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The Dubious Fiction of Donald Trump’s Fortune Has Been Exposed

The mythology of the “self-made man” has absorbed a mighty blow.

Donald Trump arrives at a "Make America Great Again" rally at Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi, on October 2, 2018.

A vital element of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was the fiction-filled autobiography he foisted on us, the beating heart of which was, “Vote for me because I’m a self-made rich man.” For a variety of reasons best contemplated after a tall glass of neat whiskey and a nap, it worked. Erasing the presidency of Barack Obama while enshrining “Owning the Libs” as a national policy priority became the grease to lubricate the machine. Nearly two years later the mythology of the billionaire president remains highly motivational to Trump’s still-frantic supporters.

That mythology took a torpedo shot below the waterline on Tuesday courtesy of The New York Times, which unleashed a meticulous 14,000-word analysis of the origins of Trump’s fortune. David Cay Johnston, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting, wrote of the Times report, “As the paper’s former tax reporter, and the journalist who has covered Trump the longest, I’m in a solid position to judge the depth and quality of their work. It is masterful.”

The details, based on a review of more than 100,000 Trump documents, are shattering. Instead of one “small” million-dollar loan from his father to get things started, Trump received over the years what would be today the equivalent of $413 million. That money started coming when his father put him on a $200,000-a-year salary when he was three years old.

Dodging taxes became a family affair. Trump and his siblings put together a sham corporation in 1992 called All County Building Supply & Maintenance, using it to hide massive financial gifts from their parents. Trump also helped his father undervalue his real estate holdings to avoid paying taxes. Many of the tactics used to dodge the tax man amount to “outright fraud,” in the words of the Times report.

When all was said and done, Fred and Mary Trump transferred more than $1 billion to their children in ways that allowed them to avoid paying approximately $550 million in gift and inheritance taxes. According to the Times report, and with the direct assistance of Donald Trump, the Trump family only paid about $52 million in taxes, a rate of about 5 percent. It’s amazing how rich you can get when you don’t pay your bills.

The Trump administration coughed up a boilerplate denial of the findings, which was “thin gruel” according to Johnston, given the scope and depth of the report. “The New York Times’ allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100% false, and highly defamatory,” wrote Trump attorney Charles Harder. “There was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone. The facts upon which the Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate.… President Trump had virtually no involvement whatsoever with these matters.… Should the Times state or imply that President Trump participated in fraud, tax evasion, or any other crime, it will be exposing itself to substantial liability and damages for defamation.”

Amusing last sentence there, particularly the bit about “Should.” Harder is basically threatening suit if the Times dares to call Trump crooked, as if the paper hadn’t already done precisely that with its Tuesday bombshell. Here is a Trump tactic of old: Threaten to sue anyone who calls The Great Man a fraud in the public prints. Sometimes it even works and the accuser is silenced, but in this instance, the cat is out of the bag and over the hills.

The filthy truth of the matter, however, is that Harder isn’t entirely wrong about Trump’s potential criminal liability. Tax laws, and the enforcement of same, are dramatically different for rich people. A wealthy person who actually pays their full, fair share is either not trying hard enough to dodge their taxes or has a sense of responsibility wider than their wallet. Paying taxes is for lesser mortals, a fact Trump himself has bragged about on live television. When Hillary Clinton tagged him for not paying taxes during a September 2016 presidential debate, Trump glibly retorted, “That makes me smart.”

The legal consequences of this article for Trump are nebulous. Those who want the grisly revelations contained within to be the silver bullet that removes Trump from office should anticipate those hopes getting dashed against the reef of pliant tax laws. “According to tax experts,” reads the Times report, “it is unlikely that Mr. Trump would be vulnerable to criminal prosecution for helping his parents evade taxes, because the acts happened too long ago and are past the statute of limitations.”

That being said, Donald Trump is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has taken a keen interest in the information provided by The New York Times. Its review comes in addition to an ongoing Taxation and Finance Department investigation into the Trump Foundation that may be linked to another investigation being carried out by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood. “There is no time limit,” notes the Times report, “on civil fines for tax fraud.”

The political consequences, on the other hand, are another entirely fascinating matter altogether. Thanks to the Times report, we now fully understand why Donald Trump has been so unwilling to release his tax returns. Among other things, his calamitous financial history goes a long way toward explaining how he got himself all tangled up with Russian oligarch money in the first place.

After Trump had wrung the last coppers from his father’s empire in an effort to paper over his failures (which begs the question: How does one go bankrupt multiple times after getting millions from Mom and Dad?), those willing to loan him money were few and far between. Should we ever see the final report from the Mueller investigation, odds are it will begin with the highly mobile decimal point on Trump’s bottom line.

This is only part of the problem for Trump today. His entire adult existence, beginning well before he monsooned his way into national politics, is premised on the long fiction of his wealth, power and ability to cut a deal. The Times report strips this mythology to the bone in a way that those crying “fake news” will find difficult to rebut.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling argument about the power of fiction in human affairs. Unlike the other subspecies of humans who shared the planet with us for millions of years, homo sapiens possessed a genetic mutation that allowed us to organize in huge numbers around an idea.

Be it a god, a nation-state or the value of money, homo sapiens came to be the dominant species on Earth because of their ability to devote themselves in massive numbers to something that could not be seen or touched, according to Harari. Seen through this lens, politics becomes nothing more or less than the art of myth-building. If enough people believe in a common fiction, the purveyor of that fiction can move mountains.

Thanks to the report by The New York Times, the Trump mythology has been dealt a mighty blow. Many, if not most, of his supporters will brush it off as just another callow Deep State attack upon their beloved leader … but stories like this, like the slow dripping of water in a deep cavern, have a way of wearing down even the strongest stones. Donald Trump became president because enough people believed in the fiction he was peddling. It will be a hard sell going forward, and even harder with the creeping burn of time.