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What have we learned from former President Trump's tax returns?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's not often that we say there is news to report on from the House Ways and Means Committee, but today there is. And it's the result of a long legal and political battle that, in some ways, started with a broken campaign promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

CHUCK TODD: Will you release any of your tax returns for the public to scrutinize?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, we're working on that now. I have very big returns, as you know. And I have everything all approved and very beautiful. And we'll be working on that over the next period of time.

CHANG: That was then, of course, then-candidate Donald Trump on NBC's "Meet The Press" back in 2016. He never did release those returns, but today House Democrats did. And the returns - they spanned six years, showing, for one thing, that Trump and his wife paid nothing at all in federal taxes in 2020. We're going to hear more now from Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Welcome.

STEVEN ROSENTHAL: Thank you. I'm glad to be here, Ailsa.

CHANG: Glad to have you, Steven. OK. So I realize we're talking about thousands of pages here, but in the briefest way that you can, can you explain what you think are the most notable revelations in these tax returns?

ROSENTHAL: Well, President Trump paid few taxes. You mentioned the zero for 2020. But the first three years of this six-year period, 2015 to 2020, he paid $750. Go back a few decades, and I don't think he's paid taxes at all - income taxes at all for several decades. That's quite remarkable.

CHANG: We should note, though, that in 2018, these disclosures show he paid almost a million dollars in taxes and, in 2019, over $100,000, right?

ROSENTHAL: That's correct. But he had such large losses in 2020, he might even reduce those taxes. But it's an aberration for President Trump to have ever reported any consequential taxes. I mean, you'd expect a billionaire to pay millions of income taxes. And he pays a trivial amount at best.

CHANG: Trump, of course, has denounced the release of these records, but he also said that these returns actually show success in using depreciation and deductions as incentives to create, quote, "thousands of jobs." Tell me. Do you find any of that to be true?

ROSENTHAL: No. Depreciation can be advantageous, but that's not how Trump generated all of his losses to soak up his income. He generated his losses by losing money from his businesses year after year. All six of these years, Trump lost between $8 million and $20 million. Go back a couple of decades. Trump's businesses lost tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. He only pays taxes when he's had some investment gains for '18 and '19. So the real explanation for why Trump doesn't pay much in taxes is because of his large losses. Either genuine or inflated, it's somewhat of a mystery to figure out how he pulls it off. But it's not a lawful application of the tax rules.

CHANG: And certainly not something you would frame as success. Well, let me ask you this. Presidents in the past have routinely released their tax returns voluntarily in the spirit of transparency. But there is no legal requirement for presidents to disclose these returns. What do you say to Trump and to his allies when they insist that these returns are being used now to politically - as political weapons, essentially? Is that a fair assessment?

ROSENTHAL: No, I think that assessment is ridiculous. Richard Nixon ran into tax trouble in 1973, and he volunteered his taxes to Congress to allow them to investigate. And they ultimately adjusted his taxes. From that point on, every president and every candidate for presidency reported his taxes. And that's important because taxes are a window to a person's financial character. They show whether someone is successful in business, what kind of conflicts they have, honesty, generosity, even their philosophy about whether our tax system should be viewed as voluntary, in that we each tell what we owe, or whether it's a sport and play a game of hide and seek with the IRS. And Trump has said that he views it as a sport. But you can't take the president as viewing the taxes as a sport because the president oversees our entire executive branch. We need that transparency, especially to determine whether or not the IRS is auditing him correctly or properly.

CHANG: Let me ask you about that because I'm interested in how much this - of this goes beyond Trump. You know, part of the reason House Democrats even obtained these returns was because the IRS never carried out mandatory audits during the first two years of Trump's presidency. How much do these problems with the mandatory auditing program go beyond Trump? We have about just a little under a minute left.

ROSENTHAL: I think the program broke down in the Trump years. We've never had an issue with IRS mandatory audits of presidents to our knowledge before, and President Biden's tax returns have been audited appropriately. Now, Trump has 500 LLCs, a sprawling business empire. It's really, really hard to sort out what's going on. And the IRS just seemed to flounder. They got lost. And so this is a Trump-specific problem. What's really curious - and we don't know the answer - is that because of the sophistication and complication of Trump's taxes, is it because of Trump's obstruction and delay? Or did Trump lean on the IRS to go easy? We don't know the answer yet.

CHANG: Steven Rosenthal, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, thank you very much for joining us today.

ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.