Donald Trump’s Income Isn’t Always What He Says It Is, Records Suggest
On the financial disclosure forms that Donald J. Trump has pointed to as proof of his tremendous success, no venture looks more gold-plated than his golf resort in Doral, Fla., where he reported revenues of $50 million in 2014. That figure accounted for the biggest share of what he described as his income for the year.
But this summer, a considerably different picture emerged in an austere government hearing room in Miami, where Mr. Trump’s company was challenging the resort’s property tax bill.
Mr. Trump’s lawyer handed the magistrate an income and expense statement showing that the gross revenue had indeed been $50 million. But after paying operating costs, the resort had actually lost $2.4 million.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly held out his financial disclosures as a justification for breaking with tradition and refusing to release his personal tax returns. “You don’t learn that much from tax returns,” he said in September during his first debate with Hillary Clinton. “You learn a lot from financial disclosure. And you should go down and take a look at that.”
But an examination of his tax appeals on several properties, and other documents obtained by The New York Times through Freedom of Information requests, shows that what Mr. Trump has reported on those forms is nowhere near a complete picture of his financial state.
The records demonstrate that large portions of those numbers represent cash coming into his businesses before covering costs like mortgage payments, payroll and maintenance. After expenses, some of his businesses make a small fraction of what he reported on his disclosure forms, or actually lose money. In fact, it is virtually impossible to determine from the forms just how much he is earning in any year.
Mr. Trump appears to have used a provision in federal ethics laws that allows business owners to list gross revenue, as opposed to net income after expenses, on their disclosure forms. But he does not seem to have completely acknowledged that choice. Rather, he has suggested that the figures on the form represent money in his pocket.
In news releases, the Trump campaign said that “Mr. Trump’s income” listed in a disclosure form filed last year was $362 million, and was more than $557 million in a form filed this year. During the debate with Mrs. Clinton in September, he mentioned an even larger figure.
“It shows income … in fact, the income — I just looked today — the income is filed at $694 million for this past year, $694 million,” Mr. Trump said. “If you would have told me I was going to make that 15 or 20 years ago, I would have been very surprised.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, Hope Hicks, declined to answer questions about how Mr. Trump had reported his income, saying only that his disclosure form “speaks for itself.”
Another seeming cash cow, at least as far as the forms portray it, is 40 Wall Street, an office building Mr. Trump has spoken of as perhaps the greatest bargain he ever struck. “I make approximately $20 million a year in rentals from 40 Wall Street and the building is now worth $500 million,” Mr. Trump wrote in “Trump Never Give Up,” published in 2008. “So, aside from owning the most beautiful building in Lower Manhattan, I have the added attraction of making a profit.”
On his financial disclosure forms, Mr. Trump listed the income he derived from rents in the building in the highest category on the form — more than $5 million. (The form requires listing monetary ranges for most types of income, and precise dollar figures where the gross revenue of a business is provided.)
But the income and expense statement that he filed with the New York City Tax Commission to appeal his property taxes shows that after mortgage payments and other costs, the building produced a cash flow of about $104,000 in 2014. Over the previous three years, it had generated a negative cash flow of $5.5 million, as the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis took a toll on downtown office buildings.
Last year, the building rebounded and turned a significant profit: Occupancy rose to 95 percent, according to securities filings. The building’s cash flow after expenses was just under $3 million, still well below the more than $5 million that Mr. Trump reported on his disclosure forms. The building also paid the Trump Organization $966,000 last year in management fees.
Joel Rosenfeld, a real estate accountant and New York University professor who reviewed some of the filings at The Times’s request, said Mr. Trump’s narrow margins at 40 Wall Street before last year raised questions about the building’s long-term prospects. “He may have turned the corner,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.
The recent negative cash flow at two of Mr. Trump’s premier properties raises possible motivations he may have for not releasing his tax returns: They could show that his success is not as he has claimed, or that he pays little or nothing in federal taxes. That could be a continuation of a long trend. An article last month in The Times revealed that Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records showed a $916 million loss that could have allowed Mr. Trump to legally avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years.
While the property tax appeals are a useful reality check on individual properties, they provide an imperfect window to Mr. Trump’s overall income and wealth.
The income and expense statements in such appeals are not available on every Trump property for every year. Also, the performance of a few properties cannot reflect the entirety of Mr. Trump’s endeavors, which have included the successful “Apprentice” reality television series as well as naming rights and management fees he earns from buildings in New York and elsewhere. And the nine-figure numbers Mr. Trump presents as his income do not include streams like royalties, investments and capital gains.
But the appeals show a level of detail absent in other documents that have become public. While appeals on residential properties are based on appraisals that have a level of subjectivity, commercial appeals typically start with the amount of income a business makes after expenses. The appeals filed in New York include figures that were certified by a public accountant and sworn to by Mr. Trump, under penalty of prosecution if he intentionally misstated them. They were supported by rent rolls and other documentation.
At the Trump International Hotel and Tower, on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, Mr. Trump owns a parking garage and the restaurant space occupied by Jean Georges. On his disclosure forms, Mr. Trump listed his income from the garage and the restaurant space as between $1 million and $5 million. On the income and expense statements he filed in a property tax appeal for 2015, he showed gross income of $1.6 million on the spaces. But after he paid operating expenses and mortgage payments, only $43,000 was left for the year. His company did collect a $50,000 management fee on the two spaces.
At some of Mr. Trump’s properties, the cash generated is closer to, or matches, what showed up on his financial disclosure forms. For example, at the first apartment building he developed in Manhattan, Trump Tower, the 18 floors of office and retail spaces that a Trump entity owns produced positive cash flow of $13 million in 2015, even after mortgage payments. That would match the claim on his financial disclosure form of making more than $5 million on the spaces.
But time and again, what the form presented as income did not match what was reported in other documents. Mr. Trump also runs several publicly owned attractions — the carousel and ice rinks in Central Park and a golf course in the Bronx — under agreements with New York City.
Mr. Trump’s disclosure forms reported income from the Wollman and Lasker ice rinks of just under $13 million last year, and $8.6 million the year before. But accounting figures provided by his company to the city show that those figures represent gross receipts. And city contract documents show that out of that amount, he had to turn over to the city 28 percent of gross receipts and 56 percent of food sales, and cover expenses like utility payments and salaries. Recent figures were not available, but a 2011 city audit showed that for the previous three years, an average of $25,340 a year for both rinks was left after expenses.
On the disclosure form he filed this year, which apparently covered 2015 and part of 2016, more than half of Mr. Trump’s claimed income was generated by his golf resorts. As an industry, privately owned golf resorts lost 2 cents for every dollar in revenue for the year that ended in September, and that was the industry’s best year since the 2008 recession, according to Sageworks, a financial information company.
In recent years, Mr. Trump has made major investments in golf resorts. He bought the Doral golf resort near Miami in 2012 for $150 million, of which $104 million represented the real estate for property tax purposes.
After the appeal of his property taxes was heard in June, the special magistrate, Leonardo Delgado, lowered the resort’s property taxes by $46,534.
At one point during the hearing, Mr. Delgado stared at the income and expense report showing that Doral had lost $2.4 million in 2014, a number that did not even include millions of dollars in mortgage payments. Mr. Delgado began to chuckle and turned to the county property assessor, Murry Harris.
“So he spent $104 million to lose two and a half million dollars a year,” Mr. Delgado said. “I know how to lose that money without having to spend $104 million. How ’bout you, Murry?”