Congressional committees have subpoenaed Donald Trump’s tax returns from the IRS and from the State of New York, which recently passed a law to make them available. Though Congress has clear legal authority to obtain the returns, Trump has launched a frantic legal battle to keep them secret. Why?
The answer is obvious from a superficial examination of his businesses. Trump’s tax returns would expose his criminal transactions to scrutiny and eventual law enforcement action. Those documents are the only nearly-honest account of his life available anywhere.
If Donald Trump has been reporting earnings from crime on his tax returns, why he wouldn’t be in jail already? Unfortunately, that’s not how any of this works.
Since Al Capone landed in prison for false accounting, organized criminals have learned the #1 rule of operating in the US: Report your earnings. As long you’re not committing the kinds of street crimes that would gain the attention of local police, it’s smart to report your criminal earnings accurately to the IRS. Over the years we’ve crafted our tax laws to encourage income reporting by making it nearly impossible for the IRS to report any crime other than tax evasion. Tell the IRS the truth about your earnings and they will keep your secrets.
It is a crime for the IRS to initiate contact with law enforcement about criminal activity they find in your tax returns, unless they have evidence you’re supporting terrorists. If the cops aren’t already on your trail, with enough evidence to launch a prosecution, a blatant story of criminal activity laid out in your tax records cannot be used against you. Do all the criming you want. Go on a rampage of fraud, riot and murder. As long as you avoid attracting law enforcement attention and submit an accurate balance sheet, the IRS has no authority to act.
How would you engage in such a long career of crime without getting pinched by the cops? Ask Trump’s party buddy, Jeffrey Epstein. Or better yet, sit Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance in a room under some hot lights and ask him why he squashed a prosecution against the Trumps in 2012. Americans simply don’t care about crimes committed by the wealthy. Commit those crimes carefully, with a proper accounting, while making friends in key places, and you can do whatever you want in this country.
What this means is that the income and losses from shady deals that funded Trump’s rise, from the money laundering in his casinos to the money laundering through his Panama condos is laid out to the penny in his tax returns. It will be carefully obscured through layers of phony corporations and offshore entities, but in order to continue operating all these years, he had to account for them with reasonable accuracy, and in sufficient detail to tell the story, in his annual tax returns.
Landing in the White House placed Trump in a uniquely vulnerable position. His finances are now open to a kind of public scrutiny never otherwise available. His tax returns would do more than expose his criminal activities, they would shed light on a world of underground finance with powerful implications for the future of democracy. Many in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have benefited handsomely from this “discreet” economy, growing fantastically and unaccountably wealthy on a lifetime of government salaries while obscuring the source of the money. They are in no hurry for the public to hear the story Trump’s tax returns would tell, but this is the most important story of our time.
What would you see in Donald Trump’s tax returns? It’s important to distinguish what’s reported in returns from what isn’t there. We wouldn’t get a formal statement of his net worth. Taxpayers only report income and losses, not assets. Most importantly, Trump’s tax returns would identity all of the profit/loss creating entities in which he has an interest, for a given year. That’s huge, though at first it would present a daunting tangle of shells and dodges.
To get a sense of how his tax returns might be laid out, it might be helpful to review how money laundering works. For a specific example, let’s walk through the structure of one of Trump’s most well-known money laundering enterprises, his condo project in Panama, known affectionately as “Narco-Lago.”
How do you launder money via real estate? You start with money that has an incriminating source, money you got from stealing or killing or running drugs or whatever. In the case of Trump and the Russians, that “whatever” is mostly either funds subject to US government sanctions, or money being looted from Russian companies.
You take that money to a place like Cyprus, where banks run by people like US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will deposit it without asking too many questions. Next, you need to obscure the source and ownership of that money. For that, you might utilize the services of incorporation factories run by Cypriot lawyers who will manufacture a dozen or so corporate entities for you, even providing dummy board members. That process was described in detail in the indictments against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Those companies own each other in a complex web. The money you brought in your suitcase is split up among these entities, each with their own accounts in Wilbur Ross’ crooked, but legal bank.
Now you need to get those assets out of Cyprus (or Antigua or Jersey or the Virgin Islands) into a stable economy where there are assets worth owning. If you’re only trying to bring a million or so at a time into the US or Europe, then simply buying an expensive house, funded by checks from your businesses’ accounts in Ross’ bank, might do. But when you have $50m you need to move quickly before you’re caught you don’t have time to engage in dozens of real estate transactions, each carefully massaged to escape reporting requirements. You need to deal with a pro, someone who understands your particular needs and is sympathetic to your specialized payment arrangements. This is where you need Donald Trump.
Donald Trump has been laundering money for at least three decades, since he was prosecuted for it in New Jersey in 1993, right up to cases in 2015. In a career dominated by disasters wrought by his ego and stupidity, money laundering is the only business he’s ever run successfully. If you wanted to build a money laundering machine, it might look like the Trump Ocean Club built in Panama City in 2011, Trump’s first international venture.
From the beginning, ownership of the business was shady. Trump claimed ownership on loan applications while denying it elsewhere. The actual ownership remains obfuscated. Panama was an easy choice of location, as it had developed an entire industry laundering criminal money from its dodgy neighbors.
Ivanka Trump worked with Alexandre Ventura Nogueira to manage condo sales. He used his connections with mafiosi in Colombia and Russia to set up a sophisticated condo-flipping factory, laundering money from illegal activities through the President’s first semi-successful overseas venture. Several of the early tenants are now on the run or in prison.
The Ocean Club was a one-stop shop for all your money laundering needs. From Pro Publica:
Several aspects of the Panama sales raised red flags, according to experts. For example, some buyers bought blocks of units. Purchases were typically made anonymously through shell corporations registered in Panama. That allowed some buyers to change the ownership of the unit in secret, simply by changing the ownership of the company. They often used so-called bearer shares, allowing a stake in a company to be transferred simply by passing a piece of paper.
Lots of buyers were profiting handsomely from rapid flips of condos, but not the ordinary suckers who bought condos intended to actually live there. Most of the residents contacted by reporters described the property as a loss. In fact several have sued. The best way to make money on this sham project was to be in on its real purpose.
Keep in mind, money launders aren’t looking for a profit. They expect to pay a premium for the service of having their money legitimized. If they buy 20 Trump condos for $20m worth of compromised money and sell them for $19m in fully legitimate US currency, they’re pretty happy. Those wealthy rubes who bought a condo at the Ocean Club because they thought they were making a smart, exciting real estate investment were understandably perplexed, but the Trump Org doesn’t need them. They are useful to provide a minimal sheen of legitimacy for the project, but attracting too many of them would have caused trouble. The Ocean Club wasn’t a building, it was a giant financial washing machine.
Nogiera was indicted for activities with the Trumps in Panama. He has fled and his whereabouts are uncertain.
The Trumps would repeat this model several times over. They even copied the whole vagina-themed architecture of the Ocean Club for their phony tower development in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Trump helped launder money from the sanctioned terrorists in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
So, what will Trump’s money laundering business in Panama look like in his tax returns?
For starters, if the returns went back long enough they would reveal the truth behind Trump’s lies about their ownership interests in the project. Chances are, three or four shells deep, there’s a corporate entity paying revenues back to the Trumps with a significant ownership stake in the building. That’s why Ivanka seemed to be working non-stop promoting the project even though the family claimed to have only received branding royalties.
What would Trump’s interest in the Panama project look like on his tax returns? He has probably created hundreds of corporate entities which will report profits or losses back to him personally. None of them will have a name that clearly states their purpose. From 2008 on, there are probably half a dozen or more of them each year tied to that project. What will appear on his return is a Schedule C for a company name, probably no more descriptive than “DJT Ltd3,” attached to a reported profit or loss, or perhaps a Schedule E for real estate trusts, depending on what that entity is doing.
Addresses for most of these businesses are likely empty storefronts or a lawyer’s office, but those entities must have some form of a human board and owner somewhere. Those third-parties who are standing in as dummy board members are the family’s first vulnerability.
What purpose do these shell companies serve? One entity might be used to skim money from payments to contractors by acting as general contracting partner, similar to the scam by which Trump forces the Secret Service to pay him for protecting him. Another might be a real estate trust Trump shares with others, which holds the land. Others might hold the property management entity and still others might be profiting, or reporting paper losses, from lending money to the rest of the Trump entities. That money isn’t repaid and eventually gets written off as a loss.
Shell companies can make it time consuming and tedious to track down the original source of money in a transaction, but it rarely makes it impossible. For the purpose of IRS reporting, you just need a sheen of legitimacy, not deep cover. If the names, addresses, and apparent ownership of the entities that produce Trump’s income were available to journalists, we’d know the truth about his life story in a few weeks.
All we’ll see at first in the returns is the names of these shells. But once we have the names, we can start to assemble the relationships. And when that map of relationships is in the open, further inquiries into those layers of companies can fill out the rest of the picture.
We’d see fairly quickly how much money had flowed through his companies from Russian sources, with dates, and we’d learn the identity of those sources, at least by their official business names. We’d see where Trump got the money he needed in the period from 2008-2013 to go on a cash buying spree while all of his businesses were up in flames. Teasing a coherent story from the tangled trail of those returns would be like weaving a sweater from a soggy clump pulled from a prison shower drain, but those returns are the only place we’ll learn the truth.
But wait, tax returns submitted to Congress under its subpoena power are supposed to be confidential. How would we ever learn what was in them? There’s a provision in the law pertaining specifically to whistleblowers who gain access to returns through Congressional disclosure:
Any person who otherwise has or had access to any return or return information under this section may disclose such return or return information to a committee referred to in paragraph (1) or any individual authorized to receive or inspect information under paragraph (4)(A) if such person believes such return or return information may relate to possible misconduct, maladministration, or taxpayer abuse.
Why does this matter? Can’t we just vote him out of office next year and be done with this disaster? No. This problem is much bigger than Donald Trump, and it will only grow until we confront the cancer.
Unfortunately, few in the public recognize the vital importance of the story in Trump’s tax returns. By exposing the cash flows that led Donald Trump from reality TV to the White House, we’ll do more than wreck his empire. We’ll finally see how the networks that really influence our political system operate.
It’s not campaign contributions that make our system run. It’s the shadow money, flowing through shell companies and undisclosed transactions that deliver real power in our system. If we fail to seize this opening for daylight, the darkness may last a very long time.