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What Trump's tax returns reveal about him and the U.S.' financial disclosure system

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's tradition for modern American presidents to release their tax returns when taking office. But, like many other times in his presidency, Donald Trump defied tradition. He refused. Well yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted along party lines to release Trump's tax returns to the public. The documents show, among other things, that while Trump paid $1.1 million in federal income taxes his first three years in office, he paid none in 2020. That is per a summary that the committee has released. The actual tax documents are expected in the coming days.

I want to bring in Russ Buettner, who has been following Trump's personal finances for The New York Times since 2016. Russ Buettner, welcome.

RUSS BUETTNER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I'll note your team was ahead of the committee. You already had some of Donald Trump's tax records two years ago. So what new information are you learning so far from these new reports?

BUETTNER: Well, a couple of things really jump out. One is that the trends that we saw, which is that the businesses he controls tend to underperform and report huge losses each year, and the businesses that he has a benefit in, either because it's simple entertainment money or businesses that he's got a passive share in that someone else manages, those seem to do better and sort of help him support the businesses that he runs. Another one is that the audit process that is supposed to apply to presidents just seems to have not worked at all in this situation.

KELLY: OK - which I want to follow up on in a second. But first, let me just establish a little bit more what we're about to get our hands on and why. Because as I mentioned, what we have seen so far is a summary of the findings. Do we know timing on when the actual returns are going to drop?

BUETTNER: I think there's been some news out that they expect it to be tomorrow.

KELLY: OK.

BUETTNER: And then we had heard earlier it could be Friday. So sometime in the next two days.

KELLY: And what time period are we talking in terms of the returns; like, what years?

BUETTNER: Covers the tax years 2015 through 2020.

KELLY: OK. And to the point you were making a moment ago, what we know already these returns show is the IRS failed to audit Trump during his presidency, something we would have expected. What has the IRS said? What more do we know about why that didn't happen?

BUETTNER: I don't think we know anything substantial at all. The IRS so far that I've seen has not commented on this. They haven't to us the last I had heard. And the committee, they have tax professionals that are an important part of that committee's work. And they asked the IRS why they hadn't requested documentation, why they hadn't completed an audit. And the answers they got were disturbing. The answers were things like these returns were submitted by a tax professional, so there's a presumption that everything is above board. The amounts involved in this transaction you're asking about are just a few million dollars, not enough to substantially change the overall tax position. Those kind of things are very frustrating to the committee and seem a little bit like a fig leaf to hide behind for an agency that doesn't seem to be doing what it's supposed to.

KELLY: There's politics at stake here, of course. Democrats have argued for years that they needed to see these returns to help evaluate, among other things, the IRS' presidential audit program. Republicans have largely disagreed, saying this is all politics. What are the stakes? What is the value to the American public at this stage of knowing what's in these returns?

BUETTNER: It's a complicated question. It's an excellent question and a complicated one. You know, you're right. The timing is not favorable to coming up with a substantial report from this.

KELLY: With Republicans about to take over in the House, you mean?

BUETTNER: Right. By the time Donald Trump almost ran out the clock where the Supreme Court basically said the Treasury had to turn over these documents to the congressional committee, they didn't have any time to do substantial work that they had said they wanted to do. But that said, there's still a possibility that after that, the Senate finance committee could pick this up. So once it's read into the Congressional Record, it becomes public. The Senate finance committee could, in theory, pick up the investigation and do the same thing. And there's also a possibility that another Congress down the road could do that. But it - there is a substantial problem here with the way our system just does not capture the vulnerabilities of sitting presidents if they have complicated finances.

KELLY: Well, and I suppose the obvious twist here is we are not talking solely about a former president but about a man who's running again, who would like to be a future president.

BUETTNER: Right. And no matter what you think about whether his returns should have been turned over to the American people or should be against his will, there's a chance we're going to encounter this situation again. And the country would be best served by a system that really addresses these issues up front so we're not again in this situation where a president is saying one thing, not abiding by sort of traditions and norms and really can't be made to comply in real time with any sort of effort (inaudible) good government.

KELLY: Russ Buettner, he's an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Thank you.

BUETTNER: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.