I am reminded of 2018, all of those centuries ago, when Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer — his Harvey Keitel from “Pulp Fiction,” as he was portrayed at the time — revealed that he had been secretly recording conversations with his former boss. What sort of deep, dark, dirty misdeeds might be contained in those tapes? Surely, if Trump is as corrupt as we are told then clandestinely recorded discussions with his crooked lawyer must contain a treasure trove of scandalous and probably indictable morsels.
Then CNN played the tapes. Mostly they contained rather humdrum business dealings. At one point they apparently talk about buying the rights to a story about a Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump. You can’t hear Trump’s part of the conversation, but whatever he said, it wasn’t illegal or terribly shocking. The tapes were still ballyhooed by the media but any honest and objective person who listened to them couldn’t help but think: if this is the worst thing that Trump ever said to his lawyer, maybe he isn’t the criminal mastermind he’s been made out to be.
The tell-all books, the impeachment proceedings, the various investigations by various panels and committees and agencies, all have the same sort of effect. Sometimes they uncover things that aren’t very flattering, sometimes those unflattering things might even be true, but nothing ever befits the image of Donald Trump as the embodiment of evil, a fascist dictator, corrupt to his bones. Many people have been searching to find where the bodies are buried, and many “inside sources” have claimed to have the coordinates, yet no one has ever turned them up. Maybe that’s because there simply are no bodies at all.
This is what comes to mind when reading about the Next Big Media Scoop That Will Bring Trump Down For Real This Time Seriously. The New York Times has obtained Trump’s tax records. And by “obtained” we mean that someone Trump trusted with his finances turned around and gave his personal information to the media. If there’s any crime uncovered here, it’s the crime that was committed in the uncovering.
What do the tax records reveal? The website DNYUZ.com has the helpful bullet points. Here are some of them:
-Mr. Trump paid no federal income taxes in 11 of 18 years that The Times examined. In 2017, after he became president, his tax bill was only $750
-He has reduced his tax bill with questionable measures, including a $72.9 million tax refund that is the subject of an audit by the Internal Revenue Service
-Even while declaring losses, he has managed to enjoy a lavish lifestyle by taking tax deductions on what most people would consider personal expenses, including residences, aircraft and $70,000 in hairstyling for television
-Ivanka Trump, while working as an employee of the Trump Organization, appears to have received “consulting fees” that also helped reduce the family’s tax bill
He also has lost a lot of money and owes a lot of money, according to the report. In other words, no crime has occurred. Trump’s fabricated reputation as a mob boss takes another hit. You’d expect the stolen financial information of a mob boss to contain something a little juicer than creative tax deductions. And the deductions aren’t even all that creative, on second thought. The media is making a lot of the fact that Trump deducted his hair styling expenses for television, but keep in mind that all of the media people panicking over this fact are doing their panicking from television studios that have professional stylists and makeup artists on staff. If any of them had to pay for it themselves, they’d be deducting it, too.
Across the board, it seems that Trump took advantage of the tax law to mitigate his tax liability as much as possible. You might argue that he shouldn’t be able to mitigate it that much, but that is an argument you must take up with the people who write our tax law. Trump is working within the boundaries of the law. The flexibility or unfairness of those boundaries is not something that can be morally or legally pinned on the people who work within them.
Admitting my bias, I must confess that I have never been able to generate significant emotional outrage even against people who illegally game the system. Criminal tax evasion — which isn’t what this is — doesn’t raise my hackles all that much because I have never figured out how to feel very angry at someone for stealing his own money. So when someone, rather than gaming the system, simply uses it to his advantage in order to keep more of his own money, not only am I not outraged but I admire his ingenuity, or at least the ingenuity of his accountants. Nobody has any moral obligation to pay more to the IRS than is required. Many of us do pay more than is required, but not intentionally. Only the clinically insane would do it on purpose.
Of all the people throwing stones at Trump, how many of them would, learning of a deduction or credit that could save them $5,000 on their taxes, choose instead to pay the 5 grand out of some sense of ethical obligation? I’m guessing not a single one. And they shouldn’t. The government already collects over $3 trillion in taxes every year. Nobody should contribute more to that behemoth pile than they are forced to.
You could point out, of course, that rich people are able to navigate and take advantage of the tax code, saving more of their money in the process, while the non-rich end up paying way more than is needed because it’s impossible to make your way through the labyrinth without high-priced accountants holding your hand. That is probably true, and a fair argument. But it is an argument for simplifying the tax code, and maybe instituting a flat tax, or better yet abolishing the income tax altogether. It is not an argument for anyone, rich or poor or in between, giving the IRS more than what they owe. And that includes the President of the United States.
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