Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Latest On 'The New York Times' Investigative Report On Trump's Tax Returns

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It sounds like a story out of a movie. An envelope from an anonymous source arrived on reporter Susanne Craig's desk at The New York Times last month. The return address marked Trump Tower. Inside were Donald Trump's 1995 tax returns. The New York Times revealed their findings and posted a copy of Trump's tax records on its website last night. The documents show that in 1995 Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss. Here to talk more about all this is Russ Buettner of The New York Times, one of the reporters who investigated this story. Russ, welcome to the program.

RUSS BUETTNER: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: He declared a $916 million loss. What does that mean in terms of whether or not he paid federal income taxes?

BUETTNER: Well, it's essentially like a gift card from the government for almost a billion dollars. It means that the next billion dollars, $916 million, he earned over any time over the next 15 years after that or three years before that he could collect without paying any federal income taxes on it or any New York state income taxes.

MARTIN: But of course it's not definitive, right, so he could have paid those taxes.

BUETTNER: He - well, I guess he could elect to on his own if he wanted to optionally or there's a possibility that he never made that much taxable income. There are so many other write-offs that are available to real estate people. That may be the case. So it is hard to tell. It is a snapshot in time.

MARTIN: You and your fellow reporters, though, spoke to tax experts before publishing this story. Was what Donald Trump did legal?

BUETTNER: It was legal to the best of our knowledge. There's nothing in the returns itself that would suggest that there was anything illegal about it. It is a benefit that is available to people own - who own certain kinds of businesses in certain corporate structures. It was of a magnitude that none of them had ever seen or heard of before.

MARTIN: It's a pretty limited picture, though. What exactly was in that envelope, and do you have any idea where it came from?

BUETTNER: We don't have any idea where it came from. I don't - we don't really think it came from Trump Tower. It was just the first page of his state returns for New York, which is almost identical to what the federal tax return looks like for the state of Connecticut and the state of New Jersey. And there were just some very big numbers on there. I can kind of explain one oddity that fascinated us if you'd like.

MARTIN: Yeah, sure.

BUETTNER: So the numbers were so large that the digits to the left that, you know, put it into the hundreds of millions of dollars were of a slightly different typeface and in a slightly different position - you can see that on the documents on our website - than the rest of the numbers on those columns. And that was something that troubled us, that really gave us pause. Does this really mean something? And when my colleague David Barstow traveled to Florida, showed them to the tax accountant who had handled these documents, that was the first thing he recalled was that his program wouldn't allow numbers that large. And he had to take it out of his printer and type it using an old typewriter to add those digits.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of speculation about Donald Trump's foreign investment holdings and the extent of his charitable giving. Did you learn anything about that from these documents?

BUETTNER: You - there is nothing on that. No, that would be on the supporting schedules whether he'd earned - what his, you know, income sources were. And I doubt that that would show up. It would have to show up as business revenue buried into some sort of supporting schedule. And there was not the schedule for deductions that might show charitable giving. What is noteworthy to us is that there are, as everyone knows, several optional small charitable contributions you can make to a veterans organization, a wildlife preservation fund and such things by checking a box on a tax return, and he did not check any of those boxes.

MARTIN: How has Donald Trump and his campaign, how have they responded this morning?

BUETTNER: The first thing we got last night after we sent questions to them was a letter from their attorney threatening to sue us and suggesting we were doing something illegal by publishing these. And then a while later, we got a rather lengthy response, which I believe we posted in its entirety on our website, saying that - not confirming the numbers, not denying the numbers, saying that Donald Trump had a responsibility to his company and his family to pay as little of taxes as possible, that he understands the tax code better than anyone and therefore is best situated to make appropriate changes to it and also suggesting something about Hillary Clinton's misdeeds being of a greater magnitude.

MARTIN: No doubt there will be more questions about just what he plans to fix in the tax code. Russ Buettner reported this story for The New York Times along with Susanne Craig, David Barstow and Megan Twohey. Russ, thanks so much for taking the time.

BUETTNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.