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What Trump's tax returns reveal about his personal and business finances

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

Unlike every president since Richard Nixon, Donald Trump refused to release his taxes. So a congressional committee did it for him, almost two years after he left office. The Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee took this unusual step Friday after a years-long fight to obtain the records. NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro has waded through hundreds of pages of lines and numbers and joins us now. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Alina.

SELYUKH: Let's get right into it. We've been waiting for these returns for years. What do they show?

MONTANARO: Well, the tax returns are from six years - 2015 to 2020, Trump's last year in office. They're lengthy and complicated, but some of what they show is that since Trump declared for president in 2015, he's claimed millions of dollars in losses for his businesses, years of negative personal income, and he paid little or no taxes in multiple years. This is someone who ran on being a successful businessman, and yet his businesses from his Turnberry golf course in Scotland to his now-sold hotel in Washington, D.C., according to these records, appear to have sustained some significant losses. The returns raise lots of questions as well about the details of the losses, because the higher the claimed losses, the more it reduces his tax liability. For instance, he claimed a $21 million deduction involving a New York property and whether it was overvalued. Of course, recently his company, the Trump Organization, was convicted of decades of tax fraud and schemes.

SELYUKH: Why did the committee want these records in the first place?

MONTANARO: Well, the committee has oversight over the IRS, and it wanted to see if the agency had complied with mandatory presidential audits. Trump had fought the release but lost at the Supreme Court. And what the committee found was that the IRS had not done audits in each of Trump's years as president. In fact, it only even started on one. The IRS said these tax returns are so complicated, it didn't have the resources to evaluate and investigate Trump's finances, which in and of itself is a pretty stunning thing. But there have been decades of the IRS being underfunded and not having the resources to conduct the audits necessary. It's something Democrats have really tried to fix. Republicans have fought against it, claiming that the IRS would target conservatives. Just to show how complicated Trump's taxes are compared to other presidents, the Wall Street Journal noted that after one audit, the Bidens were owed more money from the government, and in another year they owed an additional $13. So not even in the same ballpark.

SELYUKH: Right. So we've learned a lot from these documents. Why did the committee release them now? I imagine there's been quite a bit of pushback from Republicans.

MONTANARO: Yeah, well, this Congress is coming to an end, and Republicans are set to take control very shortly. They're definitely not happy. You know, the former president, you can imagine, not happy in particular. He warned that it's a two-way street and also defended himself, saying that his deductions were part of an incentive to create jobs. Kevin Brady, who's the ranking Republican member of the committee, said that Democrats unleashed a, quote, "dangerous political weapon" that reaches beyond the former president and could have implications for average people's privacy protections. Democrats, on the other hand, say that this was done in the public's interest. Don Beyer of Virginia was one of the committee's members and said, for example, Trump used questionable or poorly substantiated deductions and a number of other tax avoidance schemes, he said, which people can now see evidence of. And Beyer added that the returns show how tax laws are inequitable, benefiting the wealthy and that enforcement just is not just.

SELYUKH: That's NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.