The Wealth-Defense Industry

The Wealth-Defense Industry

Lessons from the Trumps’ tax-avoidance racket.

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The most interesting part of the New York Times report on Trump’s wealth wasn’t that his daddy set him up for success, but the way in which the family’s wealth was preserved. The Trump family is not alone in creatively evading taxes and funneling wealth to the next generation—but they have been uniquely aggressive.

The exposé reveals dozens of ways in which Fred Trump’s wealth was passed to Donald Trump and his siblings, intentionally designed to avoid estate and gift taxes. Previous research, from journalists including David Cay Johnston, has revealed that Trump benefited from loans and financial connections to his father’s real-estate empire. The Times estimates that Trump received at least a whopping $413 million, in today’s dollars, from his father’s real-estate business. Any boast of having had the business acumen to become a “self-made man,” then, is self-deception, or amnesia.

Trump has bragged that his ability to reduce his taxes shows that he is “smart.” But it isn’t the result so much of intelligence as of the millions of dollars he had at his disposal to hire armies of lawyers, tax accountants, and financial planners to frack every possible tax loophole and skirt the law. Indeed, Trump’s lawyer and spokesperson, Charles Harder, said in a statement that “the affairs were handled by other Trump family members who were not experts themselves and therefore relied entirely upon the aforementioned licensed professions to ensure full compliance with the law.”

These techniques ranged from rigged appraisals and tax planning that manipulated the valuations of properties to the use of elaborate tax dodges, known as Granter Retained Annuity Trusts, or GRATs.

Fred Trump had a special eye out for his heir apparent, Donald. He provided an extraordinary financial safety net for Donald Trump’s entrepreneurial failures. This included making dozens of loans to the now-president that were never paid back.

To mask millions in gifts disguised as loans, Fred Trump would buy stakes in his son’s real-state projects and then sell out for considerably less, taking a loss. In 1987, he invested $15.5 million in Donald’s Trump Palace condominium project. In 1991, he sold his stake back to his son for $10,000. This effectively avoided paying gift taxes on $15.49 million.

In 1990, Donald Trump was on the verge of defaulting on a bond payment for the Trump Castle casino. Fred Trump dispatched an employee to purchase $3.4 million in casino chips, an illegal loan under New Jersey gaming laws.

A major project that the Trump family undertook, with Donald Trump playing a leading role, was to drain hundreds of millions in cash and assets from Fred Trump’s enormously profitable real-estate business and transfer it to his heirs while avoiding income, estate, and gift taxes.

A potentially fraudulent method involved the use of intermediary companies and inflated billing techniques. One company, All County Building Supply & Maintenance, bought supplies and appliances, then sold them to Trump-owned building at an enormous markup. The company, owned by four Trump children and a nephew, distributed the profits to the children, reducing Fred Trump’s income and future estate taxes.

A property-management company played the same role. Rents, laundry money, and other fees were collected and went to Donald Trump instead of his father. In addition to dodging taxes by reducing Fred Trump’s profits on paper, these schemes enabled him to raise rents in New York City rent-stabilized buildings by showing inflated invoices for building supplies and services.

Upon the elder Trump’s death in 1999, it was clear this strategy was a smashing success. After paying himself a salary of $50 million in 1990, Fred Trump died with $1.9 million in the bank and no financial investments in the form of stocks, bonds, or Treasury bills. The single biggest asset on his estate-tax return was a $10.3 million IOU from Donald Trump, money that appears to have been lent in the year before his death.

What happened to Fred Trump’s real-estate empire? Through the use of a complex system of trusts, including GRATs, the ownership of Fred Trump’s real estate was shifted to his heirs while greatly reducing taxes. Other wealth dynasties have deployed GRATs to pass on billions in art collections, real estate, stocks, without paying estate taxes. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson dodged over $2.3 billion in estate taxes using a GRAT to transfer $8 billion in wealth to his heirs in 2013.

Where there are cases of outright fraud, New York State and federal authorities should investigate the decades of shameless tax evasion. But many of these schemes skirted along the edge of legality, so the Trumps never paid a cent more than they chose to.

To be fair, Trump is no different from other members of the world’s 0.1 percent, who use aggressive techniques to hide money, reclassify and reappraise assets, and dodge and evade taxes. As Trump’s lawyer Harder points out, “all estate matters were handled by licensed attorneys, licensed C.P.A.s, and licensed real estate appraisers who followed all laws and rules strictly.”

But that’s precisely the problem. Without this “wealth-defense industry” there would be no Donald Trump billions. These lawyers, accountants, and bankers are the great enablers of inequality, facilitating the hiding of trillions globally and the dodging of billions in taxes. That’s why the law and the American people, should hold them—and their crooked clientele—to account.

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