After a years-long process, former President Donald Trump’s tax returns were finally released by the House Ways and Means Committee at end of December. There were numerous revelations from the returns, but one surprising one was that it appeared Trump made no charitable donations in 2020, his final year as president.
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Some reports indicated that this meant Donald Trump had not lived up to his longtime pledge to donate his entire salary while president.
Earlier in his presidency, Donald Trump would announce on a quarterly basis where he was directing those donations, but he did not do that in 2020.
However, a new report this week says that this might not necessarily be the case.
CNBC quoted accountants as stating that the way totals are reported on tax returns, it’s unclear if Trump actually had zero donations. That’s because Donald Trump reported zero taxable income in 2020.
“Taxpayers who itemize their tax deductions (instead of claiming a standard deduction) generally get a tax break for their charitable contributions,” CNBC said. “But that’s not the case if you report negative income and don’t pay income tax; you can’t get a tax deduction if there’s no income from which to deduct.”
Therefore, Donald Trump may have carried forward the tax breaks from charitable donations past 2020. Doing so would have required a separate form, not the type of thing that would have been released with his tax returns.
“By looking at the return, you can’t say whether he did or didn’t without looking at the carryforward schedule,” Hal Terr of the accounting firm Withum, Smith, and Brown told CNBC. “By looking at the return, you can’t say whether he did or didn’t without looking at the carryforward schedule.”
One “tax guru” is saying that donated salary or not, there is plenty of problematic stuff in the released returns.
Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, appeared on the Talking Feds podcast this week, following his recent Washington Post op-ed titled “Trump’s taxes are Exhibit A in the case for why the IRS needs a big upgrade.”
“Trump reports tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of losses if you go back to the ’80s and ’90s, and the question, both as an enforcement matter and as a tax policy matter is: Are those losses genuine? Our system taxes income, and if you have a zero or negative income for the year, you pay no taxes and that’s fine. But what happens if you have a zero or negative income because you’ve inflated your losses? Well, that’s not fine,” Rosenthal said on the podcast, per a Mother Jones transcription.
Rosenthal also noted problems with the IRS itself.
“One of the big takeaways from my review of the congressional oversight of the IRS audit is how feeble a job the IRS was doing,” he said. “They only assigned one agent to one of Trump’s presidential returns—his first—in the third year of Trump’s presidency. And they only got to the other presidential returns after Trump left office. That one agent in effect outsourced the audit of a lot of income and deductions to Trump’s tax lawyers and accountants that prepared the return. The IRS couldn’t figure it out, so they said, “These are reputable accountants. I guess we’ll trust them.”
When asked why he thinks Trump worked so hard for so many years to hide his tax returns, Rosenthal answered that he thinks it’s less about financial crimes than about his desire to not have to pay new taxes. He quoted former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen as stating that “Trump did not want to release his taxes because he’s afraid that some hotshot think-tank guy would take them apart and show some liability and he’d have to pay interest and penalties to the IRS.”
He also said that Donald Trump likely had an advantage because his taxes were so complex that auditors were likely overwhelmed.
Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.