Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Remember how then-candidate Donald Trump talked about how the “system is rigged”? He really knew what he was talking about.
In breathtaking detail and with exacting precision, The New York Times has confirmed that for much of his life, though he claimed to be a brilliant businessman, Trump was benefiting from a rigged system, which his family manipulated to transfer enormous wealth from his father to him.
This truth, long suspected by those who have peered into Trump’s finances, included questionable and potentially fraudulent practices that were used so the Trump clan could avoid paying the kind of taxes ordinary people pay every day.
Trump’s lawyer vehemently denies the allegations against his client, telling the Times they are “100% false, and highly defamatory.”
And yet, the Times story is quite persuasive. According to the Times, by age 3, Trump was receiving $200,000 per year in today’s dollars from his father’s operations. By 8, he was a millionaire. And his wealth only grew from there.
Talk about rigged.
Overall, the picture the Times paints comports with much that could be surmised about the family over the years. By the 1960s, his father, Fred, was one of the wealthiest men in New York. His financial prowess backed his son’s first big project, a hotel renovation at Grand Central Terminal, and his signature Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Although the back story about the hotel project and Trump Tower were well established, the facts assembled by the Times show Donald Trump used deception, not just in carrying out those projects, but throughout the course of his career.
The Times notes he profited from his father’s largess to the tune of more than $400 million. Much of this money was given to him though business entities, trusts and employment schemes that permitted him to accept multiple salaries at the same time.
This manipulation included schemes that made Trump into his father’s employee, landlord, property manager and lender. One example, according to the Times, was Fred Trump’s development of Beach Haven Apartments. After building the sprawling complex with federal loans, he made his children the landlords – creating a stream of income that grew over decades.
But Beach Haven was just one of scores of schemes that Fred Trump devised, and his son was complicit in. In one key passage of the Times report, the authors explain that Fred and his wife, Mary, paid a little more than $52 million in taxes on payments of $1 billion given to their children. Under the law, though, they should have paid 55% tax on gifts – a figure that $52 million doesn’t even come close to.
The evidence the Times explored as this financial X-ray was assembled included more than 100,000 pages of documents. The data gleaned from these papers, some of which came from tax returns, show how nearly 300 streams of revenues, including receipts from coin laundries in apartment buildings, were funneled to the man who would eventually become president.
All the evidence gathered by the Times conflicts directly with the message Trump has long promoted. From his early days in Manhattan, when he marketed himself as a young tycoon, Trump insisted he had succeeded on the basis of his own ingenuity, creativity and grit.
This myth is the chief takeaway from his famous best-selling book, “The Art of the Deal,” and it was the backdrop for the development of his TV show “The Apprentice.” In the opening montage for the program, he falsely declared he was “the largest real estate developer in New York, by far.” Real estate insiders, of course, knew this claim was rubbish.
Not surprisingly, much of Trump’s rhetoric was seen as hyperbole in the service of a public image that was playful and ridiculous. However, once his business acumen became one of the pillars of his presidential campaign, it became fair game for intense examination. Trump has impeded the process by refusing to honor the tradition of releasing his tax returns. However, with impressive legwork and number-crunching, the Times has made the picture much less opaque.
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Tax experts suggested to the paper that while some of the finagling done by Trump and his family was legal, they have doubts about other aspects of their strategy. The dicey aspects of all this maneuvering could explain why businessman Trump and now President Trump worked so hard to keep secret the details of his business life.
The wall of secrecy has now been breached, and what lies behind it seems to be proof that, at the very least, the reputation Trump claimed was a fraud all along.