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Trump Tax Returns Show He’s a Populist Fraud

The freeloader-in-chief paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.
September 28, 2020
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump sit in the presidential motorcade on the South Lawn of the White House on February 04, 2020 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

“You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
—Donald J. Trump, The Art of the Deal

Donald Trump’s long economic populist con came to a close on Sunday when the New York Times reported that for most of the past 15 years, while he was living a life of luxury that most Americans can only dream of, he was racked with massive debts and paying no income tax thanks to business write-offs on flamboyant haircuts, consulting fees paid to his daughter, and a summer retreat where his large adult sons liked to ride ATVs and laugh at the poor suckers who had to mow the lawn.

Trump was not the brilliant businessman skilled at tax write-offs that we had been promised. He was a fraud who was paying nothing at all. Literally.

This was not the pitch he made to the American people in 2016. Back then, Trump repeatedly claimed that he’d impose a new tax regime that would cause him and his wealthy friends to pay significant sums. The media and his base lapped it up hook, line, and sinker.

Here’s an August 2015 CNN article headlined “Donald Trump: Tax The Rich More”:

“You’ve seen my statements. I do very well. I don’t mind paying a little more in taxes. The middle class is getting clobbered in this country,” he said.

Here’s Politico a month later:

“It’s going to cost me a fortune, which is actually true,” the Republican presidential front-runner candidate told reporters, as he unveiled a bold—and fairly detailed—tax plan.

Well here’s the thing: It wasn’t actually true. (As a general rule, when a liar says something is “actually true” that is a tell that it’s not actually true.)

Trump paid barely anything in taxes, and there was no new GOP tax-cut package that would’ve transformed his zero- and near-zero tax bills into a “fortune.” Certainly not the one he proposed. This was clear to anyone who actually looked at his plan. As Vox put it in 2017, “Trump keeps saying he’ll raise taxes on the rich. He’s lying.

This wasn’t just your standard-issue politician-makes-a-promise-that-they-don’t-keep deal, though.

It was part and parcel of the broader so-called “economic populism” bill of goods that Trump and “sloppy” Steve Bannon, his pit-stained, triplicate-shirted, faux-everyman muse, sold the American people. They were going to raise taxes on the wealthy, take on Jeb and Ted and Hillary’s Wall Street cronies, and finally build a wall on the border, making Mexico pay.

None of this, of course, was true.

There was no economic populist agenda.

The tax bill Trump ended up signing into law was a boon to the wealthy and did nothing to address the “carried interest” tax rate he promised would ensnare the private equity and hedge-fund guys. Trump gave Goldman Sachs the keys to his cabinet and billed the American people for millions upon millions of their hard-earned tax dollars for copious golf holiday Doonbegdoggles at his own hotels.

Meanwhile Bannon spent most of his time in the White House leaking to Vanity Fair and making immigrants’ lives as miserable as possible, and then was dispatched to a globetrotting yacht life funded by Chinese billionaires and the forgotten MAGA man whom he allegedly bilked for millions to crowdfund a phony wall.

The reality is that saying that you are an economic populist who cares about the forgotten man is more respectable in elite political circles than admitting you are a race hustler. You can tell it to a journalist or to your friends at the country club and not feel judged. It almost makes you sound like a good person! You are fighting for the working man and want to make things more fair. If anything you are harming your own interests! These new policies might “cost me a fortune.” Sure it will.

A face-saving ruse. That’s all it ever was. A story for the rubes.

The only “populist” shift in the Trump era regards the enabling of cultural grievance. The willingness to use the president’s bully pulpit to take those uppity athletes down a peg. Shutting the door on new immigrants and refugees. Punishing enemies. Law and order for protesters but a get-out-of-jail-free card for cronies. Wanting to use racial slurs without getting “canceled.”

This is just the same old racist, nativist nonsense wrapped in a phony soak-the-rich package.

You might even call it a “Trojan horse” for the racists and the scam artists.


The Trump/Bannon closing argument in 2016 was a dark ad featuring Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros about how the rich globalist elites are robbing everyday Americans. This was their pitch.

And it was on the back of this populist message—and an opponent who made it easy—that they won over disaffected white working-class former Democrats and put together a winning coalition.

Many of us knew it was all a lie back then. But the last four years have revealed it time and time again.

They never cared about ensuring that the forgotten man got a bigger slice of the pie. They never considered running up their own tab to give a hand up to the working stiff.

Trump and Bannon just wanted to be the ones on the inside running the scam. Making sure they got theirs.

The tax returns are the final reveal that proves the case. And now Joe Biden has all he needs in the final weeks of the campaign to reveal the con to the “losers and suckers” whom Donald Trump forgot about.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.