Trump Gains Millions of Dollars from Republican Tax Law

Wednesday, January 03, 2018
Donald Trump with just-signed GOP tax law on his desk, Dec. 22, 2017 (photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

By Americans for Tax Fairness


Despite his false claim that his tax plan would “cost me a fortune,” President Trump will

undoubtedly be among the very wealthy who will benefit enormously from his tax plan. Several

elements will be particular boons to Trump and his family. Trump’s exact tax savings are

difficult to estimate since he has refused to release his tax returns unlike every other president

over the last 40 years—but it is likely to be at least $11 million a year and perhaps as much as

$22 million.



Under prior law, next year income above roughly $480,000 for a married couple would be taxed

at a top rate of 39.6%. Under the new Trump-GOP tax law, the top rate will fall to 37%, which

wouldn’t apply to any income below $600,000 for married couples. Since Trump and his wife

presumably make many multiples of those income amounts, the combination of lowering the

top tax rate and raising the threshold over which it’s paid will pay off handsomely for the

Trumps if they are not subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax.



The keystone of the new law is an immediate, permanent cut in the top corporate tax rate from

35% to 21%—a 40% rate cut. The benefits of corporate tax cuts flow overwhelmingly to

shareholders. Trump’s financial disclosure forms show that he owns millions of dollars in

individual stocks and mutual funds, and thus would benefit mightily from the corporate tax cut,

but there is no way to estimate the savings.



Pass-through businesses (which include sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLC’s and S

corporations) pay no federal income taxes at the corporate level. Instead, profits and losses

pass through to business owners, who pay any tax due on their personal returns at individual

rates. Though 95% of the nation’s businesses are pass-through entities, the field is dominated

by a handful of big players: half of all pass-through income goes to the wealthiest 1% of

business owners.


President Trump’s business is a collection of 500 pass-through entities (pdf). The Trump-GOP  

Plan allows pass-through business owners to deduct 20% of their pass-through business income

from their taxable income, which will lower the top effective tax rate to as low as 29.6%—7.4

percentage points below the new 37% top marginal tax rate. Based on Trump’s 2005 tax return,

where he had as much as $110 million in pass-through income (lines 12 and 17), a 20%

deduction would have saved Trump nearly $11 million.


According to a New York Times estimate based on a recent government ethics filing, Trump had

at least $217 million in LLC revenue in 2016. That could represent a tax savings of as much as

$22 million, if all the income was subject to the 29.6% rate rather than the 39.6% rate.


Various provisions of the new pass-through tax rules are supposed to prevent certain types of

businesses from sharing in the lower effective rates: those that receive mostly “passive”

income, for instance, or that consist of a single person or small group. But surgically precise

exemptions were written into the new law that allow Trump and other real estate owners

and investors to enjoy all the benefits of the new lower rate.


For instance: while passive income like interest and dividends is ineligible for the new low rate,

rent, royalties and licensing fees are eligible. Those are all three types of income that Trump’s

pass-through businesses likely receive a lot of, given their specialization in real estate, sales of

Trump books, and licensing of Trump’s name.


To try to ensure that larger pass-through businesses enjoying the lower pass-through rate

actually employ workers (who are supposed to share in the benefits), the bill ties eligibility for

the deduction to the amount of W-2 wages the business pays. If the business doesn’t pay

enough in wages, it can’t claim the full deduction.


But at the last minute in House-Senate negotiations over the final bill, a second qualifier for

getting the full deduction was slipped in. That is the value of certain capital investments that

highly favors established real-estate investors like Trump.



The estate tax, paid now by just the richest one in 500 families, is the only federal curb on the

accumulation of dynastic wealth. The new law doubles the amount excluded from the tax, from

roughly $5.5 million for individuals and $11 million for couples, to about $11 million and $22

million, respectively. Because the Trump family fortune is so much higher than the new

exemption amount, this change would make relatively little difference to his heirs, though they

would still save around $4 million in estate taxes, assuming the estate pays at the 40% rate.



The real estate industry will continue to enjoy some of the biggest loopholes in the tax code

under the Trump-GOP tax law (see next section). However, when crafting the measure at least

two special exceptions were made for the real estate industry when a loophole was closed, or

certain types of businesses or income were excluded from a new tax break:


1. Like-Kind Exchanges (Section 1031 Exchanges). Capital gains taxes are usually due when

an asset is sold for more than it cost. But under current law, investors in tangible items can

indefinitely delay paying if they keep reinvesting the proceeds in another item—what’s

called a “like-kind exchange.” If these gains are continuously rolled over until the taxpayer

dies, they are never taxed at all. The Trump-GOP tax plan closes the like-kind-exchange

loophole for real property—except for real estate investors such as Trump, who get to keep

this handy way of avoiding taxes on their gains.


2. Limiting Interest Deductions. The Trump-GOP plan required almost all businesses to accept

new limitations on their right to deduct interest payments on their loans. All businesses,

that is, except for those involved in real estate investments, such as Donald Trump’s. He’s

called himself the “king of debt”—some observers estimate his business loans exceed $1




The Trump-GOP tax law failed to close these major loopholes enjoyed by real estate investors

like Donald Trump:


1. Depreciation. Businesses can write off, or “depreciate,” the cost of certain property over

time, reflecting gradual wear and tear that reduces value. But unlike, say, trucks and

machinery, real estate often gains value over the years. Yet real estate professionals like

Trump are still allowed to depreciate commercial properties that are actually rising in

market price, cutting their taxes even as their wealth grows.


Real estate owners must give back some of the benefit of depreciation when they sell their

property by paying a higher tax rate on the profit from the sale than they normally would.

But for wealthy taxpayers like Trump, that special “recapture” rate is far below the size of

the depreciation deductions taken over the years they owned the property. Trump has

called depreciation “a wonderful charge” (“I love depreciation.”). He’s admitted that “a lot”

of a $916 million loss he claimed on his 2005 tax return—a loss that could have wiped out

20 years of tax liability—came from depreciation.


2. At-Risk Rule. Most taxpayers can only claim losses from businesses in which their own

money is at risk. The “at-risk” rule prevents investing in a business with a loan secured by

that business (a mortgage), then claiming the tax benefit if the business loses money. But

real estate investors like Trump have a special exception, allowing them to reap tax-saving

losses from properties they bought mostly with borrowed money—money they can avoid

ever having to repay simply by walking away from the property.


3. Capital Loss Deductions. Businesses can suffer two kinds of losses. An “operating loss”

occurs when expenses exceed income—there’s more cash going out than coming in. A

“capital loss” comes from selling an asset for less than what it cost. Generally, when figuring

taxable income, capital losses can only be subtracted from capital gains (which are sales of

assets above their original purchase price). But real estate investors like Trump can subtract

capital losses from regular income, which is a better deal because regular income is taxed at

higher rates than capital gains.


4. Tax-Free Cancelled Debt: In most cases, cancelled debt is considered taxable income

because the forgiven debtor has received an economic benefit. But cancelled debt related

to commercial real estate is an exception. Trump borrowed billions of dollars in the 1980s,

then convinced his lenders to forgive much of that debt when his businesses began to fail in

the early 1990s. Because of real estate’s loophole, he didn’t need to report the forgiven

debt as income. And while he carried the debt, he was able to deduct the interest

payments, further reducing his taxable income.


5. Passive Losses. Tax reform in 1986 abolished “tax shelters”: investments intended to lose

money to reduce taxable income. Such “passive losses” could no longer be subtracted from

“active” income generated by a trade or profession. In 1993, after heavy lobbying by the

real estate industry—including a personal appeal from Trump—Congress allowed real

estate professionals to once again use passive rental losses to shrink active income, and it

did not close this loophole.


To Learn More:

Republican Plan to Eliminate Estate Tax for Super-Wealthy Could Hurt Charities (by Patrick Rooney, Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, The Conversation)

Richest Families in U.S. Run Rings around the IRS, but Obama Administration Fights Back (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Government Redistributes Wealth…to the Rich (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Tax Rates Report Originally Suppressed by Republicans Reappears Updated (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Loophole in Obama Tax the Rich Plan Would Spare Many Sort-Of Rich (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Would Taxing the Rich Really Hurt Economic Growth? (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

House GOP Blocks Nonpartisan Report that Debunks Tax Cut Mythology (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

If Corporations and Richest Americans were Taxed at 1961 Rates, U.S. Would Gain $716 Billion a Year (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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