WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents, according to an investigation by The New York Times (NYT).
Mr Trump won the presidency proclaiming himself a self-made billionaire, and he has long insisted that his father, legendary New York City builder Fred Trump, provided almost no financial help.
But the newspaper's investigation, based on a vast trove of confidential tax returns and financial records, reveals that Mr Trump received the equivalent today of at least US$413 million (S$569 million) from his father's real-estate empire, starting when he was a toddler and continuing to this day.
Much of this money came to Mr Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews reveal.
Records show Mr Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents' real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.
These met with little resistance from the Internal Revenue Service, NYT found. The President's parents, Mr Fred Trump and Mrs Mary Trump, transferred well over US$1 billion in wealth to their children, which could have produced a tax bill of at least US$550 million under the 55 per cent tax rate then imposed on gifts and inheritances.
The Trumps paid a total of US$52.2 million, or about 5 per cent, tax records show.
RESPONSE FROM TRUMP'S LAWYER
The New York Times' allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 per cent false, and highly defamatory.
LAWYER CHARLES HARDER, in a written statement on Monday, one day after The New York Times sent a detailed description of its findings.
The President declined repeated requests over several weeks to comment on the article. But one of his lawyers, Mr Charles Harder, provided a written statement on Monday, one day after NYT sent a detailed description of its findings.
"The New York Times' allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 per cent false, and highly defamatory," Mr Harder said. "There was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone. The facts upon which The Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate."
Mr Harder sought to distance Mr Trump from the tax strategies used by his family, saying the President had delegated those tasks to relatives and tax professionals.
"President Trump had virtually no involvement whatsoever with these matters," he said. "The affairs were handled by other Trump family members who were not experts themselves and, therefore, relied entirely upon the aforementioned licensed professionals to ensure full compliance with the law."
The President's brother, Mr Robert Trump, issued a statement on behalf of the Trump family: "All appropriate gift and estate tax returns were filed, and the required taxes were paid. Our father's estate was closed in 2001 by both the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State tax authorities, and our mother's estate was closed in 2004.
"Our family... would appreciate your respecting the privacy of our deceased parents."
The newspaper's findings raise new questions about President Trump's refusal to release his income tax returns, breaking with decades of practice by past presidents. Tax experts say it is unlikely he would be prosecuted for helping his parents evade taxes because the acts happened too long ago and are past the statute of limitations. There is no time limit, however, on civil fines for tax fraud.
The findings are based on interviews with Mr Fred Trump's former employees and advisers and more than 100,000 pages of documents describing the inner workings and immense profitability of his empire. They include documents culled from public sources - mortgages and deeds, probate records, financial disclosure reports, regulatory records and civil court files.
The investigation also draws on tens of thousands of pages of confidential records - bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and cancelled cheques. Most notably, the documents include more than 200 tax returns from Mr Fred Trump, his companies and various Trump partnerships and trusts.
While the records do not include the president's personal tax returns and reveal little about his recent business dealings at home and abroad, dozens of corporate, partnership and trust tax returns offer the first public accounting of the income he received for decades from various family enterprises.
What emerges from this body of evidence is a financial biography of Mr Trump at odds with the story that he has sold in his books, his TV shows and his political life. In his version of how he got rich, he was the master dealmaker who broke free of his father's "tiny" outer-borough operation and parlayed a single US$1 million loan from his father into a US$10 billion empire that would slap the Trump name on hotels, high-rises, casinos, airlines and golf courses the world over.
"I built what I built myself," the President has said.
The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance said it was "reviewing the allegations" and "vigorously pursuing all appropriate areas of investigation".