The big New York Times piece on Donald Trump’s tax returns, obviously timed to feed Joe Biden some attack lines entering the first debate, is part of a campaign-season tradition. Unfortunately for Trump’s critics, that is a tradition of failure.
The story has two main thrusts. One is that Trump has had multiple years in which he paid shockingly little taxes, due to a variety of aggressive tax-accounting techniques. In a couple of years, his net tax liability was $750, less than a great many nowhere-near-wealthy Americans pay. A few of the details show Trump taking business expenses that are embarrassing, such as $70,000 for his hair on The Apprentice. The other is that Trump’s businesses have lost a lot of money over the years, belying his bravado about his fantastic success.
All of this might have been useful to those of us opposing Trump in the 2016 primary, and Democrats plainly share the same frustration that they did not have access to it during the 2016 election, despite Trump’s occasional promises to release tax returns (not that this stopped Democrats in 2012 from running with Harry Reid’s unapologetically false claims that Mitt Romney paid no taxes). It could have been helpful in puncturing some of Trump’s odd combination of braggadocio about his enormous wealth with man-of-the-people populism.
But here is the hard reality: It’s too late. Trump has been president for four years. You can’t beat an incumbent president with stories from before his presidency.
Oh, it’s been tried. The instinct to try it comes from a deep sense of grievance at losing to an opponent who should never have won. Every time there’s an incumbent on the ballot, partisans chase the Great White Whale of a story that will prove, once and for all, not only that he should lose, but that he should never have held the office in the first place. We told you so! This often leads people in conspiratorial directions. With Obama in 2012, that was the Birthers and the folks hunting for Obama’s college transcripts and even the “whitey tape.” With George W. Bush in 2004, it was Rathergate and the “AWOL Bush” story, and an obsession with Bush’s military-service record that drove the Democrats’ choice of nominee, their entire convention, and their dalliance with Michael Moore. With Bill Clinton in 1996, it was Paula Jones, Whitewater, and Mena Airport. With George H. W. Bush in 1992, it was the “October Surprise” investigation into the 1980 election. Every one of these wild-goose chases failed. Bush lost in 1992 because of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Go down the list of all the incumbents who lost — Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams, and John Adams — and it is easy enough to spot the reasons why in their presidencies, and impossible to make the case that they lost because of something from before they ran for president that could, if known, have been raised four years earlier.
Moreover, consider the reasons why Democratic partisans hyped up for years what they expected to find in Trump’s tax returns: that the returns would show him to be secretly on the payroll of Vladimir Putin and, less dramatically, would debunk his boasts of great wealth. Many efforts were made by conservatives to explain to these people why the promised Russia bombshell was unlikely to turn up, but it was simply too good a storyline to resist, especially for the cable-TV “Resistance” at CNN and MSNBC. The Times story has to concede that it did not find those things:
[The tax returns] report that Mr. Trump owns hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable assets, but they do not reveal his true wealth. Nor do they reveal any previously unreported connections to Russia. . . . Mr. Trump’s elaborate dance and defiance have only stoked suspicion about what secrets might lie hidden in his taxes. Is there a financial clue to his deference to Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin? . . . No subject has provoked more intense speculation about Mr. Trump’s finances than his connection to Russia. While the tax records revealed no previously unknown financial connection — and, for the most part, lack the specificity required to do so — they did shed new light on the money behind the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. . . . The records show that the pageant was the most profitable Miss Universe during Mr. Trump’s time as co-owner, and that it generated a personal payday of $2.3 million — made possible, at least in part, by the Agalarov family, who would later help set up the infamous 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials seeking “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton and a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin.
After four years of hype, this is a pretty big failure of expectations.
Is Trump the kind of man who would take every trick in the book — including stuff his accountants thought up that the IRS may not ultimately buy — to reduce his tax liabilities? Sure, and everybody already knew that. It’s part of his brand. He’s even used as an excuse for not releasing the returns that he has been under more or less continuous IRS audit for years and years, which would not be the case if he was going out of his way to pay the maximum possible taxes. Has Trump’s business career been full of debt and losses? Sure, and everybody already knew that, too, or would have known it if they cared to learn. The man lost money running golf courses. Which we all heard about in the primary debates in 2015–16.
It may feel unfair to get some dirt on Trump that might have helped four years ago, but it is not going to matter. If Trump loses — which seems likely, but far from certain, at the moment — it will be because people got disenchanted by him as president. Sorry, we don’t get to replay 2016.