President Donald Trump released a 98-page financial disclosure form Friday, detailing the broad outlines of his wealth but still leaving a number of unanswered questions about the specifics of not only Trump’s income but also the details of his vast holdings.
In short, Trump’s financial disclosure is nice. His tax returns – which he became the first presidential candidate in four decades to refuse to release – would be far better.
Trump voluntarily filed the disclosure forms with the Office of Government Ethics on Friday. He was not required to file the forms, which cover his earnings over the past 15 and a half months, until next spring. (Past presidents including Barack Obama and George W. Bush have also released them early, according to the Washington Post.)
Trump’s wealth, as documented in the report, is vast. He took in hundreds of millions of dollars in income over the past 15 months while carrying liabilities north of $300 million. (The Post estimated that Trump’s assets are worth at least $1.4 billion.)
Trump raked in $288 million from his golf courses alone; he made at least $37 million from Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort and a frequent weekend stomping ground for the first family.
The big problem with financial disclosure forms is that they only require ranges of assets and liability – making it extremely difficult to get an accurate sense of what Trump true’s wealth is.
“Overall, Trump reported liabilities of at least $311 million – mortgages and loans. But the number could be much higher because he was required only to report a range in value for each loan.”
“Of the 16 loans he reported, five were worth more than $50 million each; one is worth between $25 million and $50 million; and seven were worth between $5 million and $25 million apiece. Another three loans combined were worth less than $1 million.”
There is also the fact that, unlike a tax return, these financial disclosure forms don’t require Trump to detail how much he paid in taxes, the profits and losses from his various businesses, whether he has any holdings in foreign companies and whether (and how much) he has donated to charity. (Read this great Jeanne Sahadi piece for a comprehensive look at what tax returns tell you that financial disclosures don’t.)
All of which makes the rhetoric coming from Trump and his top aides regarding his level of transparency about his finances misleading.
In February 2016, Trump tweeted this: “Just for your info, tax returns have 0 to do w/ someone’s net worth. I have already filed my financial statements w/ FEC. They are great!” He has repeated that line whenever he has been asked about his income tax returns since that time.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in April that “the president has released plenty of information and has given more financial disclosure than anybody else,” adding: “I think the American population has plenty of information on his taxes.”
That isn’t accurate. But you can bet that Trump’s decision to voluntarily file his financial disclosure forms months ahead of time will become a new talking point for Trump and his aides whenever the questions regarding his taxes inevitably arise again.
The key point to remember: Financial disclosures are simply no substitute for tax returns when it comes to understanding someone’s financial standing and various commitments.
Think of it this way. You go to a baseball game. Financial disclosure forms are like sitting near the top of the upper deck. You can see a baseball game is going on but it’s tough to make out the individual players or figure out what pitch the pitcher is throwing. Tax returns are like having front-row seats behind home plate. You can see the reaction on the batter’s face when he disagrees with a call. You can see how the teams interact – both with each other and amongst themselves. You can hear the pop of the fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.
It’s an entirely different game and experience.
Right now, the American public is sitting way up in the rafters of Trump Financial Stadium. You have a vague sense of what’s going on. But unless and until he releases his tax returns – BREAKING: He probably won’t! – we’ll all be squinting to try to figure out exactly what we’re looking at.