May 8, 2019 – In early October, David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner, of The New York Times, unloaded an astonishing story on the dubious business and tax affairs of Donald Trump and his family. The piece took 18 months of reporting and ran to nearly 15,000 words. Last month, the reporters behind it won a Pulitzer. Yesterday, Buettner and Craig published another deep story—4,000 words, this time—based on a decade’s worth of previously unseen Trump tax records. They paint a picture of dizzying financial loss. “This is entirely consistent with what I’ve been reporting on Donald for 30 years: it’s all a fraud,” David Cay Johnston, a longtime watcher of Trump’s finances, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last night. “Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig are journalistic Totos who have pulled back the curtain and revealed that the wizard is actually a con artist.”
For their latest blockbuster, “someone who had legal access” gave Buettner and Craig printouts from Trump’s IRS tax transcripts for the years 1985 to 1994—enabling “the fullest and most detailed look to date at the president’s taxes, information he has kept from public view.” The reporters matched the figures against publicly available, if anonymized, IRS data on top earners; other public records; and the document cache they used to report their October story. They found that in 1985, Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses. By 1994, those losses had grown to a 10-year total of $1.17 billion. In 1987, when Trump published The Art of the Deal, a parable of self-made success, he was already hemorrhaging money. For eight of the 10 years in the Times’s sample, he lost so much that he paid no federal income tax; in several of those years, it would seem that he lost more than nearly any other individual taxpayer.
Yesterday’s Times story dropped at an opportune moment. Since taking control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of the year, Democrats have made clear their intention to get hold of more recent Trump tax returns. On Monday, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, turned down a formal request from Richard Neal, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who had asked for the president’s personal and business returns for the years 2013 to 2018; the request, Mnuchin said, lacked “a legitimate legislative purpose” and would violate taxpayer privacy. House Democrats insist they have the authority to demand the returns. The matter is likely to end up in the Supreme Court.
Buettner and Craig note that their new reporting “does not answer questions raised by House Democrats… nor does it offer a fundamentally new narrative of [Trump’s] picaresque career.” When it comes to the Trump presidency, however, reporting like theirs moves things everyone sort of knew beyond supposition and innuendo and into the realm of provable fact, bolstering key details against the “fake news” cries of the president and his outriders. It also, crucially, cuts through the noise that surrounds Trump, nailing public attention to the phoney rationale behind Trump’s political success. As Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote in October, this type of journalism “transcends the headlines of the day, focusing on an elemental, fundamental aspect of this man and this presidency that, it turns out, is even more divorced from our common understanding than we might have previously thought. It is an example of journalism as long game, a sport that more of us need to be playing.”
As the Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum tweeted yesterday, the biggest takeaway from his paper’s latest scoop “is the massive amount we still don’t know about Trump’s finances and business dealings in the 25 years that follow the end of this story.” Surely, at some point, the gaps in our knowledge are going to be filled. When they are, don’t be surprised if Buettner and Craig—rather than Congressional Democrats—are the source.
Below, more on Trump and his tax affairs:
- Trump burned? After winning the Pulitzer last month, Craig spoke with Pope on our podcast, The Kicker. While reporting their October piece, Craig and her colleagues consumed years’ worth of Trump media coverage and were shocked by how fawning it was, including from the Times. After that piece came out, CJR’s Pete Vernon spoke with Johnston about Trump’s business past, also on The Kicker.
- Corners turned? While Democrats in Washington vie for Trump’s federal returns, lawmakers in New York are pushing a bill that would allow Congressional committees to see Trump’s state returns, the Times reports. According to The Washington Post, meanwhile, Trump’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau yesterday proposed rules that would allow debt collectors to send “unlimited amounts of texts and emails” to members of the public.
- Lessons learned? For CJR, Todd Gitlin asks whether we can expect the news media to properly scrutinize Trump going into the 2020 election given the disproportionate airtime given to synthetic scandal last time around. “It behooves journalists everywhere to ask why it wasn’t until after the election that the Times investigators Barstow, Craig, and Buettner went to work” on the Trump business story, Gitlin writes.