DONALD TRUMP has always said he is a self-made billionaire. The president insists that the only financial help he got from his father Fred, a New York City developer, was a $1m loan, which he repaid. An investigation by the New York Times (NYT), published this week, concludes that he actually received fifty times that amount, that it was not repaid, and that many of the transfers were dodgy.
The newspaper examined more than 100,000 pages of documents, including financial-disclosure reports and bank statements (but not the president’s tax returns, which he refuses to make public). In the 1990s, it says, Mr Trump took part in “dubious” tax schemes which included instances of “outright fraud”. It concludes that he “appropriated his father’s entire empire as his own”.
The NYT counted 295 revenue streams from Fred to Donald and his siblings, which began flowing when they were children. It estimates that Donald received at least $413m in today’s money from his father’s empire, mostly from property transfers and a “flood” of loans, many never repaid. Had the money gone straight into a fund tracking the S&P 500 when received, it would now be worth almost $2bn.
Some of the financial contortions described look like the exploitation of loopholes: sneaky but legal. Others appeared to cross the line into tax fraud, the NYT alleges. Experts it consulted saw a “pattern of deception and obfuscation”, particularly in relation to how buildings were valued. The Trumps became masters of undervaluing property to dodge taxes on gifts and inheritance.
Documents show that Fred’s children took over ownership of most of his empire in 1997, 19 months before he died. The value put on the properties at the time was $41.4m. The buildings were sold over the next decade for more than 16 times as much. The transfer and subsequent sales may have allowed the younger Trumps to avoid hundreds of millions in taxes.
A particularly egregious example of deception, the investigation alleges, was a company called All County Building Supply & Maintenance, established by the family in 1992. Its ostensible purpose was to buy equipment and supplies for Fred’s buildings. In reality, the NYT reports, it was a vehicle for transferring more wealth to his children by “marking up purchases already made by his employees”.
The president has dismissed the allegations as “a boring and often told hit piece”. A lawyer for Mr Trump called them “100% false and highly defamatory”, also saying that Mr Trump had “virtually no involvement” in shaping the family’s past tax strategies. Allies of the president say that the transactions in question were signed off by tax authorities long ago.
New York state’s tax department says it is investigating. Even if some of the transactions were illegal, criminal prosecutions are unlikely given the statute of limitations for such cases. There is, however, no time limit for civil tax-fraud cases.