This Is The Reason Trump Hid His Tax Returns For So Long

It is not a big mystery why Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns. Just listen to what people close to the real estate developer have said over the years. “I think the reason that he doesn’t show his tax returns is it’s like three feet tall—and if you let that go, they would scrutinize everything about it,” said Phil Ruffin, the former president’s friend, fellow billionaire and Las Vegas business partner, in a 2017 interview with Forbes. “He would be doing nothing but explaining that away for the next four years. I wouldn’t do it.”

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former attorney, gave a similar explanation when asked about Trump’s returns during a 2019 congressional hearing. “The statements that he had said to me is that what he didn’t want was to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces, and then he’ll end up in an audit and he’ll ultimately have taxable consequences, penalties, and so on.”

Trump had good reason to be concerned. The former president’s tax information had never been public until Friday—and some of it still remains shielded after the House Ways and Means Committee released years of paperwork. Yet practically every fragment of tax documentation to emerge over the years has led to consequences for Trump. The latest release could be the most damaging of all.

The first group to get its hands on the information was, of course, the Internal Revenue Service. The federal tax authority has audited Trump’s tax returns many times over the years. A congressional report released last week showed what limited resources the IRS invested into some of those reviews. But even its basic examinations identified issues. For instance, beginning in 2010, Trump reportedly claimed a $72.9 million income tax refund, which came under audit, leading to the possibility that the former president could have to pay the government back $100 million or more in taxes and interest.

Then journalists got their hands on some information. During Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, his personal tax returns remained hidden. But the returns of his private foundation were a matter of public record. The Washington Post began picking through them, discovering a litany of issues, including that Trump had been donating other people’s money as if it were his own. The New York attorney general ultimately secured a $2 million payment and shut down the foundation. Forbes dug into tax documents connected to the Eric Trump Foundation, prompting a second state investigation. The New York Times acquired a set of tax-return data in 2020, identifying enough issues that officials inside the IRS hosted a meeting shortly thereafter and reevaluated their audit.

Meanwhile, prosecutors got more information. The Manhattan district attorney fought Trump’s legal team to acquire his tax returns, then convicted Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, as well as his business itself, on a series of criminal charges, including fraud and conspiracy. The New York attorney general’s office also got its hands on a set of tax documents—it is now suing Trump and his business in a $250 million fraud case. Trump has said the attorney general is pursuing a “witch hunt.”

Congress recently got its turn with the documents. The House Ways and Means Committee, which also fought Trump for years to get the returns, secured them this month. Within weeks, it had a report outlining several potential tax issues—such as suspicious loans Trump had extended to his children—and exposing the IRS for its gentle treatment of the former president.

All of these consequences—the exposes, the criminal convictions, the $250 million case and the congressional scrutiny—happened before the public got a glimpse of Trump’s actual returns. Now, thousands of people, including the academics and accountants that Trump had so much reason to fear, are ready to take a detailed look at his tax filings.

In a statement sent Friday, Trump puffed out his chest: “The ‘Trump’ tax returns once again show how proudly successful I have been and how I have been able to use depreciation and various other tax deductions as an incentive for creating thousands of jobs and magnificent structures.” But Trump’s bravado doesn’t negate what those close to him made clear long ago: For America’s most famous real-estate developer, Friday’s release is a nightmare come true.

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