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'New York Times' Reports Trump Paid Little In Federal Income Taxes

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's tax returns have been largely hidden - that is, until now. The president reportedly paid just $750 in federal income taxes each year in 2016 and 2017, the first two years he was in office. That is among the many details that have come to light from an investigation in The New York Times. The Times obtained about two decades' worth of information from the president's tax returns. The report also says the president is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due and a massive audit from the IRS as he faces the pressure of hanging on to the White House for another four years.

For more on this, we turn to NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR's Jim Zarroli, who covers business and economic news. Thank you guys both for being here this morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you, David.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: You're welcome.

GREENE: Franco, let me start with you. I mean, we do want to say that NPR has not independently confirmed the reporting in The New York Times, but I know you've been digging into it. What are you learning here?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, this really digs into Trump's finances. And according to the report, it shows how he racked up and leveraged substantial losses in order to avoid paying taxes. The Times also says the president paid no income taxes at all during 10 of the previous 15 years. Trump was actually asked about the report yesterday, and he tried to claim it was all made up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, first of all, I paid a lot, and I paid a lot of state income taxes, too. The - New York state charges a lot, and I paid a lot of money in state. It'll all be revealed. It's going to come out.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's not entirely new. The president has previously bragged about not paying taxes. Some will remember Hillary Clinton accusing him of not paying federal taxes in a 2016 debate. At that time, though, President Trump - or candidate Trump said it made him smart. A lawyer for the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, did give a statement to the Times, saying, quote, "the facts appear to be inaccurate." But when he defended the president's tax history, he kind of sidestepped directly saying what the president had paid in federal income taxes.

GREENE: Jim, can you help us understand how it would be possible to not pay federal income taxes over - you know, in many years over a 15-year period? How was the president able to do this?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, as you know, he has cultivated this image of being, you know, a big, successful business mogul. But in fact, Trump has lost huge amounts of money over the years on things like golf courses. And as a result, he's declared a lot of business losses on his taxes over the years. According to the Times, Trump reported losses that were so significant that he didn't have to pay any federal taxes for many years.

And this appears to be one of the reasons he's now being audited by the IRS. For example, the Times story says he declared $700 million in losses on his 2009 tax return, which appears to be connected to the failure of casino properties in Atlantic City. But by declaring such - very big losses, he was able to ask for a refund on his taxes that he had paid in the preceding years. And that was what seemed - that seemed to set off alarm bells at the IRS.

GREENE: I mean, you mentioned how much he likes to cultivate this image as a successful business mogul. Are these reports painting a different picture?

ZARROLI: Yeah. You know, I think it suggests he's definitely had his ups and downs, especially in real estate, which is - that's what he's known for. He seems to have made the most money during this period from his TV show "The Apprentice." That show, along with some licensing and endorsement deals, brought in $427 million, according to the Times. And, of course, it relaunched his celebrity status. And he took a lot of tax write-offs from it. For instance, he wrote off $70,000 for getting his hair styled.

But the money from "The Apprentice" has now dried up, and his golf courses are losing money. The pandemic has hit retail and commercial real estate really hard, which is Trump's business.

GREENE: You mentioned the audit. I just wonder if anything in here suggested the president did anything illegal on his taxes.

ZARROLI: You know, I think it certainly suggests there was some questionable stuff going on, especially when it comes to business expenses. In one case, for instance, he deducted more than $700,000 for consulting fees on one of his buildings in Turkey. The Times makes a pretty good case that the money went to his daughter Ivanka, who was actually working for the Trump Organization at the time. The question this raises is, you know, why was she being paid such a big consulting fee? And why would Trump be passing on so much money to his daughter?

GREENE: Franco, President Trump said last night he wants to release his taxes. I mean, we've heard that kind of message from him before. Why doesn't he just do that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, right. He often cites the ongoing IRS audit - Jim talked about it as well - as an excuse for not releasing his tax returns. It is interesting. You know, the reports - The New York Times report notes he has been in a long fight with the IRS over the legitimacy of a $73 million tax refund. And that could have some serious financial consequences costing him over about $100 million.

But, you know, there is no prohibition on releasing the returns. Presidents and presidential candidates have done it for decades - that is, before Trump. And, you know, this - you know, these stories also paint the president as a slick businessman who took advantage of all kinds of write-offs to avoid taxes while, at the same time, he was living a very, very lavish lifestyle.

GREENE: Jim, did you see anything in here that seems new when it comes to the president's financial ties in Russia?

ZARROLI: You know, there are some details about the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. Trump owned the pageant at the time. It was held in Moscow that year. And it was underwritten by an oligarch who has ties to Vladimir Putin. The story says the pageant made way more money than that - in that year than it ever had before. Trump himself made 2.3 million. That - but on the whole, you know, this report doesn't really tell us a lot about the president's ties to Russia that we didn't already know, which may disappoint some people who have come to expect that Trump's tax returns would be a kind of key to, you know, unlocking all of this mystery about Trump's finances. But I think what it really does is raise a lot of interesting questions, as much as it provides answers.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Jim Zarroli and NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you both so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.