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Donald Trump: the creation myth of the billionaire businessman just imploded

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© Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

By Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large

At the heart of President Donald Trump's success story is this idea: He took a small amount of money -- in the form of a loan from his father, Fred -- and turned it into billions of dollars.

"My whole life really has been a 'no' and I fought through it," Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire way back in October 2015. "It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars."

While the idea of Trump portraying himself as some sort of rags-to-riches story was always laughable -- his father was a man of considerable means and a $1 million loan is not exactly chump change -- it convinced lots and lots of people that Trump was like them. Or, more accurately, what they aspired to be. He was -- and is -- for many, the living embodiment of the American dream.

Which is why this story published by The New York Times on Tuesday night, which details a series of tax evasions that Trump and his father used over the years is so devastating. The piece is long and hugely detailed, but its most devastating lines -- to the idea of the President as, essentially, a self-made man -- are these:

"By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today's dollars from his father's empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s."

And remember that $1 million loan Trump talked so much about on the campaign trail? The Times reports that the total loan by Fred Trump to his son, Donald, was actually $60.7 million or -- and brace yourself here -- $140 million in today's money. (The total amount of money Trump received from his father's holdings is estimated at more than $400 million by the Times).

The truth, as laid bare by the Times reporting, which included reviewing more than 100,000 pages of financial documents, is that Donald Trump was born into a very wealthy family and through a series of complicated tax maneuvers -- many of which, at best, skirted the law -- was propelled upward by his father's heavy behind-the-scenes financial support.

"While Fred Trump helped finance the accouterments of wealth, Donald Trump, master self-promoter, spun them into a seductive narrative," reads the Times story. "Fred Trump's money, for example, helped build Trump Tower, the talisman of privilege that established his son as a major player in New York. But Donald Trump recognized and exploited the iconic power of Trump Tower as a primary stage for both 'The Apprentice' and his presidential campaign."

While the White House offered no official comment to the Times for the story, they did release a statement after it published. "Many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions," said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. "The New York Times' and other media outlets' credibility with the American people is at an all time low because they are consumed with attacking the president and his family 24/7 instead of reporting the news."

Which, of course, isn't a denial of the story.

Trump's lawyer Charles Harder responded to the Times story in a statement,"The New York Times' allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 percent false, and highly defamatory," Harder said, according to the paper.

Trump's brother Robert also defended his parents on behalf of the President and his siblings, saying, "All appropriate gift and estate tax returns were filed, and the required taxes were paid. Our father's estate was closed in 2001 by both the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State tax authorities, and our mother's estate was closed in 2004."

Throughout the 2016 campaign -- and into his 19 months as president -- the single biggest mystery surrounding Trump was his refusal to release any of his income tax returns. In doing so, he became the first major party presidential candidate and the first president not to release any of his returns in the modern era.

Trump insisted the reason he refused to release his returns was that he currently under a tax audit by the Internal Revenue Service. (Trump was not prohibited from releasing his returns because of the audit; Richard Nixon, as president, released his tax returns in 1973 even while he was being audited).

After Trump won the election, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway seemed to abandon the "he's under audit" defense entirely. "We litigated this all through the election," Conway said. "People didn't care. They voted for him, and let me make this very clear: Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like."

It was unclear then -- and is unclear now -- how Conway drew the conclusions that "people didn't care" that Trump had never released even the most basic outline of his tax returns. There was no question on the 2016 exit poll that asked how much influence -- if any -- Trump's refusal to release his returns had on the vote.

The most recent news we've had on Trump's taxes came on Tax Day -- April 17. "The President filed an extension for his 2017 tax return, as do many Americans with complex returns," Sanders said in a statement at the time. "He will file his tax return by the extension deadline of October 15, 2018."

Which is in 12 days!

But don't hold your breath that come October 15, Trump will suddenly reconsider his past position of non-disclosure of his taxes. (The White House's last public statement on all of this is that Trump remains under audit!)

We've long suspected that the real reason why Trump is willing to take the negative publicity that comes with his closed-book policy on his tax returns is because that story is far less damaging than what would be unleashed if Trump actually did release his taxes.

The most commonly held belief was that releasing his returns would expose the fact that Trump is far less wealthy than he has long claimed. Some suggested that his tax returns might reveal ties to Russian oligarchs or banks that would fuel the idea that Trump was somehow influenced or owned by a foreign power.

What the Times story makes plain is that at least one of the main reasons Trump may never release his returns -- or, at least, a major reason -- is that to do so would implode the myth that he pulled himself up from his bootstraps and through sheer force of will made himself into a billionaire.

We now know -- thanks to the remarkable reporting by the Times -- that Trump's success was fueled and financed by his father's money. Which is a less inspiring -- if no less American -- story.

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