Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

In response to revelations that Donald Trump may have rolled over massive business losses to avoid paying federal taxes for nearly two decades, his campaign is pushing back with an argument that is not only deeply ludicrous, but also deeply revealing about both Trump’s own priorities and his campaign strategy in the final stretch of the race.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Trump declared a $916 million loss in 1995, which could have then allowed him to exploit an arcane provision in the tax code to cancel out taxable income for as long as 18 years. Though it hasn’t been confirmed that he took advantage of the provision that way, Trump, who boasted during the debate that not paying federal taxes “makes me smart,” did not deny that he had done this. Instead, he and his campaign made two other separate but interrelated arguments.

The first is that Trump’s exploitation of this provision, well, “makes me smart.” Trump’s initial statement declared that he is a “highly-skilled businessman” who has a responsibility “to pay no more tax than legally required.” Similar arguments tumbled forth from Trump surrogates Rudy Giuliani on ABC’s This Week and Chris Christie on Fox News Sunday, who both extolled Trump’s awesome fiscal wizardry. But as Ruth Marcus notes, if Trump’s tax manipulation proves Trump’s brilliance, why the continued refusal to release his returns, which is tantamount to concealing evidence of that brilliance from the public?

The second, and more significant, argument from Trump’s campaign is that his firsthand inside knowledge of how to game the tax code in his favor uniquely qualifies him to reform it — and prevent people like him from gaming it in the future. “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them,” Trump tweeted. Christie added that Trump is well equipped to “change the tax laws” that are “favoring people that they shouldn’t favor,” which he would do “against his own personal interests.”

But there’s a small problem with this whole argument. It’s undermined by Trump’s own tax plan. Thanks to that plan, we already know what Trump’s actual priorities are for “fixing” the tax code.

First of all, as Allan Sloan points out, Trump’s tax plan would not close the very same loophole that may have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for many years. (It would eliminate a loophole for hedge funders, but Sloan notes it’s unlikely Trump would benefit from that.) What’s more, Trump’s tax plan would deliver far and away its largest windfalls to the highest earners, including those in the top 0.1 percent.

Here’s another key point: Trump’s plan would also repeal the estate tax, which would allow a tiny minority of the very wealthiest individuals and families to shield assets from taxation. A recent Third Way analysis concluded that Trump’s family would be among the families to benefit, to the tune of $7 billion. Why would anyone believe Trump would fix the tax code to prevent such assets from being shielded in the future?

Trump, of course, argues that these tax cuts would unleash spectacular growth that would shower everyone with riches. But the point is that, even allowing for this argument, it is still true that the immediate priorities in his tax plan are to dramatically reduce the tax burden on people like himself. There is simply no reason to believe, as Christie puts it, that Trump would “fix” the tax laws to prevent them from “favoring people that they shouldn’t favor…against his own personal interests.”

Making this even more absurd, we’ve already seen this same trick from Trump in the past. During the GOP primaries, he repeatedly hinted that he’d require the wealthy to pay more, in order to burnish his “populism.” His actual plan ended up doing the opposite. Again, even if Trump sincerely believes his plan would ultimately benefit everyone, it is a matter of simple fact that it more dramatically favors people like him in the short term. His public position is that this is good policy. If you also want to believe that this is good policy, go ahead, but it simply does not entail “fixing” the tax code to expose people like himself to a higher tax burden. In fact, when Allan Sloan asked Trump aides for evidence that he or his family would lose out from his own tax plan, they declined to respond.

In response to these revelations, you hear it argued that voters won’t care about them, because they sympathize with the goal of lowering one’s personal tax burden. But this is to elide the deeper political meaning of these revelations. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is arguing that Trump’s business conduct, writ large, shows that he doesn’t really care about anyone but himself. I’d say it’s likely that swing voters see these revelations as more evidence of this.

It’s true that during the GOP primaries, Trump openly boasted of paying little in taxes, arguing that the government would waste it anyway, and that this probably only helped him. Trump is once again betting that an argument that worked in the primaries will also work with the broader general election audience. But it’s not surprising that such an argument worked on anti-tax, anti-government GOP voters, and it is unlikely that it will work with swing voters. Even if some of them do accept that any given individual should do everything possible to lower his or her tax burden, the added element here is that Trump won’t release his returns, which could make it easier for Dems to sow further doubts about just how far Trump went in doing that. On top of that, majorities of Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy — which is to say, they want the opposite of Trump’s plan.

Why would swing voters believe that Trump’s creative efforts to reduce his own tax burden somehow show that he’d “fix” the tax code in a way they favor, or in a way that will later increase the tax burden people like himself? Hint: They won’t.

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 *WHY TRUMP MIGHT LOSE FLORIDA: The Wall Street Journal reports that some Republicans are worried by new polling that shows Clinton slightly ahead of Trump nationally among older voters, long a reliable GOP-leaning constituency. Note this:

In Florida, the nation’s largest presidential battleground, one of every five residents is a senior citizen, the highest ratio in the country. A Mason-Dixon poll last week showed Mr. Trump ahead of Mrs. Clinton by six percentage points among voters 65 and older. Mr. Romney won them by 17 percentage points four years ago, and lost the state.

And of course, if Trump loses Florida, he loses the election.

* WHY TRUMP MIGHT LOSE FLORIDA, CONTINUED: The New York Times looks at how Florida Latinos (once dominated by Cubans who are now being supplanted by new immigrants from Latin America) are edging into the Democratic column:

Ten years ago, Republicans had a registration edge among the state’s Latinos — 37 percent were Republicans, 33 percent were Democrats and 28 percent independents, according to official figures. This year, the party lags among Latinos, with 26 percent registered as Republicans, 37 percent as Democrats and 35 percent as independents. And the independents increasingly lean Democratic, particularly among new immigrants and Puerto Ricans.

Don’t look now, but FiveThirtyEight now has Clinton slightly favored in the state, and she leads by a hair in the polling averages.

 * CLINTON LEADS IN VIRGINIA: A new Wason Center for Public Policy poll finds Clinton leading Trump among likely voters in Virginia by 42-35. Note this:

Millennial voters moved away from the Libertarian ticket and other third-party candidates and into Clinton’s camp. Among voters ages 18-34 Clinton has increased her support from 34 percent to 42 percent.

With the Clinton campaign working hard to consolidate millennials behind her, this sort of movement is worth keeping an eye out for in other polls.

* CLINTON LEADS IN A NEW NATIONAL POLL: A new Morning Consult poll finds Clinton leading among likely voters nationally by 42-36 in the four-way, and by 46-39 in the head-to-head match-up. The polling averages put Clinton up nationally by anywhere from 2.5 points to 4.7 points.

* TRUMP’S CRAZY TWEETS REVEAL STAKES IN THIS ELECTION: E.J. Dionne looks at Trump’s latest crazy tweetstorm (particularly his “sex tape” tweet about Alicia Machado) and concludes:

If this Trump episode does not lead to a flood of defections among Republican politicians supporting him, they will be on record as putting party loyalty (or fear of Trump’s followers in GOP primaries) over the need to protect the nation from a truly unhinged leader. And this should be the end of the pretense, which sometimes drives the media, that whatever might be wrong with Trump, there are things equally wrong with Clinton.

Nothing will ever put an end to that pretense, except, perhaps, for the election.

* DON’T LET REPUBLICANS OFF HOOK FOR TRUMP: Paul Krugman looks at the moral cowardice and/or corruption on display in Mitch McConnell’s and Paul Ryan’s continued support for Trump:

They know what kind of man they’re dealing with — but they are spending this election pretending that we’re having a serious discussion about policy, that a vote for Mr. Trump is simply a vote for lower marginal tax rates. And they should not be allowed to flush the fact of their Trump support down the memory hole when the election is behind us. This goes in particular for Mr. Ryan, who has received extraordinarily favorable press treatment….Every time he’s held up as an example of seriousness, remember that when it mattered, he backed Donald Trump.

Yeah, good luck with that, Professor. All will promptly be forgotten.

* QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND: Yesterday on This Week, after repeatedly calling Trump a “genius” for possibly using business losses of $916 million to pay no taxes for many years, Rudy Giuliani added:

“Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her e-mails.”

Now, I think Rudy probably garbled this unintentionally, but man, what a raging buffoon this guy has become.