MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
During these closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax returns has become one of the main points of attack by critics and opponents of the GOP nominee. He's cited what he says is an ongoing audit. Critics say it's a break from decades of practice of the leading candidates running for president and suggest he may have something to hide. Just last week, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton raised the issue again during their presidential debate.
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HILLARY CLINTON: Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes because the only years that anybody's ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license. And they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax. So...
DONALD TRUMP: ...That makes me smart.
MARTIN: Well, a new report released late Saturday night by The New York Times gives a glimpse of Donald Trump's tax situation based on state tax returns from 1995. The returns show that Donald Trump declared some $916 million in losses from his business dealings, a deduction that could have allowed him to legally avoid paying federal income taxes for some 18 years. The story was based on copies of state tax returns from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that The New York Times says were mailed anonymously to reporter Susanne Craig. And Susanne Craig is with us now from The New York Times offices. Susanne, thanks so much for joining us.
SUSANNE CRAIG: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Now, the piece describes in detail how these documents were obtained. But for those who haven't read it, tell me about your role in this. How did you get these?
CRAIG: About 10 days ago I was - it was a Friday afternoon and I was walking by my mailbox - I check it frequently - and there was a manila envelope there in it. I looked at it, it was from the Trump Organization. And I wasn't sure - quite sure what to make of it. I've been covering Donald Trump's finances all year. So I opened the envelope a bit tentatively and I pulled out three pages that were folded over once. And it appeared to be three pages of Donald Trump's tax returns.
MARTIN: And can you tell us how you went about making sure that these were legitimate?
CRAIG: Well, they were - at first, you're sort of looking at it going, you know, this can't be real. And I've been working on some reporting around his taxes with another reporter, David Barstow, at our newspaper. And I went over to his desk and he was on the phone. And I showed him the documents, and he just hung up the phone. And he was like, no way. And we went into a conference room and we just started to look at the documents and just trying to get an understanding of exactly what we were seeing.
And we had a fairly large obstacle because we have to verify them, and there's very few people who could verify them. And the people who could are either bound by law or by duty. You know, the preparers who would've worked on them have a duty to him and the people at the IRS can't legally release them. So we made a fairly short list of the people who could verify them, and one of the people on that list was his accountant who signed the form in 1995, a fellow by the name of Jack Mitnick.
And David Barstow flew down to Florida and arranged a meeting with him this past Wednesday. And the two of them went out to a restaurant by Mr. Mitnick's home. And David showed him the documents we have, and Jack Mitnick verified it was in fact his signature and walked us through some of the information on the form. And he did it all on the record. We did a lot of other work around the numbers and we hired tax consultants to go through the forms and just so that we had a very good understanding of everything that was on the form.
MARTIN: Can you just give us some of the top lines? Again, there's extensive reporting on this in The New York Times today, but if you could just walk us through what's new. And how does this amplify what your reporting had already suggested about Donald Trump's financial status?
CRAIG: No, no, absolutely. And there's no returns - no tax returns of Donald Trump that have been publicly examined or looked at, and it's obviously a huge issue in this campaign. And the big number on the form, it's a negative $915.7 million - what's called a net operating loss. And what that is is simply there was a lot of business wreckage in Donald Trump's background from the late '80s and early '90s, and he declared those business losses on his tax return.
And he's able to use that number in future years going forward - in 1995, it was 15 years forward - to reduce his taxable income going forward, which means if he can get it to zero, he pays no taxes. We haven't seen his taxes going forward, so we don't know if he used it. But we would assume he did in order to reduce his taxable income and get rid of the income tax that he would've had to pay.
MARTIN: How did Donald Trump and his representatives respond to this? Presumably you reached out to him for comment. What did he say?
CRAIG: We absolutely did. And we shared with him some of the information on it before publication. They had two responses. One is they sent us a letter threatening to sue us if we published the returns. And then separately, they sent a statement saying that - in essence that Donald Trump is a savvy businessman, there's nothing illegal about using the laws to pay as little income tax as you can, and he used the rules at the time to his advantage.
MARTIN: So he did not deny that these are valid.
CRAIG: He has not, no.
MARTIN: What about that question about - arguing that the publication is illegal? Their piece indicates that a lawyer for Mr. Trump says that publication of the records is illegal, and other news organizations have cited passages in the federal code that suggests that publications of tax returns without authorization is in fact illegal. Do you expect to be prosecuted?
CRAIG: (Laughter) I guess the first note is that we obviously took a different turn, and I checked my mailbox and they were there. And secondly, if he sues us, he'll be open to discovery. And we would welcome seeing his tax returns if he'd like to turn them over to us so that we can compare them.
MARTIN: But do you expect to be prosecuted criminally for this as a separate matter? I mean, a civil matter would be between the two organizations, Donald Trump and The New York Times. A criminal matter would suggest that there was a violation of federal tax law.
CRAIG: No, agreed, and I don't know.
MARTIN: What do you feel the public interest here is?
CRAIG: I mean, Donald Trump's running for president, and I think just any sunlight on his taxes is valuable. I mean, what has he paid in income tax? What charitable contributions has he had? These are all, like, clues just into both the issue of has he paid taxes and his worse - I mean, if he's elected in November, he'll be entering the White House. And there's just very little known about who he has connections to both domestically and overseas, and I think any light that can be shed on that simply is good in our view.
MARTIN: That's Susanne Craig, the New York Times reporter who received portions of Donald Trump's state tax returns from 1995. She received them in her mailbox. And there's extensive reporting on this in The New York Times today. She's speaking to us from The New York Times offices. Susanne Craig, thank you for speaking with us.
CRAIG: Thank you for having me.
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