Lesson of the Day: ‘18 Revelations From a Trove of Trump Tax Records’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘18 Revelations From a Trove of Trump Tax Records’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 2021.

Featured Article: “18 Revelations From a Trove of Trump Tax Records” by David Leonhardt

On Sept. 27, The New York Times published the results of an examination of decades of personal and corporate tax records for President Trump and his businesses in the United States and abroad. The records provide a detailed history of Mr. Trump’s business career, revealing struggling properties, vast write-offs, an audit battle and hundreds of millions in debt coming due.

What The Times’s investigative team found was an existential threat to the image he has constructed about his wealth and lifestyle. The tax documents consistently appeared to call into question the business acumen he has cited in his presidential campaign and throughout his public life.

In this lesson, you will learn what The Times’s investigative team discovered in the tax documents and what the investigation reveals about our president. In the Going Further activity, you will synthesize what you’ve learned in a visual one-pager.

Take a moment to study the graph below of income and losses from businesses that Donald J. Trump has run over the past 20 years. Then respond to the following questions:

  • What story does this graph tell about Mr. Trump and his finances? Write a catchy headline that captures its main idea. If your headline makes a claim, tell us what you noticed that supports your claim.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. Why are President Trump’s tax returns “among the most sought-after documents in recent memory”?

2. What did The Times’s investigative team learn about Mr. Trump’s federal taxes over the past 20 years? How do Mr. Trump’s federal payments compare with other wealthy Americans and past presidents?

3. How was Mr. Trump able to receive a $72.9 million tax refund? Why is it now the subject of an Internal Revenue Service audit?

4. The article states that “the most successful part of the Trump business has been his personal brand.” What evidence supports this claim? How does Mr. Trump’s personal brand compare with the success of his high-profile businesses such as his hotels, resorts and golf courses?

5. How might have Mr. Trump’s financial situation influenced his decision to run for president in 2016, according to The Times?

6. Currently, how many loans is Mr. Trump personally responsible for? Why would a second term as president put his lenders in an “unprecedented position”?

7. Which of the revelations do you think is most significant and why?

Option 1: Share your thoughts

  • What is your reaction to The Times’s investigation and its findings? What picture of President Trump emerges from it? Does it change how you see Mr. Trump as a man, as a businessman or as a president?

  • Do you think the financial and tax revelations will affect Mr. Trump’s presidency and the remaining five weeks of the 2020 election campaign? Do you think they should factor in voters’ decisions on Nov. 3?

  • In “The Picture of a Broken Tax System,” The Times’s Editorial Board writes about the state of the United States tax system that allows a man like Mr. Trump, who before he became president, lived lavishly while paying little in federal income taxes:

Remove Mr. Trump’s current job from the picture, and what remains is a story that still demands attention. The portrait of a man who earned hundreds of millions of dollars, lived a life of comic excess and yet, in many years, paid nothing in federal income taxes is an indictment of the federal income tax system. It illustrates the profound inequities of the tax code and the shambolic state of enforcement.

The government has sharply reduced the share of income that it collects in taxes from the wealthiest Americans. One recent study found that the 400 wealthiest households paid 70 percent of their total income in federal, state and local taxes in 1950, 47 percent in 1980 and 23 percent in 2018. The cuts in tax rates have come mostly at the federal level.

Do you agree that the tax system is broken? Which of the Editorial Board’s recommendations to reform it, such as cracking down on rich tax cheats, restoring I.R.S. funding and modernizing collection techniques, would you support? What other changes to our tax system would you want to see?

Option 2: Synthesize

Synthesize everything you have learned by creating a one-pager. A one-pager is a way to visually share key ideas about a text using both words and images. At a minimum, your one-pager should include:

  • Three key takeaways about President Trump’s taxes

  • Two important quotations from the article

  • One question you still have about the president’s taxes or the U.S. system of taxation in general

  • Visual elements that illustrate the essential points

You can also include any other information you think is important to share.

Your one-pager can be arranged however you think makes the most sense. But if you need inspiration, you can see examples of other students’ work here or find a template to print or copy here.

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