- Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
It’s time to revisit this tantalizing story published by Crain’s New York Business in March, which suggested, for a moment, that Donald Trump’s income – or at least, his adjusted gross income for federal tax purposes – might be less than $500,000 a year.
The publisher looked up the property-tax bill for Trump’s penthouse at Trump Tower and found that he was getting a school tax rebate.
The rebate was tiny – $302 off a tax bill of over $175,000 – but such rebates are supposed to be available only to people who make less than $500,000 a year. This looked like evidence that Trump might be much less wealthy than he claims and/or that he uses tax strategies to achieve an extremely low taxable income despite his great wealth.
Shortly after, the Trump campaign and New York City said that the real story was something much less interesting: The rebate was an error.
“Mr. Trump should not have received this benefit afterthe income limit law changed, and he should immediately return its value to State taxpayers,” city spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick told Business Insider in March.
Before 2011, there was no income limit on the rebate, so it was available even to billionaires.
But on Friday, Trump’s latest tax bill came out, and, as again first reported by Crain’s, it still shows him receiving the rebate, three months after the story first became public.
More interestingly, the city will no longer affirm its March statement that Trump was ineligible to get the credit in the first place.
The city’s Department of Finance (DOF) “has a process in place for reviewing eligibility that it must follow,” said Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the mayor, on Monday. “DOF has been reviewing Mr. Trump’s exemption status for final determination.”
Pressed repeatedly about whether the city could still affirm the March statement that Trump “should not have received” the tax rebate, a mayoral representative would point only to the ongoing DOF process – and noted that the March statement had been based on comments from the Trump campaign that Trump was ineligible for the rebate.
On Monday, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, insisted that the rebate on the latest tax bill is also in error.
“This is yet another error and has already been corrected,” she said. “You can verify this with the city.”
But actually, I can’t verify it with the city.
The city’s property-tax database shows no update beyond the June 3 tax bill, which shows Trump receiving the rebate. The mayor’s office says that the review of Trump’s rebate is ongoing at the DOF – not changed or corrected.
Hicks did not immediately respond to a request for documentation that the tax bill had been corrected.
Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in March that Trump’s receipt of school tax rebates had been “an error on the part of the city of New York.”
But Lewandowski has since proved to be an unreliable narrator of Trump’s finances. On May 20, Lewandowski told The Washington Post that Trump had already fully disbursed his promised donations to veterans’ groups, which wasn’t true.
Trump explained Lewandowski’s error by noting that Lewandowski would not necessarily be privy to such details about his finances.
“I don’t know that Corey would even know when I gave it out,” Trump told The Post on May 24, the date on which many checks were issued to veterans’ organizations.
One thing seems clear: Trump did not apply for the rebate he is getting. All homeowners who wanted the rebate were supposed to apply for it by December 31, 2013, even if they were previously receiving it. Business Insider made a request in March under New York’s Freedom of Information Law for any application for such a rebate for Trump’s apartment, and we were told no such application exists.
But just because Trump did not apply for the rebate does not mean that he is ineligible to receive it. As Crain’s reported in March, the city and state tax departments claim that they interface with each other to ensure that property-tax bills – which are prepared by the city – are checked against income data (which the state gets on income-tax returns) to ensure that school tax rebates go to only those who qualify for them.
I don’t know what to make of all of this. Even if Trump’s wealth is far less than he claims, it strikes me as a tall order for him to have gotten his and Melania’s adjusted gross income as low as $500,000. Trump, after all, has very substantial living expenses, which he is financing somehow.
Trump’s tax bills from the late 1970s, which were disclosed as part of a casino-license application, did show negative income in two tax years. But that was before the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which eliminated many tax benefits for real-estate investors, a fact Trump complained bitterly about in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal.”
On the other hand, if he really isn’t eligible for this tax rebate, then it seems like he ought to be able to get it taken off of his property-tax bill.
If Trump released his recent income-tax returns, then we would not have to wonder why he is still receiving this property-tax rebate.