They solve a mystery that has fueled conspiracies and attacks for years.
Donald Trump has finally lost the ability to keep his tax returns secret. Back in 2016, Trump bucked decades of bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his returns for any year. His claims of being under audit were an obvious pretext, but still the president resisted after years of Russian conspiracy theories and accusations of malfeasance. With one negligible exception, his returns remained opaque, a Pandora’s Box that could uncover the seeds of Trump’s downfall.
The past five years of uncertainty ended on Sunday, when the New York Times reported that it had obtained many years of the president’s tax records. They showed that he paid a pittance in federal taxes for years. The report discussed the multi-million dollar tax credit that resulted in an IRS audit in 2011. It detailed the vast sums that Trump owed numerous creditors and the absurd lengths that he went through to claim illegitimate deductions and avoid his obligations. With the exception of line items for Russian bribes, it was everything that Trump had feared and Democrats had hoped for.
Immediately, Democrats saw an opening with the Times story. They pounced on the revelation that Donald Trump was not the successful businessman he claimed to be. Instead of being flush with cash, the president was overwhelmed by debts and unable to pay off what he owed. Trump critics noted the story’s allusions to violations of tax law and the president’s underhanded tactics in his hiring of Ivanka Trump as a consultant. Critics of the president also saw how Trump’s $400 million debt could expose him to corruption and blackmail.
Several of these lines of attack may not end up helping Democrats. As Josh Barro notes in New York, the line that Trump is a failure as a businessman has never had much resonance among Americans. It goes against Trump’s image over the past forty years and his status as a failed and debt-riddled but still very wealthy business owner. Barro wrote,
The president obviously isn’t broke, as you can tell from his consumption behavior. He owns several large homes and resorts that he uses as his own personal play spaces. He self-financed a substantial chunk of his 2016 presidential campaign. Before he became president, he used a Boeing 757 as a private jet. There’s a reason only very rich people do these sorts of things: If you’re poor, you can’t afford to do them.
The line about Trump’s corruption may also not be effective at this late stage of the election. As many of Trump’s scandals have shown, impropriety and innuendo do not cause serious harm to his standing among Republicans and others. They have already been aired and dissected ad nauseam, whether in the aftermath of the Mueller report or during the impeachment proceedings. The idea that Trump may have done something illicit or has created the appearance of illegal activity simply does not move voters. They need clear evidence or recordings for an attack to have any sort of effect.
But one attack from the tax returns will stick: the minuscule amount of taxes Trump has paid in the past fifteen years. Millions of Americans have to pay a substantial tax bill every year. The vast majority have their taxes taken out of their paychecks and do not have to write a check to the IRS, instead receiving a refund after deductions. But they still know how much they paid and how much they could have kept if they had received the same preferential treatment that Trump did.
Many other Americans do write a check to the IRS every year. They are independent contractors or freelancers. Small business owners, gig economy drivers, and independent journalists are all a part of this ecosystem. These Americans do not have taxes withheld in many instances and have to pay income, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security taxes at the end of the year. This payment is a considerable burden that millions of Americans have to shoulder. The strength of this argument is why it is one of the first that the Biden campaign latched onto in the hours after the story was released.
In addition, the story is an example of the media exorcising many of its demons from the 2016 election. The story is not being equivocated on with negative news about some prior act by Joe Biden. Hunter Biden’s name has mostly stayed out of the headlines. Instead, the story unearths potential malfeasance by the president of the United States and presents that malfeasance in an incredibly damaging light. While there is still more than a month to go before the election, the Times story is a clear sign that the national media will avoid the desire to appear non-partisan that so heavily skewed their 2016 coverage.
It is clear that the release of Trump’s tax returns will not fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race. Biden will still lead in most polls with Trump often close behind. The debates may or may not shift this calculus. But Trump needs significant national changes to shift the conversation away from his continued disaster as the leader of a country beset by a pandemic. Focusing on his unpaid taxes is not the sort of misdirection that will help him in November.