Donald J. Trump’s 2007 tax return was a tower six feet in height and weighed at least forty pounds. I saw the thing stacked in its full glory through the crack of an open door. The mastermind behind its preparation was reviewing it line by line. When completed, it was packed into two cardboard boxes which were then carefully sealed. At that point, the boxes were handed to me and another assistant for delivery—documents this sensitive could not be delivered by outsiders.
We were told not to open the boxes under any circumstances, so I resisted the temptation. I had read all of Mr. Trump’s books, skated on his ice rink, and watched him fire people on television. I wanted to know every little thing about the man, wanted to satisfy my accountant’s curiosity. Only a select group of tax experts at Weiser LLP were involved in piecing together Mr. Trump’s financial data, and I envied the ones who knew what was inside the two boxes. Tax preparers are gatekeepers of their clients’ life stories, tasked with arranging financial data in the best possible light, to tell the best possible story. Ultimately, though, they are destined to be the silent ones, to keep their handcrafted financial narratives between themselves, their clients, and the IRS.
My colleague was doing the driving, while I tried to read directions off a piece of green 16-column accounting paper. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS so the mailroom guys had written down every turn we had to take in neat block font. Exit by exit, street by street, they’d assured us the trip from Long Island to Trump Tower would be a pleasant one—how wrong they were. It was a slow and painful journey, made mostly in silence (the radio was turned off so we could focus on not missing a turn), through terrible traffic. Despite inching along the LIE we still managed to hit every pothole, rattling our bones and the boxes in the back. My only real worry, though, were the thunderstorms in the forecast. The returns sat in the lock-box of the late-model Ford pickup we were using but I didn’t trust its promise of impermeability.
My journey to becoming an accountant was as slow and bumpy as my ride to Trump Tower. When I was 14 years old I decided to become a journalist. I wanted to tell other people’s stories and I announced my dream during Thanksgiving dinner, 1998.
“What did you say? You want to write for a newspaper, a magazine?” my uncle shouted even though I was close enough to smell the cognac on his breath. “Only idiots work for someone else. You won’t have any freedom. You won’t have control.” Other family members echoed this thought.
They were all successful business owners, after having fled Soviet Russia. Every inch of the long dining table was covered with holiday china and there was enough food for a homeless shelter. Even if success meant selling diluted gasoline, peddling refurbished electronics as brand new, subcontracting inexperienced computer programmers or brokering dangerous missions for scuba-diving bridge inspectors, my family had figured out how to make it in America. They all lived in big houses in affluent neighborhoods and employed other people. My mom and I were still living in a crumbling apartment building in Queens, and clearly hadn’t figured out the whole “capitalist” thing. More insults flew across the table that night as I sat wondering if perhaps they were right about my career prospects as a journalist. As we rode home that night, my mom said she agreed with my uncle. I needed a stable profession, something I could do for the rest of my life. Writing was a gamble I could not afford.
A week later, my aunt sent me Donald Trump’s international best seller, The Art of the Deal, along with a note apologizing for her husband’s Thanksgiving outburst, or as she put it, his intervention. I read the book in one sitting and was proud Donald and I were both born and raised in Queens. The next day I decided to visit DJT’s very first childhood home, a three-story tudor in Jamaica Estates, which seemed a modest and attainable stepping stone for a kid like me
The address wasn’t hard to find in the city register, a ten-minute bicycle ride from my mother’s pre-war, rent-stabilized building. An Indian couple opened the door of the house and walked outside to discard a tiny bag of trash. We stared at the house together for a minute as I told them I admired their property. I felt encouraged, knowing the American Dream was alive and well. As I looked at the second floor, I wondered which bedroom belonged to DJT. One day, I thought, I too would have my very own room and not sleep on the sofa in my mother’s living room.
My mother’s first job in New York was on North 1st street by the East River in Brooklyn. Williamsburg, as she describes it, seemed more like a nuclear wasteland back then: empty lots piled high with rubble, burning baby carriages rolling down the street, gutted cars serving as drug dens, and random men harassing her every morning as she walked from the L train to the warehouse. She was drafting at an engineering firm, and when it rained, she had to cover her drawings. Her boss smoked cigars all day and the smell of tobacco numbed her senses. A year later she met my father, got married and I was born. But the stability was short-lived. My father died the year I started kindergarten. She never remarried or did any more engineering work. I saw an awful lot of my grandparents.
My grandpa—who refused to retire—worked as a tailor at a dry cleaner’s in our neighborhood. One day after school, I stopped by with my ripped jeans. He was going to patch them. Through the store’s window I saw him taking orders for customers. His face would always light up when I visited him and he would do a twirl to his secret corner cupboard, covered by a long red cloth. He seemed to always have an endless supply of candy and instant coffee.
“You must miss being rich.” I said, thinking about all the cash overflowing from the register.
“What do you mean?”
“You were rich in Russia.”
“I was comfortable.”
“How did you do it?”
“Reallocation,” he said. There was a glimmer in his eye but he resisted a smile.
When I asked him to explain he remained silent. We finished the coffee and the chocolate and he returned to his sewing machine. He finished patching my jeans and I tried them on. One leg had somehow become shorter than the other but I didn’t care. I was still wondering about his money-making powers in Russia.
“You didn’t thank me,” he said looking at the mended jeans. “You want a story about patches?” he asked. I nodded.
“Our factory made winter coats and there were always scraps left over. One of my jobs as vice president of the factory was to destroy the scraps. But we burned newspaper instead. I let the seamstresses take the extra pieces home. Late into the night, they designed very beautiful coats from these pieces. A friend of mine sold the coats under the counter. They were much cheaper than the factory-made ones and more original. We split the profits.”
“You must have made a lot of cash.”
“I didn’t save it.”
“So what did you do with your cash?”
“I did what everyone else did. I bought things on the gray market. Levis jeans for my children, jewelry for my wife. Tangible assets were safe. They could be resold and usually for more than what you paid.
“Accounting is the language of business,” or so I said to my rich uncle in his Greenwich mansion during Thanksgiving of 2002. I was a freshman at Baruch College and I’d stolen the sentence from a required textbook for a management class. For the first time in years my uncle didn’t criticize me.
“You want to be an accountant?” he said in the serious voice he used with other family members and business associates.
“I do,” I said. “Numbers tell stories.” There was a brief moment of silence as the table considered my career choice. Nobody in the family had a financial background, but they all knew successful beancounters—I could see the dollar signs in their eyes. My decision was approved of. Champagne was brought out for a toast. They talked about the prestige of counting other people’s money: I would be the family’s dedicated money-man. I would get a CPA license, become a Certified Public Accountant. Afterwards, I would be accepted to law school, become a tax lawyer and have my own office in midtown Manhattan. I would employ other tax lawyers and have a team of financial masterminds working on complicated financial situations. Most importantly, I would have a respectable profession.
In the summer of 2003 I started an internship at a CPA firm downtown on Nassau Street behind J & R Computer World. The office building was old and yellow, crumbling just like my mother’s. But I was excited because the two partners offered to pay me 150 dollars a week. They promised I would learn things not shown in the accounting textbooks.
Every morning I would open the squeaky door to their tenth floor office and be greeted by a paper war zone. I quickly began calling the place, “the Chop Shop.” But nothing was stolen or illegal, it was just organized chaos. Different kinds of client files were stacked in towers, boxes, scattered on ledges, windowsills and even inside coat closets. Financial information kept coming to them in pieces, either out of four high-speed printers, messenger deliveries or snail mail.
My job that summer was to bring order to all their tax folders and make room for the new ones to be prepared the next year. In high school I had worked nights at the local library and became an expert at rapidly alphabetizing and organizing thousands of children’s books. Thick tax folders would be easy.
Even though tax returns were prepared on the computer, all the meat, the supporting documentation was neatly stapled to green sheets of 16 column accounting paper. It was then organized in a very special chronology mimicking the flow of a tax return, line by line. A well prepared tax folder would provide the supporting documentation for every number in the tax return.
I quickly learned two things: how poor I was and the immense benefit of owning a business. It was no surprise that doctors and lawyers made good money, but the majority of the Chop Shop’s clients were small business owners: from vending machine management and distribution, to shoe designers, and hundreds of broker/dealers and investment advisers (we were close to Wall Street after all).
Not only is a tax return a vivid snapshot of how someone spends their year, it hints at a person’s judgement, their priorities, and their generosity. Many of the richer clients didn’t take a traditional paycheck, but instead would draw income from whatever part of the business (part or whole) they owned.
I worked endlessly putting these folders in alphabetical order, making labels for them and placing them into long storage boxes—by the end of the summer, the office was a long aisle of forty boxes stacked four high. Right before Labor Day, a crew from a storage company took them away to a warehouse in Staten Island and I was asked to stay on once school started.
With the box-filing done, the partners took me aside for some professional advice. They told me accounting requires a lot of ass time, that sitting professions were not for everyone and required good genetics, eyesight, and endurance. Otherwise I’d begin to look like a question mark with a protruding belly and glasses bordering on bulletproof. They pointed at each other: out of shape, very thick glasses. It was a warning of what was to come if I didn’t train myself to withstand the demanding hours of getting the numbers to tell the right story for the client.
I worked nine to five at the Chop Shop and got a 200 dollar weekly raise. At school, I switched to a night schedule. By the fall of sophomore year, I had rented a room in a five-bedroom loft on William Street a few blocks away. Two weeks of work covered my rent on a tiny room that left me smelling of cigarette. Apparently the previous tenant was a day trader who developed some special algorithm—he’d work late into the night and would go through two packs of cigarettes. But the algorithm proved to be very powerful; he made a small fortune and moved to Miami.
Accounting classes became boring and repetitive: money goes in, money goes out. The math part was easy, and everything the professors said could be read in a textbook in half the time, so by the winter of sophomore year I was learning more about accounting at my internship. I was doing bookkeeping for several clients and even though I made mistakes, the partners were patient and gave me little accounting lessons. I began to skip class and explore Manhattan. Wollman Rink had had an appeal ever since I read Trump’s Art of the Deal in which boasted of renovating the rink in the 80s in record speed and under budget. I wanted to enjoy his creation for myself, and could finally afford the admission fee.
On a cold night before Valentine’s Day I took a date, a fellow accounting major, to Wollman Rink. Despite it being a weeknight, there was a long line of people spiraling above the icy structure. My date was also a first generation Russian like me, but lived in Brighton Beach. As we stood in line and got to know each other, I looked down at the rink and remarked at how small and insignificant it looked in real life. “He’s very good at marketing, this Trump man,” my date said. She was wearing a black sweatshirt and black ear muffs. She told me she’d read Art of the Deal and didn’t find it interesting.
When we rented our ice skates, I asked one of the employees why it wasn’t called the Trump Rink. The employee said Donald refused to do the renovation for free so Mayor Ed Koch refused to rename the rink. We skated against the backdrop of the buildings on Fifth Avenue holding hands; I looked back and tried to pick out Trump Tower. Maybe the great DJT was looking down at us, at his rink, this evening.
The Chop Shop was busiest in the winter. Besides preparing tax returns, they offered another accounting service called a financial statement audit. Most of our clients were small brokers who used a Wall Street bookkeeping firm to record all their financial transactions. As CPAs, we were hired by the brokers to independently verify the numbers from these transactions. Numbers can be written and documented but they need to be substantiated to carry their own weight. Alone on the page, they show a story as thin as the paper they are printed on. We would look at the supporting documents and make sure there was no manipulation.
I was just an intern so I was given simple audit procedures. I would test expenses the company incurred for the year. They’d give me a list and I would hunt down and verify the bills and invoices corresponding to the name and amount of the expense. This way, I checked for accuracy and also made sure someone hadn’t created a fake invoice to pay themselves. We must have done 60 or 70 of these audits a season. During one audit, I was seated across from a partner of a much larger CPA firm. He had a laptop and a little scanner and was wearing a suit. We were still using pads of green 16 column accounting paper.
When the partners took me to a strip club in May of 2006, I was certain we would be celebrating my newly minted accounting degree and they were planning to initiate me into the family. I’d be given an official title, a real salary, health insurance, vacation days. The moment we entered, the three of us in our official Chop Shop uniform of polo shirt, baggy jeans and white sneakers, I realized something was wrong. We were quickly escorted to a small table away from everyone else. They were regulars at this place. We took in the action on stage from the corner and they told me they couldn’t keep me full time and pay me a market rate salary—there would be no celebration. I understood but was devastated. I asked to continue as their intern and they agreed, under the condition I would actively search for a real job. I sent out my resume to every single accounting firm and the standard rejections from Human Resources began trickling in. Except one.
Working for the MTA meant I no longer had to pay for any form of public transportation. I was given a special red metrocard which I also swiped through a turnstile to get into headquarters on 2 Broadway. My walk to work had now doubled to five minutes. I was an assistant auditor the metrocard said, in the contracts group. Once inside, high-speed elevators took you to your approved floor. You had to pass several locked glass doors to gain access to the department. Internal Audit was large, over 150 bodies strong, divided into various groups. The cubicles were constructed from the finest materials government money could buy. During my first week, I remember watching spilled coffee spread across the counters of my three-desk workstation and marveled at their permanent sheen. My chair alone cost a thousand dollars according to my friend Derek. He had graduated a semester earlier and helped me get the job.
The contracts we audited were large, usually in the millions. My job, for the most part was to make sure the MTA wasn’t being ripped off by outside parties. These contracts could be for something as basic as upgrading light fixtures at a subway station to designing a billion-dollar tunnel for the Second Avenue subway. I was told to read the employee handbook and I did so 30 times. I learned how to tune the internet radio and would listen to a different part of the world every day.
Most of my co-workers were middle aged. 2006 was the year Internal Audit hired five new assistants. I remember a guy we called Ben Franklin because of his hairstyle. He had tried to get his children jobs but the timing was never right. He was jealous Derek and I would have a good pension by 55. Behind me, a guy named Morty, who was in his seventies, called us lucky bastards.
My walk to work was almost a straight line from my apartment and I would pass Wall Street every day. Late August, I bumped into an old high school classmate who went to an Ivy League school. She was an Investment Banking Analyst at Deutsche Bank. When she asked where I was working, I was ashamed to tell her the truth. I quickly pointed in the direction of the New York Stock Exchange and said I was running late. At least I wasn’t technically lying: at the end of Broad Street, you could enter MTA Headquarters, from its back entrance.
After a month I was finally sent on an audit, to an engineering firm doing design work for the Second Avenue subway. I was given a huge binder with lists of expenses to match to invoices. The accounting manager of the engineering firm hovered nearby every few hours, making sure I would not misplace any documents, making me wear latex gloves to avoid smudging. I devised a system to photocopy invoices in batches and had documents spread out all over their offices in stacks, many of which featured very high, very questionable expenses. When I came back in a week with two rolling trunks filled with the photocopied invoices, my manager couldn’t believe I’d done the work so fast. Previous assistants had taken an entire month.
I counted three Ferraris in the parking lot of Weiser LLP’s Long Island office. I was there for an interview to be an assistant. I had found the business card of the partner I met several years ago at the Chop Shop, the man in a suit and tie, with a laptop and little scanner. I wrote him a lengthy email begging for a job, any job. I told him my dream was to be a Certified Public Accountant and that I’d never get licensed if I stayed at the MTA.
I was hired as the very last assistant of the incoming class of 2006. When you begin as an auditor at a CPA firm you do a lot of menial grunt work that doesn’t require brain power. The offices at Weiser LLP were a lot smaller than at the MTA and the lighting was dim. I started in a cramped conference room library with three other assistants. Whenever a senior associate gave us work we had to fight for it, like starved dogs. We were waiting for our cubicles to be built, but at least we could overhear office talk. I learned that Donald Trump was a client of the firm when I overheard one partner complaining about a lousy view of Donald and Melania at wedding number three.
Everything at the firm was computerized—paper was inefficient, we were told. When I opened up the digital file room on my computer, I saw Trump had hundreds of companies we did accounting work for, most of them featuring his name; each company corresponded to one of his business projects, buildings, golf courses or other ventures.
My uncle asked who was in charge of the Donald Trump account. I told him it was a man named Donald. “You must meet the other Donald and become his friend. You must learn all the secrets of how Mr. Trump became so successful. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” I promised to try my best.
I bumped into the other Donald in the cafeteria a few weeks later. After I introduced myself and the small talk subsided he said, “Everything you say will be repeated.” At first, I wasn’t sure if this was a special meditation all accountants had to say before beginning a tax return or a warning to me to keep my mouth shut. In my two years at Weiser LLP, I learned the other Donald didn’t talk much but when he did it was worth listening to.
The full picture of the Trump Family’s business holdings—and the resulting tax structure within which these entities operated—was passed down from one generation to the next through a single, chosen accountant, orally. There was no digital file or paper trail to study, no unified document holding it all together. Those who worked on Trump’s tax returns only worked on parts of it, aware of just their fragment of the map. As with many secrets in this world, it had to be guarded the old-fashioned way—inside the mind of a lone chosen one. And Donald (the other Donald) was this generation’s elect. You could sense the weight of this knowledge in the way he walked, the way he carried himself, carefully and with precision. Sometimes it seemed as if were moving across a tightrope, invisible across the thickly carpeted office floor. Donald’s entire professional existence revolved around one client, that client’s organization, and the hundreds of entities represented inside an IRS form. In total, these entities employed tens of thousands of people. They also made sure we got paid.
My first assignment was to visit a broker in Manhattan, to examine their stock portfolio. Most brokers earned their money through buying and selling stock for others and charging a commission, but this particular company made most of its money through a stock portfolio worth billions of dollars. They would lend out this stock to other broker/dealers and charge interest, and as I examined the documentation, I learned a lot about the owners of the company, the partners. They were effectively keeping the majority of their net worth hidden from public view. This was perfectly legal.
A company is considered a separate entity but holds immense power to do a person’s bidding, especially if the owner has a majority stake. With billions of dollars in assets, one company can easily buy other companies, invest money in other entities, donate to certain causes, and make large moves that can affect the lives of tens of thousands of people. All through the will of one person. My uncle was right, in America you had to be a capitalist if you wanted to push your agenda.
The sound of laughter was rare at Weiser LLP. Conversations were serious and deliberate—we were too busy trying to meet deadlines. Audit reports for most financial institutions had to be submitted 60 days after calendar year end, so January and February meant a lot of late nights and Saturdays. After the first month, my right eye began to quiver and I started bring boxes of black tea bags to brew and place on my eye.
Soon everyone in the office was calling me Earl Grey. I began thinking I wasn’t strong enough to be an accountant. Nobody seemed to be having any eye problems except me. During training, the firm had hired thirty assistants for their four offices and they all seemed so robust and healthy. Nobody wore glasses. I didn’t look like them either. I would try to go outside every few hours and do laps around the building, but I would get dirty looks from other people who were busy working at their cubicles. The worst part of audit season was printing the final audit reports, along with our opinions on the financial statements. Late February, I would stay till midnight every night going through each report making sure there wasn’t a smudge or a typo or page out of order.
When audit season was over I was given tax returns to prepare, most of them straightforward personal returns. Corporate and partnership returns were done by the tax department in the other wing of the building. Many of the owners of the companies we audited were also our clients, and I would write down their stock holdings thinking I too would invest in them. It was fascinating to learn what deductions and tax credits they claimed: some of these people owed large amounts of money to other entities and corporations and held assets offshore. Those with great amounts of money had structured their life around their business, in complicated, ingenious ways.
Imagine a shipping magnate or, say, a potash tycoon, who has a certain person he would like to support in another country. His company invests a portion of its profits into a newly created company with a discrete name. This new company is called a shell and serves as a buffer. It is managed by a front person who, though trusted, has no clear connection to the tycoon. The shell then invests in a newly created company, a legitimate business like a hotel, an antique car dealer or even an eyeglass distributor. The target person can be given ownership stakes in the company, therefore guaranteeing a steady flow of cash for life (as long as the shell continues pouring money into the business). Down the road, they can sell their ownership stakes and the cash becomes legitimate proceeds from a sale. The web can get as complicated as one wishes and many more shells can be added in between, making it difficult to discover the true source of the money. But the goal remains the same: either someone wants to discreetly move money to another person or they want to hide it from someone.
With some sleuthwork, a tax return can reveal exactly what a person is doing with their money and who are they in business with, where the money is coming from. As an accountant, one who is privy to all these company names and relationships, I held the keys to the client’s private life.
Donald Trump’s private life was limited to what I could see on my twin computer screens. I had access to a list of 500-plus entities in the company’s tax system and would scroll through the names regularly. But I never dared to click and open a file. Some entities were obvious—products and services like steaks, bottled water, model management, tv production and beauty pageants. Other entities represented interests in real estate, ventures such as golf courses, hotels, condominiums and licensing deals. But some names did not make any sense, sounding random, almost as if created by a toddler—a common scheme for privacy, entities so deliberately vague in description only a select group of people know what they actually did.
I wondered more about how much money Trump made every year. I imagined each entity netting at least a million dollars. In total, Mr. Trump could possibly make half a billion dollars every year in income. But all I could do was guess because I would never see his tax return up close, in full, only handle its physical weight. I had become infatuated with the man behind all these entities. And I knew the next best thing was to meet him in person—this is why I had pushed to be on the delivery team. In retrospect, I think most of the other assistants didn’t really share my curiosity about Mr. Trump. To them, he was just another millionaire we did taxes for. But for me it was more than curiosity—I had fallen in love with the web of entities affiliated with the Trump brand. I thought maybe one day I would have a few such entities to call my own.
I left Weiser LLP at the height of the recession. While most firms were losing clients, the Chop Shop was having its best year ever. They charged the lowest fees on Wall Street. In the beginning of 2009, the partners re-hired me to help with the sudden increase in business. But I no longer cared about counting other people’s money or creating fictions I couldn’t share with the world. I wanted to have my own business, something I could control. An oil trader had given me some stock tips and I invested my life savings, which went well at first. With my newly acquired wealth I quit the Chop Shop to trade stocks during the day and write stories at night. Even after losing most of my money on a few bad trades I decided I would never return to accounting.
In the fall of 2016 I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a photo of Donald Trump seated next to a tower of tax returns. I stopped what I was doing, printed the photo, and put it in my pocket. Later that day, sitting at my favorite coffee shop, I opened up the folded paper and looked again at the man and his tower of taxes. Hello Donald. Everything came back to me, delivering that infamous tax return.
I remember driving up to 725 Fifth Avenue in our big pickup truck. The doorman had placed cones to reserve us a parking spot. We met the CFO of the Trump Organization in the lobby, along with a helper dragging a dolly. We loaded the boxes and took the elevator up to the Donald’s office… And then, there he was, the man himself. He didn’t see us at first, he was talking to someone, speaking in a low and steady tone to another very serious man in a dark suit. The CFO approached Mr. Trump, interrupted the conversation and murmured a few words in his ear. His demeanor changed immediately, almost as if we were no longer people but video cameras. I guess he knew everything he would say would be repeated. I thought to myself, is this is really it? This man is the Donald?
He stared at us and smiled. It was almost as if he was expecting us to ask him a favor or question. But I had nothing I wanted to say. The CFO nudged him a little with his elbow. I’d heard Mr. Trump was a germaphobe. He took his hand from his pocket and shook mine, and then he shook my coworker’s hand. He thanked us for taking care of his precious tax return, the “biggest and best in all of New York State.” And in the next second, he became very serious again, turning around and moving quickly to his office. He had a call to take, another audience to woo.