In this article, Susanne Craig, a New York Times Metro reporter who covers government and politics, reveals one of the lesser-known benefits of “snail mail.”
My colleagues make fun of my old-fashioned devotion to my mailbox.
It’s about 30 feet from my desk — among all the other third-floor employees’ mailboxes — and I check it constantly, always hoping a tipster will have sent me some revealing letter or secret document.
In Metro, we get a lot of junk mail and are regularly flooded with correspondence from prisoners in New York’s penitentiaries.
But Friday, Sept. 23, was different.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies. Almost immediately, I walked over to the desk of David Barstow — a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and my teammate in the quest for Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
He was on the phone. I waved the tax documents in front of him. He abruptly ended the call with whomever he was talking to.
We cleared out the investigations team conference room and, with our colleagues Megan Twohey and Russ Buettner, started drawing up a battle plan.
We obsessed over the documents, the envelope, the postmark, the date on the postmark — everything. We even checked every other mailbox on the third floor — and there are hundreds of them — in case the tipster had mailed additional documents to any other reporter.
We then came up with a list of people who could confirm the veracity of the tax records. The list was short.
Next, we set out to develop a portrait of Mr. Trump’s finances from the period in question, to see if we could support what the documents showed — that he had taken a huge loss in 1995 that could have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for nearly two decades.
We were skeptical as we examined the tax records, though much of the information looked accurate. They were signed by Mr. Trump’s wife at the time, Marla Maples, and by Mr. Trump, whose recognizable handwriting renders his signature in jagged, oversize letters. Other details matched up.
But, of course, we needed a lot more before we could publish an article.
We were initially thrown off by a quirk in the records noticed by Megan: On the line on which Mr. Trump had reported his huge loss — of $915,729,293 — the first two digits did not line up with the next seven. Could the document have been doctored?
We hired tax experts to guide us through the math. We researched the 1995 tax code. We reached out to anyone who might have viewed Mr. Trump’s records during that period.
But the breakthrough came when David traveled to Florida and tracked down Jack Mitnick, the semiretired accountant who had prepared and signed Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
Mr. Mitnick was initially reluctant to talk, but he eventually agreed to meet David in a bagel shop.
In a conversation there, Mr. Mitnick not only said the records appeared to be authentic; he also solved the mystery of the digits that did not line up. It turned out that the tax preparation software he had used did not allow him to enter a loss of nine figures. So, he recalled, he had to manually enter the first two digits, using an IBM Selectric typewriter.
We did more reporting that broadened our picture of Mr. Trump’s finances at the time, and reached out to additional sources. By Saturday — eight days after I had first opened the envelope — we were ready to go to the Trump campaign with our findings. Mr. Trump, through his spokeswoman, did not challenge or confirm the tax records, but he threatened us with legal action if we were to publish them.
We felt confident that our reporting was correct. On Saturday night, around 9:10, we were all in the newsroom when our article was posted on nytimes.com. It instantly drew a flood of readers. People were fascinated not only by the story, but also with how we had gotten it. Why did the tipster send the documents to me, of all the reporters out there? Probably because I wrote an exhaustive examination of Mr. Trump’s $650 million of debt in August that drew millions of readers.
The whole experience has left me eager to share a bit of advice with my fellow reporters: Check your mailboxes. Especially nowadays, when people are worried that anything sent by email will leave forensic fingerprints, “snail mail” is a great way to communicate with us anonymously.
And a note to tipsters out there: If you want to send me anything, on any subject, my mailbox is open. The address is 620 Eighth Avenue, Third Floor, New York, NY 10018.
You can bet I will be checking it.