By the time his master-of-the-universe memoir “Trump: The Art of the Deal” hit bookstores in 1987, Donald Trump was already in deep financial distress, losing tens of millions of dollars on troubled business deals, according to previously unrevealed figures from his federal income tax returns.
Trump was propelled to the presidency, in part, by a self-spun narrative of business success and of setbacks triumphantly overcome. He has attributed his first run of reversals and bankruptcies to the recession that took hold in 1990. But 10 years of tax information obtained by The New York Times paints a different, and far bleaker, picture of his deal-making abilities and financial condition.
The data — printouts from Trump’s official Internal Revenue Service tax transcripts, with the figures from his federal tax form, the 1040, for the years 1985 to 1994 — represents the fullest and most detailed look to date at the president’s taxes, information he has kept from public view. Though the information does not cover the tax years at the center of an escalating battle between the Trump administration and Congress, it traces the most tumultuous chapter in a long business career — an era of fevered acquisition and spectacular collapse.
The numbers show that in 1985, Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses — largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade.
In fact, year after year, Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer, The Times found when it compared his results with detailed information the IRS compiles on an annual sampling of high-income earners. His core business losses in 1990 and 1991 — more than $250 million each year — were more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the IRS information for those years.
Overall, Trump lost so much money that he was able to avoid paying income taxes for eight of the 10 years. It is not known whether the IRS later required changes after audits.
Since the 2016 presidential campaign, journalists at The Times and elsewhere have been trying to piece together Trump’s complex and concealed finances. While The Times did not obtain the president’s actual tax returns, it received the information contained in the returns from someone who had legal access to it. The Times was then able to find matching results in the IRS information on top earners — a publicly available database that each year comprises a one-third sampling of those taxpayers, with identifying details removed. It also confirmed significant findings using other public documents, along with confidential Trump family tax and financial records from the newspaper’s 2018 investigation into the origin of the president’s wealth.
The White House’s response to the new findings has shifted over time.
Several weeks ago, a senior official issued a statement saying: “The president got massive depreciation and tax shelter because of large-scale construction and subsidized developments. That is why the president has always scoffed at the tax system and said you need to change the tax laws. You can make a large income and not have to pay large amount of taxes.”
On Saturday, after further inquiries from The Times, a lawyer for the president, Charles J. Harder, wrote that the tax information was “demonstrably false,” and that the paper’s statements “about the president’s tax returns and business from 30 years ago are highly inaccurate.” He cited no specific errors, but on Tuesday added that “IRS transcripts, particularly before the days of electronic filing, are notoriously inaccurate” and “would not be able to provide a reasonable picture of any taxpayer’s return.”
Mark J. Mazur, a former director of research, analysis and statistics at the IRS, said that, far from being considered unreliable, data used to create such transcripts had undergone quality control for decades and had been used to analyze economic trends and set national policy. In addition, IRS auditors often refer to the transcripts as “handy” summaries of tax returns, said Mazur, now director of the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington.
In fact, the source of The Times’ newly obtained information was able to provide several years of unpublished tax figures from the president’s father, the builder Fred C. Trump. They matched up precisely with Fred Trump’s actual returns, which had been obtained by The Times in the earlier investigation.