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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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If He’s So Rich, How Come He Ain’t Smart?

A healthy ego is required to run for the presidency of the United States, but Donald Trump takes it to his characteristic levels of excess. The tendency was on full display Tuesday during the announcement of his campaign for the nation’s highest office, where he boasted of his top-secret-but-foolproof plan to defeat the Islamic State, confidently predicted that “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” bragged that his nearby Gucci store was worth more than Mitt Romney, and described himself as “the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far.”
The oft-bankrupt real estate mogul and longtime reality television series star clearly isn’t running on the usual aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-regular guy shtick that fabulously wealthy Democrats such as Hillary Clinton routinely employ, and we must admit that he’s at least savvy enough to know that wouldn’t have worked for him, and that it probably wouldn’t have hurt the aforementioned Romney to have been a little less defensive about his more honestly earned and more generously shared wealth, but surely some small measure of humility is required to actually be the President of the United States. We’ve read enough Greek dramas to know about hubris and nemesis, and enough of the Bible to know that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall, and when you throw in that ridiculous haircut of his and the embarrassment of a long-running reality television show Trump seems to be just asking for it. While we admire financial acumen just as much as the next guy, or at least the next Republican guy, we also have to quibble with his rather limited definition of success.
Trump might or might not be the richest person ever to run for the presidency, depending on which accounting of his extremely complicated spreadsheets you choose to believe, but that hardly makes him the most successful. George Washington had successfully led a rag-tag army of farmers and merchants to victory over the world’s mightiest military, which is at least as impressive as getting rich, which we he also did. Alexander Hamilton’s failed candidacy came after he had played a key role in that same rag-tag army’s victory, and then as the first Secretary of the Treasury had set up an American financial system that was the most successful wealth-generator in history until our recent profligacy ruined it, and we’re further impressed that he selflessly chose not to enrich himself in the process. Ulysses S. Grant had successfully forced the legendarily wily Robert E. Lee to Appomattox, which most historians agree was of far greater significance than his numerous failures as a businessman. Dwight Eisenhower had led a fissiparous coalition of out-gunned countries to victory over the Nazis, thus saving the world from history’s greatest calamity, and one needn’t be a historian to see how that’s a bigger deal than a Gucci store and an Atlantic City casino. That Trump measures success only in terms of dollars and cents, and even then by the most favorable accounting methods, is as problematic as his ego.
Other past presidential candidates have offered up impressive resumes full of notable successes, as well, and in many cases they’ve haven’t resulted in¬†successful presidencies. Herbert Hoover had become quite wealthy with his international mining ventures, and he did so without the benefit of inherited wealth and in a way that won him world-wide acclaim for his ethical business practices, then volunteered for such hard jobs as coordinating relief efforts for Europe after World I, coordinating similar relief efforts for the victims of the Great Mississippi Flood, and serving as Commerce Secretary during the boom years of the Coolidge administration, and he was widely regarded as spectacularly successful in each of these tasks. He’s now regarded as one of the least successful presidents, however, and we think that’s largely due to all the counter-productive tinkering he did to overcome the Great Depression because he believed in his own powers more than he did the resilience of the free enterprise system. George H.W. Bush had a resume that not only included a successful private sector career but also public service posts ranging from Central Intelligence Agency director to Ambassador to China to being Vice President during the most successful presidential administration of our lifetime, and a similar confidence in himself had less dire consequences but slowed the momentum from the aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-B-movie-actor Reagan years.
Pretty much every presidential candidate ever has had a less a ridiculous haircut than Trump, going all the way back to the powdered wig days and even through the era when the bald were still eligible for the job, and none of them ever became famous for saying “you’re fired” to the sorts of desperate attention-seekers who co-star on cheesy reality television shows, and even the egotistical likes of John Kerry and Barack Obama preferred to let their allies in the mainstream press talk about how they would be the greatest presidents God ever created, and all of these things also figure into our definition of successful. By our accounting Donald Trump isn’t anywhere near the most successful person to run for president, and we have no doubt he’d be a spectacularly unsuccessful president, and his candidacy seems the quixotic quest of one of those desperately attention-seeking sorts you find on cheesy reality shows. The money and the name recognition and the desire of much of the media to portray the Republican nomination race as a freak show will bring him plenty of attention, and the fabulously wealthy and downright ridiculous Ross Perot has already proved that a certain percentage of the country can fall for it, but the sooner he’s out of this race the better.

— Bud Norman