What was Trump's actual tax rate in his leaked 2005 return?

President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax rate, as shown by his leaked return for that year, was at a level paid by ordinary taxpayers, not billionaires -- 24 percent. Some accounts put it at just above 25 percent. Which is right?

The question may seem academic, but the difference of a percentage point amounts to almost $1 million. Even at Mr. Trump’s level of wealth -- he had income of $152.7 million in 2005, the return shows -- that isn’t small change. 

The math is simple. If you take the numbers provided by the White House in a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Trump in 2005 paid $38 million on income of “more than $150 million,” which translates to a 25 percent tax rate. But these are rounded figures. Another way of doing the calculation looks at slightly different, more precise figures. 

David Cay Johnston, the former New York Times reporter and tax expert who furnished the Trump tax document to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for her Tuesday night broadcast, used more precise numbers drawn from Mr. Trump’s 2005 Form 1040 tax return. By his reckoning, Mr. Trump paid $36.6 million on $153 million in taxes, or 24 percent.

Apparently at issue is how to treat the so-called self-employment tax of $1,887,596 that Mr. Trump was liable for. This levy goes for Social Security and Medicare, known in tax parlance as FICA (which stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act). Self-employed people -- who don’t have employers that deduct taxes from their pay, reported on Form W-2 -- must pay FICA twice, because the Internal Revenue Service views them as both employee and employer. So the IRS gives these folks a break and lets them deduct half their double-barreled FICA. 

Mr. Trump in 2005 was not a W-2 employee, which meant he ended up paying only half of the almost $1.9 million in self-employment tax, or $943,799.  

One school of accounting holds that you shouldn’t include this $943,799 into his total taxes paid in calculating his tax rate because the FICA tax wasn’t generated by his economic activity, and backing it out gives a better picture of his tax situation. 

By this method, which is evidently the one Johnston used, Mr. Trump paid $36,571,795 on $152,737,866 -- that gives a 24 percent tax rate.

“I guess either is correct,” said tax expert James Blankenship, of Blankenship Financial Planning in New Berlin, Illinois. “It’s a judgment call.” He pointed out that the Johnston calculation, in addition to the FICA tax break, also did not back out the $103.2 million in losses that that Mr. Trump deducted from his $152.7 million in total income. 

Although it’s not certain, that loss may be part of the $916.4 million in losses he declared in 1995, which the New York Times reported could have been used to offset future taxes for up to 18 years. Due to that $103.2 million deduction, Mr. Trump would have paid a mere 4 percent. But he ended up paying six times more because he was subject to the alternative minimum tax, or AMT. 

The AMT is intended to target wealthier taxpayers, who can greatly reduce their liability by taking advantage of loopholes unavailable to less-flush Americans. President Trump has said he wants to do away with it.  

The president has refused to release his returns, saying he can’t because they are under IRS audit, although numerous tax experts say that should make no difference in making them public. The MSNBC release was of only two pages, the summary called Form 1040, and begged many questions about what he paid and why, due to the lack of supporting documents. 

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.