Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return – or part of it – was published on a US television network today, amid a series of events that seemed just as hard to understand as the figures themselves.
First, MSNBC broadcast a trailer announcing that it would reveal the tax return in a forthcoming bulletin. Within minutes the White House revealed some details of the return, accompanied by an angry statement denouncing the “leak”.
Soon after, commentators were suggesting the leak came from the White House itself – to create a distraction from the president’s difficulties in convincing Republicans to pass his healthcare changes, or from the travel ban due to come into force tomorrow, or to pre-empt more explosive revelations on his business affairs.
Few Americans are likely to be impressed by the revelation that Trump had to pay tens of millions of dollars in a single year because of a tax rule that he has specifically promised to abolish as president.
A two-page section of Trump’s tax return for 2005 revealed the president paid $38m in federal taxes on more than $150m in income in 2005.
The documents showed about 82% of the total paid to the Internal Revenue Service that year by Trump and wife Melania was incurred by the “alternative minimum tax”.
It was introduced to ensure the mega-wealthy pay a fairer share of tax and comprised $31m of Trump’s tax bill compared to $5.3m in regular federal income tax.
In the run-up to November’s election, Trump pledged to eliminate this tax altogether, meaning the president campaigned for a change in the tax law that would have benefited him.
The publication of the paperwork prompted immediate condemnation from the White House, which accused MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow of breaking the law and pre-emptively released figures from the same year.
“You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago,” an administration official said in a statement.
“Before being elected president, Mr Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.”
“It is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns,” the official said.
Contrary to the White House’s claim, Maddow said the return was “turned over” to David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist who focuses on tax and finance issues and joined her on the broadcast.
It is not a violation of the law to publish leaked tax returns.
Johnston said he did not know who sent him the excerpts from Trump’s 2005 return, which appeared in his mailbox.
The partial disclosure will further pressure the White House to publish the president’s tax returns in full. As a candidate, Trump broke a 40-year precedent by refusing to release his tax returns despite repeated calls from his opponents in both parties.
Trump initially said he could not release his tax returns due to an ongoing audit, even though that would not legally prevent him from doing so. Richard Nixon released his tax returns while they were under audit in 1973.
Trump’s campaign later pivoted to saying his taxes were a non-issue that would distract from his message. Polling found 75% of Americans, including a majority of Republican voters, wished to see the real estate developer’s tax returns.
A New York Times report last year, based on a filing from 1995, found Trump could have taken advantage of a loophole enabling him to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years. Trump said in a presidential debate that made him “smart”.