The Morning Joe set appears persuaded that the New York Times revelations about Donald Trump’s taxes are no biggie. In a segment today, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski all but sneered at the idea that the revelations might damage Trump or are even all that newsworthy at all.
“Hillary Clinton is more in the pocket of Wall Street than anybody else that has run for president in years,” Scarborough chortled, scoffing at the idea that she would “fix the system” and ridiculing criticism of Trump as corrupt. Brzezinski opined that “the people feel they’re hearing the truth” from Trump, praised Trump’s ludicrous response that the Times revelations prove his business genius, and admonished Clinton: “Get off your high horse about this tax thing. Unless laws were broken, it’s not an issue.”
We’ve heard various versions of this argument for the past few days. But it badly misses the much deeper context — both political and substantive — in which the battle over Trump’s taxes is now unfolding, context that make the story very newsworthy and potentially very damaging politically. That context has several layers.
First, the battle over transparency. The argument over the new Trump tax revelations — which found that he reported $916 million in business losses in 1995 that could have been rolled over into avoiding paying taxes for nearly two decades — cannot be divorced from the larger dispute over Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. One of Trump’s chief selling points for the presidency is his business acumen. The revelations of such massive losses alone undercut that selling point. But the refusal to release the returns has the potential to make that dynamic a lot worse for him.
As the Post reports, there are many unanswered questions about those $916 million in losses, and as long as Trump conceals his full returns, “it’s impossible to identify with any precision how the $916 million in claimed losses was generated.” In other words, the new revelations have not only opened the door a crack on Trump’s epic business failures; they have also shined new light on a potential reason he refuses to release the returns, demonstrating that Trump seems to be taking massive steps to hide the true nature of his business failings from the public. That allows Democrats to keep sowing doubts about one of his chief rationales for running for president — his supposed business wizardry — by asking, legitimately, why Trump continues to refuse to allow a fuller public view of the very business practices that supposedly recommend him for the presidency.
A new CNN poll suggests this could indeed hurt Trump. It finds not just that 73 percent of likely voters say Trump should release his returns, but also that 56 percent say Trump is refusing do so because he is “trying to hide something that he doesn’t want the public to know.” Among college educated whites — a constituency the campaigns are fighting over ferociously — 61 percent say Trump is trying to hide something. The CNN poll does find Trump holds a narrow edge on who is more honest and trustworthy. But hammering on the new revelations to dramatize Trump’s lack of transparency could help Clinton close that gap. Besides, does the Morning Joe set really disagree that the new revelations raise legitimate additional questions about why he won’t release his returns? After all, Trump’s own argument is that the revelations show how tremendously skillful a businessman he is. Does the Morning Joe set really dispute that this legitimately puts more pressure on him to release the returns, to prove it?
This feeds into another layer of context to this whole dispute: The ongoing battle over qualifications and temperament. Pundits love to point out that both candidates are historically unpopular. And that’s generally true (though Trump is more unpopular than Clinton is). But this elides the deep imbalance in public perceptions of the two candidates’ preparedness, or lack thereof, to be president, in which Clinton is widely seen as qualified and temperamentally suited to the presidency, and Trump is not. One remaining area where Trump is holding his own on this score appears to be the economy, where the CNN poll shows him marginally more trusted. But as Dem strategist Simon Rosenberg observes, by shedding more light on his business failings, the new tax revelations could eat into public perceptions of his overall economic competence. Despite Brzezinski’s breezy assurance that Trumps own claims to business brilliance will prove convincing to the public, it remains to be seen whether swing voters will play along over time.
Scarborough is right that Clinton probably has not done enough to persuade swing voters that she is unhappy with the current economic and political systems and is serious about reforming them. But the CNN poll finds that likely voters believe by 51-38 that Clinton, not Trump, is the one who is in touch with the middle class’s problems, despite Trump’s promise to bust up the system and get it working for ordinary Americans. Beyond this, if Trump continues to get knocked around on his taxes — and continues to respond with erratic monologues, even as his surrogates continue to float arguments about Trump’s “genius” that are widely mocked in the media — that could continue to feed deeper doubts about his own unsteadiness.
Which feeds into the whole question of time. Every day that Trump is on defense over his taxes and business record is a day that he is not spending repairing the deeper problems with his candidacy. The Clinton campaign will seek to keep Trump on defense over these revelations for as long as possible. That could end up mattering, if it eats up enough of the remaining time that Trump needs in order to both broaden his appeal and address lingering concerns about his competence and temperament.
“Continue to lay out the vision, so the ‘Stronger Together’ versus ‘Crippled America’….We’re going to continue to lay that out,” Kaine said, referencing Clinton and Trump’s respective manifestos. He believes the Republican’s dark view of the nation’s future does not sit well with the broader electorate.
This contrast may also reinforce the cultural split we’re seeing among white voters, with non-college whites drawn to Trump’s depiction of the country even as college educated whites are repelled by it.
For a single businessman to declare losses approaching $1 billion is so extraordinary that it caused several accountants and lawyers consulted by The Times to blanch. The precise breakdown of that figure — specifically which Trump enterprises were responsible for how much — remains murky, hidden in a schedule attached to Mr. Trump’s returns that has not become public. But a review of public records and interviews with those who were present makes clear that it was decisions Mr. Trump made at the helm of his business empire during the 1980s that led to its nearly imploding.
The disclosure also raises new questions about the degree of Trump’s personal financial involvement in the Trump Organization’s first four bankruptcies. Though he has repeatedly drawn a distinction between the company’s bankruptcies and his personal finances, the tax documents indicate he may have used losses stemming from his bankruptcies to benefit his personal fortune.
Maybe when Trump said he has a “fiduciary responsibility” to pay as little in taxes as possible, he really meant to himself.
The jobs reduction during the Great Recession was more than four times greater as a proportion of the labor force. The Great Recession also lasted for 18 months — more than double the length of the downturn Trump cited as worse. For Trump to blame his personal financial woes largely on the recession of the 1990s is also a stretch. Toward the end of the 1980s, Trump borrowed large amounts of money at steep interest rates to pay for expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful, properties. One of his casinos, the Trump Castle, defaulted on debt payments in June 1990 — a month before that recession even began.
* A NOTE ON THE LOOPHOLE TRUMP EXPLOITED: Nicholas Confessore and Binyamin Appelbaum report that the loophole Trump exploited is not that controversial, but Trump really pushed it to the limit. This is remarkable:
More than 500,000 individual taxpayers took advantage of the same tax rule as Mr. Trump in 1995, according to the Internal Revenue Service. The average loss they claimed, however, was just $97,600. Mr. Trump’s $916 million loss accounted for almost 2 percent of the national total.
Of course, what this really shows is how smart and creative Trump was.
What they didn’t do was provide any new information about Clinton — or about anything else, really. The much-vaunted news conference, as it turned out, was little more than an extended infomercial for WikiLeaks on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its founding….Assange, as it turns out, had taken a page from Trump’s own playbook by drawing an audience with a tease, only to leave those tuning in feeling that they’d been tricked.