Donald Trump was already facing a criminal inquiry, multiple civil suits, and criminal charges against his private business when things took a turn for the worse yesterday.
The New York Times reported that the district attorney's office in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., recently subpoenaed records from his local golf course, Trump National Golf Club Westchester, and the town of Ossining, which sets property taxes on the course. Though it wasn't initially clear what the dispute was about, the article added that the district court appeared to be interested in whether the Trump Organization "misled local officials about the property's value to reduce its taxes."
If you saw Rachel's report on this last night, you know these suspicions of wrongdoing aren't coming out of nowhere.
The former president owns a large golf course about an hour north of New York City, and like other property owners in the community, the Trump National Golf Club Westchester has to pay property taxes. As is the case in the rest of the country, these property taxes are needed to pay for local services, including schools, libraries, and first responders.
And so, tax assessors visit properties, make assessments about their value, and property owners are expected to pay taxes accordingly. As the Washington Post noted, the process with the Trump National Golf Club Westchester has not gone smoothly.
The Trump Organization had challenged the property valuation for its Westchester club for every year since 2015. That process — used by many real estate companies — typically requires a company to submit data about its property's financial performance, as evidence that it is worth less than the initial assessment.
And this is where the trouble starts. The Trump Organization tried to dramatically reduce its tax bill by arguing that the golf club was worth far less than tax assessors claimed. In fact, when local officials assessed the property's value, they assigned it a $15 million assessment.
The Trump Organization appealed, arguing that the real value was $1.4 million.
There was, however, a separate claim that contradicted the business' self-assessment. In 2016, then-candidate Trump had to file a financial disclosure statement about his assets — and at the time, he said his Westchester club was valued at over $50 million.
In other words, he told the federal government his club was worth over $50 million, while at the same time telling the local government his club was worth $1.4 million.
Why would he do that? Largely to lower the property tax bill he was supposed to pay, but didn't want to.
At this point, I imagine some of the former president's followers may try to put a positive spin on this. "Well, sure," they'll say. "No one likes paying taxes, so it's hard to blame a guy for making every possible effort to pay as little as possible."
The problem with this defense is that deliberately misvaluing property, in order to evade taxes, is illegal. Looking for ways to reduce tax burdens is fine, criminal misconduct is not.
That said, no charges have been filed against the Trump Organization, and it's possible nothing will come of this. District attorneys' offices examine potential wrongdoing all the time without filing charges, and this investigation may quietly fade away.
But given the available details, no one should be surprised if this becomes the latest in a long line of legal headaches for the former president.