Giulia Petroni is a journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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“I built what I built myself.”
For decades, US President Donald Trump has described himself as a self-made billionaire. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly boasted of his ability to turn a 'small' loan from his father into his fortune.
"My father gave me a very small loan in 1975," he said, "and I built it into a company that's worth many, many billions of dollars."
He said he started out with a US$1 million, but the New York Times revealed Tuesday the President received at least US$413 million from his father over the decades, much of that through dubious tax dodges, including outright fraud.
In a 15,000-word report – the result of investigations into more than 100,000 pages of financial documents, including confidential tax returns from Trump’s father and his companies – the New York Times said documents show the future president was earning US$200,000 a year in today's dollars at the age of three.
By the time he had graduated from college, the report says, he was getting the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father.
The US newspaper alleged that Fred Trump avoided gift and inheritance taxes by setting up a sham corporation and undervaluing assets to tax authorities – the so-called “All County Building Supply & Maintenance,” which was set up in 1992 as a purchasing agent to supply Trump's buildings with cleaning supplies and other goods.
Before Trump Snr. died in the late 1990s, he transferred ownership of most of his real estate empire to his four living children. The value of the properties in tax returns summed up to US$41.4 million, vastly less than they were worth, according to the New York Times report.
The same properties would be sold off over the next decade for more than 16 times that amount.
In total, the president's father and mother transferred over US$1 billion to their children. That should have produced a tax bill of at least $550 million, based on a 55 percent tax on gifts and inheritance at the time.
Instead, records indicate Trump and his siblings formulated a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to them. According to the report, they only paid US$52.2 million, about give percent.
Trump expressed outrage over the report and promptly fired back in trademark style.
“The Failing New York Times did something I have never seen done before. They used the concept of “time value of money” in doing a very old, boring and often told hit piece on me. Added up, this means that 97% of their stories on me are bad. Never recovered from bad election call!” he tweeted early this morning.
Echoing the president's language, the White House dismissed the report as a "misleading attack against the Trump family by the failing New York Times." It criticised the newspaper and other media outlets, saying their low credibility with the public is "because they are consumed with attacking the president and his family 24/7 instead of reporting the news."
The president's brother Robert Trump said that all appropriate gift and estate tax returns were filed.
"Our family has no other comment on these matters that happened some 20 years ago," he said in a statement to the Times.
The New York state tax department told The Associated Press that it is reviewing the allegations and "is vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation."
However, tax experts cited in the report say that Trump is unlikely to face criminal prosecution given that the manoeuvres occurred are past the statute of limitation.