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What the Clintons' tax return tells us about Hillary

CNBC CNBC 13/08/2016 Tom Anderson

Donald Trump has said he fights "very hard to pay as little tax as possible." The same could not be said of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton released her 2015 federal income tax return on Friday in a move to pressure Trump to release his returns. As a couple, Hillary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, deducted $2.24 million last year, and paid an effective federal tax rate of 34.2 percent.

"It's white-bread stuff. Hillary has been running for president for decades and her tax returns show it," said Joseph Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts and author of the "Politics of Federal Taxation" column for Tax Notes magazine.

What the return shows is a document prepared in a way to leave little to scrutiny. In other words, no mysterious deductions, or profits from trading in cattle futures. And it would seem every effort was made to show a higher effective tax rate to underscore a couple paying their fair share. In other words, a tax return filed by two people used to the enormous magnifying glass of public life.

© Provided by CNBC You would have to go back to Gerald Ford to find a major presidential candidate who paid a higher effective federal tax rate than Clinton, Thorndike said. During the Ford administration, the top federal income tax rate was 70 percent.

The Clintons' relatively high effective federal tax rate is because a majority of their income comes from work, not investments. 

Income is taxed up to 39.6 percent by the federal government, while capital gains are only taxed at 20 percent rate for people in the highest federal income tax bracket.

The Clintons' income was also lower in 2015, showing Hillary leaving behind the eyebrow-raising and lucrative speaking circuit to prepare for her run. The couple;s income in 2014 was $28.3 million, more than cut in half in 2015 to $10.6 million — most of that brought in by Bill.

What's more, the Clintons lowered their tax liability by giving to charity. Of the the $1,042,000 the Clintons gave to charity as listed on their return, $1 million of that went to the Clinton Family Foundation. The other $42,000 went to Desert Classic Charities, a non-profit that organizes a charity golf tournament with the Clinton Foundation. "They are practically tithing," Thorndike said.

Generally, you may deduct up to half of your adjusted gross income, but 20 percent and 30 percent limitations apply in some cases.

The Clintons even paid a higher tax rate last year than the average effective federal tax rate of 33.4 percent for the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

The Trump campaign responded to the release late Friday afternoon, calling for the disclosure of documents related to the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi it said would be more revealing.

"This document release is nothing more than an attempt at distraction and misdirection by an individual who created and then purged an illegal private email server," Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller said in a statement.

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from the Trump campaign.

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