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Tomgram: Nomi Prins, Cooking the Books in the Trump Universe

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

There's a clear pattern to Donald Trump's life. Put simply: he gets away with it. Yes, sometimes (but not usually) he has to pay a penalty, but generally he has a knack for leaving others holding the bag. He's stiffed untold numbers of people (plumbers, painters, cabinet-makers, waiters, lawyers, bartenders) whom he hired to do something -- almost anything -- for him; he stiffed undocumented immigrants who worked for him; he stiffed the students of Trump University (until they got a $25 million settlement); he stiffed American workers at his Mar-a-Lago and other private clubs, hiring cheaper foreign guest workers instead; and above all, the most successful businessman of all time (by his own account) took down five casinos in Atlantic City as his business empire of that moment crashed and burned -- and somehow he came away with the money, leaving his investors holding the bag and his casino workers losing millions of dollars in retirement savings. As the New York Times put it, "[E]ven as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses, and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen."

In other words, there's a record of "success" that Donald Trump brought to the presidency. The only real question is: When things begin to go badly for this country, who will he stiff this time? It's not unreasonable to assume that, as with so many previous crews enamored of The Donald, he's taking this country and his base, in particular, for the ride of their lives and when this particular roller coaster goes down, who will go down with it? Based on his history so far, not him. Or for the first time in his life -- and think about this as you read the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins, author most recently of Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World -- could Donald Trump be stiffing not just us, but himself? Tom

The Donald in Wonderland
Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With President Trump
By Nomi Prins

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Once upon a time, there was a little-known energy company called Enron. In its 16-year life, it went from being dubbed America's most innovative company by Fortune Magazine to being the poster child of American corporate deceit. Using a classic recipe for book-cooking, Enron ended up in bankruptcy with jail time for those involved. Its shareholders lost $74 billion in the four years leading up to its bankruptcy in 2001.

A decade ago, the flameout of my former employer, Lehman Brothers, the global financial firm, proved far more devastating, contributing as it did to a series of events that ignited a global financial meltdown. Americans lost an estimated $12.8 trillion in the havoc.

Despite the differing scales of those disasters, there was a common thread: both companies used financial tricks to make themselves appear so much healthier than they actually were. They both faked the numbers, thanks to off-the-books or offshore mechanisms and eluded investigations... until they collapsed.

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Now, here's a question for you as we head for the November midterm elections, sure to be seen as a referendum on the president: Could Donald Trump be a one-man version of either Enron or Lehman Brothers, someone who cooked "the books" until, well, he imploded?

Since we've never seen his tax returns, right now we really don't know. What we do know is that he's been dodging bullets ever since the Justice Department accused him of violating the Fair Housing Act in his operation of 39 buildings in New York City in 1973. Unlike famed 1920s mob boss Al Capone, he may never get done in by something as simple as tax evasion, but time will tell.

Rest assured of one thing though: he won't go down easily, even if he is already the subject of multiple investigations and a plethora of legal slings and arrows. Of course, his methods should be familiar. As President Calvin Coolidge so famously put it, "the business of America is business." And the business of business is to circumvent or avoid the heat... until, of course, it can't.

The Safe

So far, Treasury Secretary and former Trump national campaign finance chairman Steven Mnuchin has remained out of the legal fray that's sweeping away some of his fellow campaign associates. Certainly, he and his wife have grandiose tastes. And, yes, his claim that his hedge fund, Dune Capital Management, used offshore tax havens only for his clients, not to help him evade taxes himself, represents a stretch of the imagination. Other than that, however, there seems little else to investigate -- for now. Still, as Treasury secretary he does oversee a federal agency that means the world to Donald Trump, the Internal Revenue Service, which just happens to be located across a courtyard from the Trump International Hotel on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue.

As it happens, the IRS in the Trump era still doesn't have a commissioner, only an acting head. What it may have, National Enquirer-style, is genuine presidential secrets in the form of Donald Trump's elusive tax returns. Last fall, outgoing IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said that there were plans to relocate them to a shiny new safe where they would evidently remain.

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In 2016, Trump became the first candidate since President Richard Nixon not to disclose his tax returns. During the campaign, he insisted that those returns were undergoing an IRS audit and that he would not release them until it was completed. (No one at the IRS has ever confirmed that being audited in any way prohibits the release of tax information.) The president's pledge to do so remains unfulfilled and last year counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway noted that the White House was "not going to release his tax returns," adding -- undoubtedly thinking about his base -- "people didn't care."

On April 17, 2018, the White House announced that the president would defer even filing his 2017 tax returns until this October. As every president since Nixon has undergone a mandatory audit while in office, count on American taxpayers hearing the same excuse for the rest of his term, even if Congress were to decide to invoke a 1924 IRS provision to view them.

Still, Conway may have a point when it comes to the public. After all, tax dodging is as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. According to one study, every year the U.S. loses $400 billion in unpaid taxes, much of it hidden in offshore tax havens.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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