Way back when Kellyanne Conway was shilling for Ted Cruz (long before microwaves were measured in megapixels), she made an issue of Donald Trump not releasing his tax returns.
When asked about transparency about an alliance between Cruz and John Kasich during the Republican primary, she pivoted to attacking Trump.
“It’s completely transparent,” she said. “Donald Trump’s tax returns aren’t, and I would like to see those be transparent.”
She’s since changed her tune to match the administration’s position, of course: Nobody cares, it’s a non-issue, he can’t anyway due to an audit, what was the question again?
But now that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow took a couple pages of decade-old returns and pretended they were IRS Rosetta Stones, the administration beat her to the punch by releasing that information themselves earlier.
At first glance, the data doesn’t look half-bad for the president. Maybe it’s technically quarter-good; he paid about a 25 percent tax rate on around $150 million. That includes wiping out about $100 million of income with carry-over business losses and construction depreciation, but he still paid about $38 million. That’s a lot of money.
But here’s the thing: He only paid that amount due to the Alternative Minimum Tax. In a nutshell, the AMT is a way for the government to say “Come on, guys. You can’t loophole your way out of paying anything. You gotta pay something reasonable.” And 25 percent isn’t exactly an undue burden for a guy who needs nine digits to calculate his annual income.
It’s certainly better than four percent, which is about what President Trump would have paid without the AMT. Four percent is an insult to the phrase “fair share.” It’s a fraction of what flat tax supporters want. Even people who feel we shouldn’t punish success and we’re being taxed to death (including at death) cringe at four percent. Libertarians roll their eyes at it. Extreme couponers consider it cheap. Bad tippers are embarrassed. You get the idea.
But hey, at least the AMT forced his hand, and the president paid a decent amount of taxes. So guess what the president wants to eliminate from our tax code? Yep, it’s the Alternative Minimum Tax. While there might be a valid point about the AMT punishing those who aren’t super-wealthy taxpayers, eliminating it altogether would put millions back in the pockets of billionaires. Like the guy who wants to get rid of it.
In 2005, the AMT was the difference between President Trump paying 25 percent and paying four percent. More than $30 million, if you want to look at it that way. A cynical person might wonder if his motivation in eliminating it goes beyond helping the middle class who get caught up in the AMT. Maybe he has 30 million other reasons, and that’s just one return in the past 35 years since the AMT was enacted.
The spin hasn’t stopped since the tax information was released yesterday. His supporters are finding plenty of silver linings in $38 million of taxes paid. But as the talking heads go to his defense, understand that many of them, if not most (if not all) support getting rid of the AMT. In other words, they want to give him credit for paying a tax they don’t think he should pay. They’ll talk a good game, but if they had their way he’d have paid four percent.
Four percent. Scrooge McDuck thinks that’s too little. Monty Burns thinks it should be higher, and so does Smithers. Okay, you get it. But an administration that embraces “alternative facts” now has to brag about paying an alternative tax that, if they were in power at the time, wouldn’t exist. The reality of their tax position betrays their pats on the back for paying so much in the first place. They’ll brag about 25 percent, but they wanted four percent. The talking heads will praise 25, but they also wanted four. Those numbers are real. The difference is real. The only thing phony is how it will be spun in the coming days.