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The Real Art of the Deal

For more than 40 years every major party presidential nominee released his tax returns to public scrutiny, but that’s another one of those venerable political traditions that President Donald Trump has flouted. There’s obviously something in Trump’s tax returns he’d rather you didn’t know about.
So far Trump is successfully flouting a Teapot Dome-era law that clearly states Congress can take a look at his returns, but the peskily intrepid reporters at The New York Times have come up with some rather embarrassing documents. The newspaper Trump always calls “the failing New York Times” couldn’t obtain Trump’s tax returns, but the president’s many business dealings over years have required that some of his tax information be released to various state and federal regulatory agencies and publicly-held companies and a public database, and the Gray Lady has succeeded in rounding up enough of it from 1985 to 1994 to infuriate the president.
The documents show that for eight of the ten years Trump paid no federal income tax at all, but he probably doesn’t mind you knowing that. During the 2016 presidential debates democratic nominee Hillary Clinton alleged that Trump had been dodging taxes, and Trump famously replied “That makes me smart.” Most of Trump’s supporters bought the argument that any self-made multi-billionaire who can get away without paying taxes is surely savvy enough to be president, and some even accepted his assurances that he would patriotically fix the tax system he knew so well to prevent any other super-rich rascal from getting away with it.
Trump’s much bragged-about tax bill was especially kind to multi-billionaires, however, and it turns out that the brilliant businessman’s ingenious method of avoiding taxes was losing millions of dollars year after year.
At the same time he was on top of the putatively non-fiction bestseller lists with the ghostwritten “Art of the Deal,” which earned him a reputation as history’s most skillful deal-maker, Trump was losing tens of millions on dollars on soon-to-bankrupt casinos and failed ventures into airlines and professional football and vodka and various other businesses. Over the 10 years the Times could find information about, Trump lost a total of $1.7 billion, and according to a database the Internal Revenue Service makes public some apparently legal reason he lost more money in that time than any other American.
For a while Trump did make millions of dollars by buying shares in troubled companies and spreading the word he was going to make a hostile take-over with his vastly overstated wealth, then cashing in on the brief bump in stock prices, which we have to admit is pretty clever, but the rest of the financial world is also pretty clever and eventually started calling Trump’s bluff. Trump has taken the same bold and blustery and debt-driven approach to governance, and so far it’s worked out well enough, but the rest of the word is pretty clever and is lately calling  Trump’s bluff.
Despite the booming economy Trump brags about the federal government is racking up another trillion dollars of debt every year, with much of it owed to China. Trump is currently waging a tough-guy trade war with China, which seems unimpressed with Trump’s negotiating skills, and the Dow Jones index that Trump likes to brag about dropped 473 points as a result. That great trade deal Trump negotiated with Canada and Mexico currently doesn’t have the votes to get ratified in Senate despite a slight Republican majority, and Trump hasn’t proved much of a dealmaker with Congress, even when the Republicans held both chambers, and especially now that the Democrats rule the House.
There’s no telling what Trump doesn’t want anyone to see in his subsequent tax returns, but when Congress or some pesky reporter or not-yet-born historian inevitably get a look we expect it will also look very bad. In the meantime, we’re trusting more in the genius of America’s mostly free economy and surviving constitutional institutions than we are in the genius of President Donald Trump.

— Bud Norman

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