ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It seems unfathomable that a copy of one of President Donald Trump's coveted income tax returns would suddenly appear in the mailbox of a journalist who lives in a Rochester suburb.
Indeed, Trump himself apparently could scarcely believe it, tweeting Wednesday morning after his taxes were disclosed on MSNBC: "Does anybody really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of, 'went to his mailbox' and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!"
But that is exactly what David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his tax policy coverage and recently wrote a best-selling book on Donald Trump’s rise, said has happened.
Johnston broke news of the tax return Tuesday on his fledgling website, DCReport.org, and Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show picked up his report that night. Johnston, who regularly makes appearances on a variety of television news programs, was a guest.
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In a telephone interview from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, Johnston recalled that he was in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday researching a biography on the president when he received a text from his daughter urging him to check his email immediately.
"So I look at my email, and it says, 'This came in the mail today,' and it’s a PDF she made of the tax returns sent to me," Johnston said.
"I had two immediate thoughts: The first one was 'Is it authentic or is it a trick, and how am I going to authenticate this?' " Johnston said. "The second thought was 'Who else has this? How much time to do I have to get this out there?' "
Johnston said he raced to the airport to get home to Brighton, N.Y., and began working on his story in the Palm Beach airport.
The returns were from 2005 and were remarkable in their ordinariness. As Johnston wrote, the two-page Form 1040 offered "no smoking gun, no obvious evasion," on the part of Trump "but clearly some bending of the tax laws almost to the breaking point."
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Trump reportedly earned $153 million that year and paid $36.6 million in federal taxes, a tax rate of 24%, putting him and his wife, Melania, in the same league as a professional couple making about $400,000 a year.
"Or to put it another way, Donald Trump was paid that year like a member of the 0.001%, but he paid taxes like the 99%," Johnston wrote on his website. "And by at least one measure, he paid like the bottom 50%."
Johnston launched DCReport.org in January, billing it as "a new kind of news operation in the Trump era."
"Others quote Trump tweets," the website reads. "We report on what this administration does."
The envelope mailed to reporter David Cay Johnston, which he received March 13, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of David Cay Johnston)
The tax return arrived in a plain, No. 10 envelope at his home with a postmark from Westchester, N.Y. Johnston said he didn't know who sent it and backed off a suggestion he made on Maddow's show that it may have been Trump who mailed the returns.
"Now that he has gone and attacked me (on Twitter) this morning, that suggested to me that he's not the source of it because it suggests he's not in control," Johnston said.
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Though the president's tweet assailed Johnston as a journalist "nobody ever heard of" and his report as "FAKE NEWS," the White House seemed to confirm the authenticity of the returns.
"Despite the substantial income figure and tax paid, the dishonest media can continue to make this part of their agenda while the president will focus on his, which includes tax reform that will benefit all Americans," the White House said in a statement.
In response to Trump's tweet, Johnston shot back on Twitter: "Gee, Donald, your White House confirmed my story. POTUS fake Tweet. Sad!"
Trump sued another journalist, Tim O'Brien of The New York Times, after O'Brien wrote an October 2005 book that in part disputed the enormity of Trump's wealth, saying the businessman had a net worth of $150 million to $250 million. The case was dismissed in 2009; an an appeals court affirmed that dismissal in 2011.
"In a lot of ways, this thing made him look good," Johnston said Trump and his tax return. "He could have played it that way, but he didn't."
"Frankly, I think he's afraid of me," Johnston said. "I don't think Donald Trump has the courage to sit down for an interview with me because he knows I'll ask him questions that he won't want to deal with."
Johnston said his family has received harassing phone calls at home since he broke the news.
Trump's refusal to make his tax returns public during the campaign broke with decades of tradition. His critics have continued to clamor for them as a way to air aspects of his business practices, and almost 1.1 million people have signed a petition at whitehouse.gov requesting that he immediately release his past filings in full.
Nothing in the two pages that Johnston received provided much information about his businesses that was not previously known. However, they did reportedly show he wrote off $100 million in losses that saved him millions of dollars in taxes that he otherwise would have owed.
A White House statement appeared to explain the maneuver:
Before being elected president, Mr. Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.
Follow David Andreatta on Twitter: @david_andreatta
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