September 28, 2020
Three enterprising reporters for the New York Times published a bombshell report Sunday evening on Donald Trump’s financial life, making it clear that the President of the United States is a desperate, cash-hungry grifter who paid no federal income taxes at all in ten of the fifteen years leading up to his run for office and has, in his frenzied quest to stay afloat, “propped up his sagging bottom line” by exploiting his office.
Readers learn that Trump, who inherited an immense fortune from his father, found countless ways to squander his capital. And, like his old man, he also found countless ways to short the government, including, according to the Times, paying his daughter Ivanka legally dubious consulting fees. At the same time, Trump has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that he must soon repay. He is an almost comically inept businessman; he is the sum of his debt and bankruptcies. Nearly everything he touches turns to lead. Were it not for his investments in Trump Tower, “The Apprentice,” and little else—and were it not for the tireless ministrations of his accountants—he would likely be on his back. The question is: Will anyone care?
Readers inclined to think of Trump as a liar and threat to national well-being will doubtless relish every detail in the Times report, not least because it confirms, with documentary evidence, what so many have always suspected and what reporters such as Wayne Barrett and Tim O’Brien were writing decades ago: that Trump is a shady and conniving operator whose practices betray contempt for everyone from his contractors and employees to the federal government. The Times article is hardly the first to provide evidence of Trump’s grift, but its details are particularly numerous and galling. Moreover, it comes two days before Trump’s first debate with Joe Biden and five weeks before the election. Are there undecided voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and beyond who will come upon this new information and finally say to themselves, “This is too much. No more,” and not vote for Trump? It’s hard to know.
The President’s reaction to the story was entirely predictable: deny, deflect, and cast blame elsewhere. Accompanied by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, he came to the White House press room shortly after the story dropped and attacked the Times (“Everything was wrong; they are so bad”) and the Internal Revenue Service. The Twitter storm saying that he was only playing by the rules of the game is sure to follow.
Trump has long been convinced, as he so memorably put it, four years ago, that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.?” And it is probably true, that for many of his supporters, his character—the dishonesty, the bigotry, the incompetence—is a given. It’s “baked in,” as the Washington cliché has it. No matter what Trump does, no matter what journalists go on revealing, he has, for the “base,” delivered on his promise to upend “the system” and inflame the élites. Some supporters believe that he has lowered their taxes (he hasn’t), defanged North Korea (he hasn’t), and ironed out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (he hasn’t). For the Republican leadership, Trump remains tolerable because he appoints right-wing judges and cossets corporate interests.
A reader of the Times bombshell, then, can reasonably ask, how is this different from the last bombshell? How is it different from the memoirs by Mary Trump and Michael Cohen? From calling fallen U.S. soldiers “suckers” and “losers”? From all the generals, intelligence officers, and government officials telling Bob Woodward in “Rage” that Trump poses a threat to national security that is even more grave than anyone imagines? Four years ago, Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” This might have seemed overheated at the time—the result of a former collaborator’s guilty conscience—and yet, in Woodward’s new book, we read of Secretary of Defense James Mattis sleeping in his clothes at night for fear that he’ll have to race back to the office because the needless war of words between two erratic leaders, Trump and Kim Jong Un, might lead to an unspeakable conflagration.
The Times story does not make for breezy reading, particularly for a reader without a legal or accounting degree. This is hardly the fault of its authors. It is, by nature, a knotty unloading of many years of murky tax schemes, byzantine business deals, devious agreements with foreign partners, and complex legal maneuvers. And yet the reporters, Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire, begin with a memorably simple paragraph:
Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.
The second paragraph is similarly terse: “He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years—largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”
For years, Trump has advertised himself as a sui-generis brand of populist—the kind who somehow has golden bathroom fixtures, mansions, and private aircraft—and yet pretends to be the champion of the working and middle classes. Perhaps it is also “baked in” that many of his admirers enjoy his sense of spectacle and contradiction. It is hard to imagine, though, that every Trumpist—or, more important, every undecided voter in the swing states—will relish hearing that he paid, while in office, seven hundred and fifty dollars in federal income taxes. That is a stark number. How many teachers, nurses, grocery clerks, farmers, factory workers, bus drivers, truck drivers, and countless others will find that acceptable? How many will fail to compare it to their own tax bill?
Trump knows that he has certain factors on his side. As a demagogue, he is a master. He also operates in a modern information universe in which long, complex investigative articles are often ignored, distorted, or turned on their head. On Sunday night, while Anderson Cooper was talking with a panel on CNN about the details in the Times, Mark Levin, on Fox News, was interviewing Mike Pompeo about the many-splendored wonders of Trump’s foreign policy. The Fox News Web site responded to the Times article with the headline “Everything Was Wrong”—meaning, for millions of readers and viewers, that the news was not the evidence or the charge; the news was the dismissive reaction of the autocrat.
So who cares? How much do these near-daily bombshells change anything? The election is the only way to know. Trump, whose shamelessness knows no limits, seems intent on distorting that process as well.