Sarah Buitendach Editor: Wanted and FM lifestyle
US President Donald Trump arrives for his first 2020 election debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
US President Donald Trump arrives for his first 2020 election debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

As I was begrudgingly writing a last-minute mail to my tax people over the weekend — sending through late IT3 forms and grumping about forking out more cash to the SA Revenue Service (Sars) — The New York Times (NYT) dropped one of the scoops of the decade: its investigation into US President Donald Trump’s taxes.

Trawling through the mammoth article, it did not escape me that I, a marginal middle-class SA journalist, have paid more — a lot more — tax in recent years than The Donald. We probably all have. Bigly.

As the article revealed: “Donald J Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”

It is a staggering finding (or masterful fake news, depending on your affiliation). And one that, once you start to read the NYT’s extensive investigation, turns out to be the tangerine-hued tip of a monolithic Donald-shaped iceberg, to mix a thousand metaphors.

It’s clear that the world that Trump has created in his decades of business is a vast, tangled and complex web of personal and corporate illusions, misdirection and clever accounting.

But what really has people talking is the big, hairy, audacious nature of so many of the spectacular array of tax write-offs. Seriously hairy.

It turns out that prior to gaining Potus status, and during his nine years as the face of The Apprentice TV series, Trump wrote off $70,000 for hair maintenance as a business expense. Yes — for that mane.

As you’d expect, the internet exploded with astonishment at this revelation, and the resulting wise cracks and, erm, cutting remarks have coloured Twitter’s timeline over the past few days. Here are some of them.

The implications are many. First, the scale of the losses suggests that the notion of Trump the successful billionaire is a myth. Second, the labyrinthine nature of the tax breaks he found, and contorted his earnings through, tells the lie to those who say Trump is an imbecile who wouldn’t have the intellectual clout to run a lemonade stand.

The tax savings he engineered around his New York estate, Seven Springs, involve intricate loopholes around arcane land conservancy rules, and reclassifying the property as an investment instead of a personal residence.

In what could be a fast-paced introduction to The Art of the Steal, Trump also wrote off $210,000 for hiring a photographer to take photographs of his Mar-a-Lago club. I could go on about his almost admirable smokkeling tactics, but for the five-minute highlights package on the creative accounting and financial losses of The Donald, read this Guardian “by the numbers” piece.

While it makes for scandalous talk around the braai here in SA, it remains to be seen whether these revelations — which would have doomed a candidate in almost any other era — affect his bid for re-election.

Tuesday night’s debate with Joe Biden, though often pored over by the commentariat for any sign of an advantage, is likely to be equally irrelevant to his base, who lap up the term “fake news”.

As it was, the debate was, according to this BBC analysis, the political equivalent of a bad-tempered food fight.

“If Trump’s goal was to turn this campaign into an ugly scrum, leaving voters alienated from the process and uncertain about whether there will be any kind of clarity or resolution at the end, it was an evening’s work well done,” the BBC concluded.

While Biden pointed out that Trump’s tax record means he pays less tax than a teacher, that message got lost amid the chaos of Trump behaving like a spoilt brat all night.

Which is a pity. If the Trump tax revelations reveal anything, it’s that there are two sets of rules: one for the rich, and another for everyone else. It’s a lesson drummed home most recently by Jeffrey Epstein.

The rich eat the rest — and they deduct the cost of having their locks blow-dried while they’re doing it.

*Buitendach is the FM's Life editor and editor of Wanted magazine.

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US president Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden got heated in their first chance to challenge each other face to face during the first presidential debate. Hardly a minute went by without one of the candidates interrupting the other, whether on the coronavirus, the Supreme Court or the economy.

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