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“Beyond the Law”: Should Trump’s Tax Chicanery Land Him in the Clink?

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By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published a massive, years-long investigation into Donald Trump, the results of which revealed the president is an honest man who has been treated totally unfairly by a biased press out to take him down for the crime of winning in the first degree. Just kidding, of course: the article confirmed the long-held suspicion that the former real-estate developer is an (alleged!) serial fraud, laying bare the numerous cons that went into creating his “self-made” multi-billion-dollar fortune. In perhaps the most spectacular claim to emerge from the Times’s 14,000 word treatise, reporters David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner uncovered evidence that Trump’s family had been evading—or outright dodging—taxes for decades, using potentially illegal maneuvers including everything from improper deductions to a sham corporation whose sole purpose was to siphon millions to Trump and his siblings (screwing over rent-regulated tenants was just a happy byproduct). So, what happens now?

Late Tuesday night, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, which handles tax fraud investigations, announced that it had opened a probe into the alleged deeds outlined by the Times, and is “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation.” Given that many of said deeds occurred decades ago and are past the statute of limitations, it’s highly unlikely that the dauphin prince of Queens will face criminal charges. But despite the president’s apparent belief that you can’t be held responsible for things that happened years ago, there is no statute of limitations on civil fines for tax fraud. And while the point has been made that the schemes detailed by the Times are simply smart “tax arbitrage” that any rich guy worth his salt would at the very least entertain, experts I spoke with said some of those methods appear to be what a layman would call out and out scams—the kind the law actually prohibits.

“It certainly appeared from the piece that the tax avoidance schemes [described] went well beyond what the law permits,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who dealt with tax cases. “In the case of All County [Building Supply & Maintenance],” the company set up to funnel money to the Trump kids by marking up purchases that had already been made, “that’s straight-up fraud.” Calling the All County situation “brazen and unsophisticated,” Lee-ford Tritt, a University of Florida law professor and an expert in gift and estate tax law, said that “some of [the maneuvers detailed] are shocking and push illegality” and that “a lot of very wealthy Americans would not do what they were doing.” While Trump’s attorney told the Times that no fraud was committed (but that if it was, you can’t blame the president because other people handled this stuff), and his brother said in a statement that “all appropriate gift and estate tax returns were filed, and the required taxes were paid,” former assistant U.S. Attorney John Marston wasn’t so sure. “Tax is an area that is often fruitful for state and prosecutors because you have to sign that tax return [yourself], whereas other times you can often have other people do your bidding,” he told me.

While no one we spoke to anticipated that the I.R.S. would open a probe into the Times’ findings, Mariotti noted that failing to do so could make things very awkward for the federal agency. “The head of the I.R.S works for the president, so I don’t expect [them] to be investigating this anytime soon,” he said. “On the other hand, it could generate a political issue for the Trump administration if New York investigates and recovers some amount of money.” And according to Crain’s, there’s potentially a whole lot of money on the table—enough to build a whole neighborhood full of gold-plated penthouses where good taste goes to die:

Based on the figures provided in the Times article, the Trumps could be on the hook for $210 million in unpaid gift or estate taxes and a similar amount in unpaid interest and penalties, according to Fred Slater, a C.P.A. who has advised real-estate professionals for more than 40 years. Janis Cowhey, a trust and estates partner and leader of the modern family group at accounting firm Marcum, agreed that Slater’s estimate is sensible.

Slater added that President Trump could be liable for a larger share than his sisters and brother because as trustee he signed the tax returns for the estates. The state Department of Taxation and Finance says it is “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation.”

“The state is nasty about this kind of stuff,” said Slater, who is familiar with the techniques allegedly used by the Trumps to minimize their tax bills.

In Tritt’s view, “New York just has to look like they’re making progress, and the I.R.S. [might feel pressure to] step in. We’re talking about a lot of money here and the principle—this is the president of the United States and a federal judge [Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry]. Can you imagine the I.R.S. walking away from all that money and letting people get away with tax fraud? It would just look horrible.”

Of course tax fraud and horribleness (not to mention corruption and crimes against grammar) are pretty much hallmarks of the Trump administration, meaning it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the consequences for the president amounted to . . . basically nothing. Plus, there’s the matter of a series of recent budget cuts hamstringing the I.R.S., to the point that a former senior criminal-enforcement officer told ProPublica just this week: “I believe there are thousands of individuals who have U.S. tax obligations and are not complying with U.S. tax laws.” Which probably bodes well for the current inhabitant of the White House.

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Credit:Vanity Fair

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