more becoming a buffoonish French aristocrat or drunken sailor than a prudent businessman. Donald Trump’s approach to business and tax compliance appears to have been the same as his approach to politics: tell outrageous lies, play the government and creditors for fools, steal everything not nailed down today, figure out how to solve tomorrow’s consequences tomorrow, and already be onto the next con before anyone can catch him on the last one.
But despite its potential to land the entire Trump family in penury and jail, what is far more terrifying for the country isn’t what lies in his past of tax avoidance. It’s the time bomb of debt that lies in Trump’s very near future. It’s about the mystery of who owns Trump’s outlandish debts, and the degree of secret power they may be wielding over the country.
The particulars of the Trump grift are sickening in both the details and grand scope. It’s not just an issue of his class: the scale of his tax avoidance far dwarfs that of most others in his income bracket. Despite posturing as a billionaire, Trump paid only $750 in taxes for the years 2016 and 2017. He tried to use the same trick to offload tens of millions in tax burdens by claiming business losses twice in as many decades, except that the second time he actually still retained partial ownership of the underlying business, and has been in a $72 million battle with the IRS for a decade ever since–a battle he should lose by all rights. His daughter Ivanka was hired as a consultant for the same work she was doing in her main job–an obvious and incredibly stupid tax-avoidance grift that could easily land her jail. He (likely illegally) deducted $70,000 in hair care for his TV show. And so on.
Keep in mind, though, that this is just what we know of from his own personal reporting to the IRS. It’s not a forensic accounting document. These financial statements are Trump’s best foot forward to the government, with no knowing what criminal rot lies in the details.
Many rich tax cheats will tell the IRS they are broke while hiding their true wealth elsewhere. But Donald Trump isn’t just a tax cheat pretending to be broke for the feds. He appears to actually be broke. He inherited money from his father, squandered it on failed casino investments, offloaded the losses onto creditors, and then remade himself as a personal brand machine selling the rights to his name. He played a fake billionaire on TV and made significant money from doing that. Remarkably, adopting a fake reality TV show persona for public entertainment value may be the closest thing to honest work Trump has ever done. But rather than being content to invest those proceeds wisely, he went on another foolish real estate spending spree. His properties old and new are losing ridiculous amounts of money–he has lost a shocking $315 million dollars in the last 20 years at his golf courses alone.
One fact stands out far above all the others in its staggering implications: Donald Trump is personally responsible for $421 million worth of loans coming due in the next few years. Not his business. Him. Personally. He has no means of repaying them. He already refinanced his few profitable properties, and sold off most of his stocks to stay afloat. He appears short on liquidity. And we still don’t know to whom he owes the money.
This fact has frightening implications for public policy and national security. Even minor debts are a frequent reason for the government to deny a security clearance, for the obvious reason that indebted and financially desperate public servants make easy marks for bribery, blackmail and potential treason. The potentially destructive power of that sort of hold on a President of the United States is beyond comprehension. It is the stuff of nightmares, bad spy movie plots and otherwise outlandish conspiracy theory. Imagine if a president owed millions to the mob or to those with close ties to a foreign government, and those individuals both controlled the president’s financial future and knew of corrupt criminal activity. The president might act with otherwise strange deference to said mobsters and those connected to them, and bend public policy on their behalf. If they were tied to fossil fuel interests, the president might set the globe on fire rather than cross them. If his creditors were simply a wealthy set of Wall Street tycoons, he might rig all financial policy on their direct behalf.
What we do know is that beginning in the late 2000s, no one would lend to Donald Trump. His history of bankruptcies, combined with whatever horrors were on his personal and organizational financial statements, clearly made every bank run the other direction. Every bank but one, that is: Deutsche Bank. Donald Trump’s history with Deutsche Bank has always merited special scrutiny, but never more than now. The head honchos at Deutsche would have known just how desperate Trump’s financial position was. But they lent to him anyway. Why? It certainly looks even more ominous that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s son was managing the real estate division at Deutsche that lent to Trump, and that Justice Kennedy unexpectedly retired to ensure Trump could seat his replacement. And it looks triply suspicious that Deutsche Bank has been fined and sanctioned over multiple money laundering scandals, including $20 billion from Russian kleptocrats.
It could all be a coincidence. But it probably isn’t.
Still, even if the darkest fears turn out to be unfounded, some group of individuals still owns Trump’s nearly half-billion dollar debts. They likely also know where many of his financial and legal skeletons are buried. Whoever they are, they have the capacity to be directly dictating to Donald Trump and he would be in no position to say no. That is an untenable place for the country to be in.
The New York Attorney General has even more dirt on the finances of the Trump Organization, and the New York Times will be releasing even more information on Trump’s taxes in the coming days. But even with just what we know now, the country faces an unprecedented policy and national security crisis. The situation is untenable. A man in Trump’s position simply cannot be allowed to continue as president.
Trump has already proven himself temperamentally and morally unfit for the job. But now, whether he wins or loses re-election, no responsible member of Congress should allow him to be re-inaugurated. The Republican Party could easily put Vice President Pence in his place and achieve the same policy goals. Trump must be impeached and removed, because the country faces grave risks every day he remains in power.