ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Donald Trump has described himself for decades as a self-made billionaire, claiming that he built his fortune using a onetime loan from his father.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars. I came into Manhattan. And I had to pay him back. And I had to pay him back with interest.
SHAPIRO: That identity as a self-made success was central to Trump's presidential campaign. Now a major investigation by The New York Times demonstrates the ways in which that story is false. The reporters show that Donald Trump received hundreds of millions of dollars from his father over the years starting as a toddler. And the story reveals schemes the Trump family used to avoid gift and estate taxes, schemes that stretch and possibly break tax laws.
Russ Buettner is one of the reporters who wrote this story. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
RUSS BUETTNER: Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How did Donald Trump acquire so much wealth from his father over the decades?
BUETTNER: It's a complex story. We found 295 unique streams of revenue that Fred Trump set up over the years to funnel money to his children, especially to Donald Trump, who was always sort of his favorite child.
SHAPIRO: I want to get into a couple of those streams in detail. But first, just to talk about where the story comes from, you write that you had more than a hundred thousand pages of documents as well as interviews. What kinds of documents are we talking about here?
BUETTNER: By the time we were all done, we had more than 200 tax returns related both to Fred Trump personally and to his various business entities. We had general ledgers, bank account statements, property records and some court records that were helpful to tying the pieces together.
SHAPIRO: OK, so to dig a little bit more deeply into this reporting, you've got about 10 blockbuster stories in this one sprawling article, and I'd like you to tell me about one of them. You write about a company the Trump family created called All County Building Supply & Maintenance. And in theory, this was a company to purchase and install refrigerators and other appliances in properties that Fred Trump owned. In practice, it allowed Fred Trump to transfer huge amounts of money tax-free to his kids. How did this work?
BUETTNER: All County looks like a company, you know, when you hear the name, but it actually had no existence in the world other than on paper. Fred Trump had always negotiated personally the prices for the things he bought - boilers, roofs. But in 1992, the bills for those items began being invoiced from a company called All County Building Supply. All County would invoice it, get the money, and then they would create another invoice to Fred Trump's businesses with a 20 percent, 30 percent, like, pad added onto that.
SHAPIRO: Or a hundred percent in some cases, you say.
BUETTNER: In some cases - there were some cases, right, where they were getting things for free and then billing Fred Trump's businesses. Whatever the pad was would just be split between Fred Trump's four surviving children, including the future president.
SHAPIRO: Who were the owners of All County.
BUETTNER: That's right. And they were performing no work for that. The only work was done by an employee of Fred Trump's who was also a nephew of his and that employee's secretary, who handled these billing things among her other tasks.
SHAPIRO: Fred Trump gave gifts to all of his children but Donald, you write, more than any of the others. You describe him bailing out Donald Trump time after time. There's an instance where he bought $3 1/2 million in poker chips to rescue an Atlantic City casino. But there was one time the father pushed back against his son Donald. As Fred Trump was beginning to suffer from dementia, Donald Trump tried to change his father's will. What happened?
BUETTNER: That was right in 1990 at Donald Trump's darkest financial moment. He was facing being forced into bankruptcy by his creditors. And he had some lawyers write up a codicil, a change to his father's will that would give him much more control over all those assets. He didn't tell his father or his siblings he was doing this. He just had the lawyers show up at his father's house, I believe it was, and put the piece of paper in front of him. His father or somebody in the room realized right away, this is not where we want to go with this.
And he pushed back and ultimately called Donald Trump's sister, who was then a federal judge and a lawyer obviously, and asked her to intervene and to make sure that Donald's creditors couldn't come in and pillage Fred Trump's empire and that Donald wouldn't have any more control or input over the estate than any of his other siblings would.
SHAPIRO: The White House has responded to your reporting by attacking The New York Times and saying that the IRS looked at these arrangements as they were happening and found nothing improper. How do you respond to that?
BUETTNER: Well, we think that's not true. We know there are cases where there was no audit done like All County Building that we spoke about, another transaction in Trump Palace. And in the cases where there were audits, there's evidence that the Trumps didn't give the IRS all the pertinent information about those buildings and that the appraiser grossly undervalued some of the properties.
SHAPIRO: Russ Buettner is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Thanks for joining us today.
BUETTNER: Thanks for having me, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.