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In Trump Donations, Big Tax Write-Offs And Claims That Don't Always Add Up

The vast bulk of Donald Trump's charitable tax deductions, $119.3 million worth, came from simply agreeing not to develop land — in several cases, after he had shelved development plans.

Oct 24, 2020 / 07:58 AM IST
US President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


In President Donald Trump’s telling, he is a committed philanthropist with strong ties to many charities. “If you don’t give back, you’re never ever going to be fulfilled in life,” he wrote in “Trump 101: The Way to Success,” published at the height of his “Apprentice” fame.

And according to his tax records, he has given back at least $130 million since 2005, his second year as a reality TV star.

But the long-hidden tax records, obtained by The New York Times, show that Trump did not have to reach into his wallet for most of that giving. The vast bulk of his charitable tax deductions, $119.3 million worth, came from simply agreeing not to develop land — in several cases, after he had shelved development plans.

Three of the agreements involved what are known as conservation easements — a maneuver, popular among wealthy Americans, that typically allows a landowner to keep a property’s title and receive a tax deduction equal to its appraised value. In the fourth land deal, Trump donated property for a state park.

The New York attorney general is investigating whether the appraisals on two of Trump’s easement donations were improperly inflated to win larger tax breaks, according to court filings.

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Trump’s pronouncements of philanthropic largesse have been broadly discredited by reporting, most notably in The Washington Post, that found he had exaggerated, or simply never made, an array of claimed contributions. His own charitable foundation shut down in 2018 amid allegations of self-dealing to benefit Trump, his businesses and his campaign.

But the tax data examined by the Times lends new authority and far greater precision to those findings. The records, encompassing his reported philanthropic activity through 2017, reveal not only its exact dimensions; they show that much of his charity has come when he was under duress — facing damage to his reputation or big tax bills in years of high income.

Of the $7.5 million in business and personal cash contributions reported to the IRS since 2005, more than 40 percent — $3.2 million — came starting in 2015, when Trump’s philanthropy fell under scrutiny after he announced his White House bid. In 2017, his first year in office, he declared $1.9 million in cash gifts. In 2014, by contrast, he contributed $81,499.

And his first two land-easement donations were made in what the tax records show was a period of significant taxable income — 2005 and 2006, prime time for his reality TV fame.

The president’s Trump Organization biography says he is “involved with numerous civic and charitable organizations.” When he announced his campaign in 2015, he said he had given more than $102 million to charity over the previous five years.

While it is possible that he chose not to report some of his giving, his tax records for 2010 to 2014 reflect far less than he claimed — $735,238 in cash and $26.8 million in land easements and other noncash gifts. Six months into the campaign, in December 2015, another easement, valued at $21.1 million, was completed.

In response to questions from the Times, Amanda Miller, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization, said: “President Trump gives money privately. It’s impossible to know how much he’s given over the years.”

The tax information analyzed by the Times includes annual totals for business and individual giving but lists only certain corporate donations.

The single largest cash donation he reported for his businesses, made to his own foundation, was the $400,000 he received in 2011 for being roasted on Comedy Central. In 2014, his Virginia winery contributed a glass sculpture valued at $73,600 to a small historical society in Pennsylvania. And in 2016, another one of his companies gave $30,000 to the American Hotel & Lodging Education Foundation.

Even without the details of Trump’s individual giving, the Times was able to identify public philanthropic promises that appear either to have been exaggerated or to have never materialized. In each case, the size of his pledge exceeded what he told the IRS he had given in a particular year.

In 2009, for example, he agreed to rent his Seven Springs estate in Westchester County, New York, to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who hoped to stay in a tent on the grounds during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

Though the plans fell apart when local residents objected, Gadhafi made a payment of $150,000, which Trump told CNN in 2011 he had given to charity. His 2009 tax returns, however, reported only $22,796 in business and personal cash gifts.

In 2015, Trump promised to donate the earnings from his book “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.’’

“The profits of my book? I am giving them away to a lot of different — including the vets,” he said at a news conference.

The tax records show that Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, which represented Trump’s book, made two payments to him in 2015 and 2016, totaling roughly $4.5 million. In those years, Trump reported giving a total of $1.3 million in cash to charity.

Many wealthy individuals create their own foundations, often as a way to have greater control over their philanthropy. While Trump’s foundation, started in 1988, gave millions to charity before shutting down in 2018, most of it was other people’s money. Trump himself donated $5.4 million to the foundation, with the last contribution in 2008, according to the organization’s tax filings.

The majority of the president’s philanthropy, though, has consisted of his four land deals with conservation groups or the government.

His first easement donation, which yielded a tax deduction of $39.1 million in 2005, involved a parcel of land at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The next year, he donated 436 acres of land for a state park in Westchester and Putnam counties in New York after development plans ran up against tough regulatory restrictions. While the precise value of the easement is not clear, he reported noncash charitable contributions of $34 million that year.

Trump had bought the property in the 1990s for $2 million, according to numerous published reports. Today it is overgrown and has few facilities or visitors.

The two most recent easement deductions are being examined by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, part of a broader investigation into whether the Trump Organization inflated the value of assets to get loans and tax benefits.

In 2014, after abandoning plans to develop an 11.5-acre property being used as a driving range at his Los Angeles golf club, Trump received a $25.1 million tax deduction for an easement agreement with a land conservancy. Few details of the inquiry into the deal have emerged.

Court papers shed more light on the other easement under investigation.

In late 2015, Trump got a $21.1 million tax break for 158.6 acres of land at the Seven Springs estate, after years of unsuccessful attempts to build a golf course on it.

The attorney general’s court filing says that after Trump abandoned plans to develop Seven Springs, he asked Sheri Dillon, a tax lawyer at Morgan Lewis who had advised him in the past, to have the land appraised.

Dillon told Cushman & Wakefield, the firm that did the appraisal, that “the client blew up at her,” and she leaned on the appraisers to take steps that would push the value up, according to the court filing.

Several weeks ago, after months of delays, Trump’s son Eric gave a deposition in the case.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing. “President Trump was not involved in the appraisals mentioned, which were done by the most respected appraisal and brokerage company in the country,” said Miller, the Trump Organization spokesperson.

 

c.2020 The New York Times Company

 

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New York Times
first published: Oct 24, 2020 07:58 am

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