For most people, the IRS causes annual headaches. For former President Donald Trump, the opposite is true. The sheer quantity of his filings and financial acrobatics confound the most confounding part of our government, the IRS.
Trump owns around five hundred companies in twenty-five countries. Some of them exist purely to shift money around. When his personal and business returns from 2015–2020 became public last week, they were the length of ten finance textbooks, around six thousand pages of material.
Why should anyone care about Trump’s tax returns? And why did he not release them voluntarily?
The Supreme Court ruled against Trump
Every president since Nixon has willingly disclosed their tax returns to the public. Despite saying that they would “be released,” Trump ultimately tried to keep them private.
Why would presidents release them in the first place? Most obviously, for the sake of transparency in general. But crucially, it also allows Congress to scrutinize whether the president breaks the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits federal officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign countries.
Eventually, Democratic lawmakers in the House Ways and Means Committee requested his taxes. Trump refused. In 2021, Biden’s Justice Department said the House could legally demand the documents to keep him accountable. In response, Trump sued. The House Committee won the case in 2021 and the appeal in 2022. Last month, the conservative-majority Supreme Court declined to intervene, upholding the ruling against Trump.
The US Treasury delivered Trump’s tax returns from 2015–2020 to Congress last month. They, in turn, released them to the public last week.
Trump and many conservatives argue that this is an overreach of government power, while Democrats argue making the president’s taxes public is important for accountability.
Either way, now that the precedent is set in SCOTUS’ judicial stone, Republicans and Democrats alike will almost certainly compel all future presidents to do the same (and possibly other officials, or, theoretically, anyone).
The Wall Street Journal released an opinion piece by the editorial board criticizing the release of the documents, saying that “the dump is a violation of taxpayer privacy with no legislative purpose.”
What did Trump pay in taxes?
The thousands-of-pages-long tax returns show that Donald Trump and his wife Melania paid an income tax of $650,000 in 2015, only $750 in 2016 and 2017, $1.1 million in 2018–2019, and finally a whopping zero dollars in 2020.
That year, his business losses basically “swamped” his other income so he had no income tax liability, but he did pay other taxes totaling $14 million.
For the decade leading up to 2018, Trump’s income stayed in the red; it was negative by tens of millions annually. This meant he paid very little taxes on his wealth until 2018, when he reported $24 million in positive income. Of that sum, $14 million came from selling inherited real estate developed by his father, Fred Trump.
These staggering losses aren’t necessarily unusual for a billionaire like Trump. The returns show that Trump followed the typical obfuscating tax-avoidance strategies used by basically all very wealthy people so that, technically, they don’t have much positive income even though they take in large earnings.
It is possible that nearly all of his supposed “losses” are simply part of shuffling money through loopholes to avoid taxes, an indication of business savvy. Or, the sustained losses might show Trump’s ventures dwindling in success.
Did Trump’s returns show that he did anything wrong?
No, not necessarily.
Critics and political opponents speculated that Trump fought to hide his tax returns because they would show illegal behavior or something that might damage his reputation. But CNN Business reports, “It’s not immediately clear that they do either.”
Consider what else the House Committee uncovered.
In 2020, Trump reported $0 in charitable giving, which seems to go against his promise to gift his presidential salary every year (but he could have done it without reporting it as a charity donation).
The House Committee also highlighted areas for the IRS to inspect, such as whether the loans he gave to his children should have been filed as gifts, some suspicious charitable donations he made, or foreign tax credits he received while in office.
These are all questions, not answers. That’s because the IRS continues to wade through their audits of Trump at a breakneck snail’s pace.
Where are Trump’s audits?
The IRS audits will dig deeper and might find something unlawful. But, in themselves, Trump’s tax returns don’t point to anything damning. (Of course, Trump finds himself mired in other legal battles).
While the returns don’t reprove Trump, it does draw attention to the IRS’s egregious lateness.
Legally, the IRS must audit Trump for the years he sits as president. Typically, they audit presidents yearly, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the IRS began work on Trump’s 2015 returns after the newly elected Democratic House bid them start. Supposedly, they were late because they were simply bogged down as a whole and couldn’t handle the load Trump’s taxes put on them.
The massive audits from 2015–2020 are being processed as we speak.
What does the Bible say about business?
Biblical characters did not live in a free market economy. Their cultural settings varied greatly from ours in the modern West. But the Bible offers insight into running a trade successfully, as well as the dangers and pitfalls of wealth.
Some passages provide wisdom for successful working. For example, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). We talk in-depth about working for God’s glory in “What does the Bible say about work?”
But the Bible mostly talks about God’s moral guidance. The Old Testament solidifies many radical protections for destitute people, like the year of Jubilee, when all debts were forgiven and slaves were freed. Countless times, the prophets pointed to the oppression of the poor as a glaring sin of Israel.
While many characters were financially successful because of God’s blessing, like Joseph, Daniel, David, Solomon, Abraham, and others, Jesus also pointed out the corruption that wealth can bring. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
God’s kingdom doesn’t run on money. Dr. Jim Denison writes, “His government does not require one penny from its residents. It is because he can do so much more with us than we can do with ourselves. He will use every gift, ability, and resource we surrender to him for his greatest glory and our greater good.”
Is wealth your master?
In the context of talking about arrogance in his letter in the Bible, James writes scathing words that remind us of Jesus’ teaching about storing up wealth in the kingdom of heaven and how the prophets spoke against Israel:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. . . . Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (James 5:1–5).
James is talking about boasting and arrogance, with roots in wealth, that was infecting the church. For many, like the rich young ruler, wealth can stand in the way of following Jesus (Mark 10:17–26).
Of course, it bears saying that some of the most generous people I know are very wealthy! Whether rich or poor, how we handle money reveals the deepest parts of our character.
Does the way you handle your business and money show Christ’s heart, or does it stand as an idol, keeping you from following Jesus’ eternal kingdom?
- “What does the Bible say about money? Death and taxes: A sure thing?” Jim Denison
- “What does the Bible say about work?” Mark Legg
- “Does God care what job I have?” Devotional on YouVersion