Trump's Tax Returns: The 'Not Staying In Vegas' Edition
"Donald's word is his bond. If Donald tells you something, you can put it in the bank," Las Vegas casino magnate Phil Ruffin gushed at the 2016 RNC. "I love the man."
Quit laughing, you guys, it's time for the third installment of the New York Times series, "We Got President Trump's Taxes, And They Are Hinky AF!" Oh, that's not what it's called? Well, those eggheads need to learn to write heds good like your Wonkette!
In broad strokes: Trump and his campaign were both out of cash in the fall of 2016; a company he owned with Ruffin put $21 million in his pocket more or less out of the blue; Trump suddenly had $10 million to spend on his election; and in 2017 a long-stalled project to build a train into Las Vegas suddenly got greenlighted.
Could those things be related? Maaaaaaaaaaaybe. Will we ever be able to prove it? Nope. Is it a fairly good example of the kind of deal Trump would be so averse to explaining that he'd sue half of New York to keep it hidden? Ding ding ding.
In the early 2000s, Trump and Ruffin partnered up to build the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas together. The venture was never particularly profitable, but the friendship was apparently genuine. Trump introduced Ruffin to his third wife and was best man at his wedding — held at Mar-a-Lago, natch. So naturally Ruffin was a big supporter of Trump's campaigns.
"You won't hear this in the media, but Donald gave $20 million to the St. Jude children's home," Ruffin told rallygoers in 2015. "He could have used that $20 million for television ads, but he decided to give it to the children of cancer."
That was bullshit, of course. As was Trump's assertion that he was so fabulously wealthy he didn't need anyone else's money to mount his campaign.
"He's driving me crazy," Trump said of Ruffin at a rally in February 2016. "He said, 'Donald, I want to put $10 million into your campaign.' I said: 'Phil, I don't want your money. I don't want to do it. I'm self-funding.' Every time I see him, it's hard for me to turn down money, because that's not what I've done in my whole life. I grab and grab and grab."
Interesting choice of words.
Anyway, according to the Times, Trump had sold a shit ton of stock and was totally out of cash by that summer, particularly since the Republican establishment thought he was a talking sack of dogshit that had no chance of beating Clinton.
Seven weeks before the election, Trump and Ruffin's partnership borrowed $30 million from City National Bank in Los Angeles. The partnership was barely operating in the black, but Ruffin personally guaranteed the loan. Shortly after that, the hotel started kicking cash up to an entity called Trump Las Vegas Sales and Marketing, which then sent it on to Trump himself, after which he was able to write a $10 million check to his campaign.
Here's how the Times described the company.
It was created in 2004, as Mr. Trump and Mr. Ruffin were drawing up plans for the Trump International Hotel. Precisely what it did, though, is obscure. It had no employees, or at least no payroll. And while the Trump-Ruffin joint venture certainly spent several million dollars a year to promote its room rentals and condominium sales, that money did not go to Trump Las Vegas Sales and Marketing. The company's tax records show that it had little income over the years, posting modest profits only twice: $54,924 in 2007 and $420,756 in 2008.
Then, in 2016, came a payment of $13,756,623.
Trump also received other unusual payments from the hotel including a $4.8 million "development fee," and $2.7 million described to the IRS as a "loan fee," and in the president's 2017 public disclosures as a "sponsor fee."
The hotel only started the year with $6.3 million in cash reserves, so the $21 million in payouts put it well into the red. Nevertheless, it deducted the entire $21 million in payments to Trump as business expenses. Because rich people write the tax laws in this country.
Ruffin's spokeswoman says that her client doesn't involve himself in the day-to-day operations of the hotel, and "all tax statements go to the people who work on his taxes." Which is ... well, make of that one what you will.
Brass tacks, if one could prove that these were sham expenses deducted as regular business expenses and that Ruffin deliberately tried to give Trump money to put into his own campaign, that might well constitute crimes. But don't hold your breath, because these people are crazy but they're not THAT stupid.
There's also an alternative explanation having to do with the Trump University.
The subject of the Trump-Ruffin financial relationship came up, albeit obliquely, when the president's estranged personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, testified before Congress in 2019. Had a businessman from Kansas given Mr. Trump the $25 million to settle the Trump University lawsuit? "I am not familiar with that, no," he said.
Shortly after that, Mr. Ruffin told The Kansas City Star that he was the Kansas businessman in question. He offered a muddled explanation about some money that had been sent to Mr. Trump in 2016.
"He had $28 million in back fees that he never collected," Mr. Ruffin said. "The hotel paid him [what] was owed to him. I don't know what he did. … It was his money."
Back fees. Okay.
In the background of all this, Ruffin and basically every other businessperson in Las Vegas has been trying since forever to build a train that would connect Los Angeles (or thereabouts) to their town. The Obama administration tried to get it financed with a $5.5 billion federal loan, but Jeff Sessions and Paul Ryan killed that deal in 2013.
"We tried and tried and couldn't get it done," Mr. [Harry] Reid said in a recent interview. Along the Strip, though, he joked that the only dissension was over whose casino would be closest to where the train would stop. "They know it would be a godsend to their businesses," he said.
Trump himself famously killed high speed rail in California, but when it comes to the project that would benefit Las Vegas — where he himself still owns a stake in that hotel — his views are different. After Ruffin personally lobbied Trump, Steven Mnuchin, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the Transportation Department approved the last billion dollar tranche of tax free bonds to finance the project. KA-CHING.
Lotta coincidences. In a row. Again. HUH.
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Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.