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Opinion Rachel Maddow takes conspiracy theorizing mainstream with Trump tax ‘scoop’

Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. (MSNBC via Associated Press)

At some point during Rachel Maddow’s rambling monologue at the start of her show last night—which she had teased on Twitter hours before would reveal “Trump tax returns”—I realized that we weren’t watching a news broadcast so much as a modern recreation of X’s monologue from Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

You remember the scene: A retired intelligence operative known only as X (Donald Sutherland) meets with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the New Orleans district attorney who hopes to solve the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by proving a conspiracy existed to have him killed. X, his monologue performed over documentary and newsreel clips, hopes to help Garrison by showing him how the dots all connect.

The comparison first flashed to mind as Maddow was running through the history of presidents releasing their taxes. “When Richard Nixon said ‘I’m not a crook,’ he wasn’t talking about Watergate, he was talking about his taxes,” Maddow explained. “And, in fact, he was kind of a crook on his taxes. He handed them over in 1973. In April, 1974, the IRS ordered him to pay almost a half million dollars in back taxes. … Donald Trump’s opponent in the presidential campaign this past year, Hillary Clinton, she released every year of her tax returns back to 1977. But Donald Trump refused to release any.”

Rachel Maddow's not-so-big reveal of Trump's tax returns (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

While walking through Washington, D.C., X provides a similar history lesson, taking us through America’s postwar undercover successes (“Italy ’48 stealing elections, France ’49 breaking strikes—we overthrew Quirino in the Philippines, Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran. Vietnam in ’54, Indonesia ’58, Tibet ’59 we got the Dalai Lama out—we were good, very good.”) before getting to the big failures that began in the 1960s (“Then we got into Cuba. Not so good.”). X doesn’t have any proof that the dreaded military-industrial complex had JFK killed, but he does have a lot of coincidences. X’s own odd reassignment before JFK’s Dallas trip, an order given to the local military chief to “stand down” and not supplement the Secret Service, the fact that newspapers knew a great deal of Lee Harvey Oswald’s history: It all adds up, you see.

Fox News can’t handle Rachel Maddow’s tax scoop

But what does it add up to? Who benefits? Cui bono? That’s the question and the answer seems obvious, at least to X: “You know how many helicopters have been lost in Vietnam? About three thousand so far. Who makes them? Bell Helicopter. Who owns Bell? Bell was near bankruptcy when the First National Bank of Boston approached the CIA about developing the helicopter for Indochina usage. How ’bout the f-111 fighters? General Dynamics in Fort Worth. Who owns that? Find out the defense budget since the war began. $75 going on a hundred billion … $200 billion’ll be spent before it ends. In 1950 it was $13 billion. No war, no money.”

Follow the money! Always follow the money. It is in this money-following that we saw shades of X in Maddow last night. For 19 minutes she showed us just how deep the rabbit hole goes, highlighting a real-estate transaction in which a Russian paid Trump $100 million for an estate that Trump had purchased for just $40 million.

“If this wasn’t just some Russian oligarch dumping almost $60 million into Donald Trump’s pocket for no discernible reason, couldn’t Trump tax returns clear that up? Wouldn’t Trump’s taxes show whatever reasonable real estate inflow and outflow might explain what otherwise really does look like a bizarre dump of tens of millions of dollars of Russian money into Donald Trump’s coffers? Right at a time when Donald Trump owed tens of millions of dollars to Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Bank was breathing down his neck to get it. That Russian oligarch who spent all that money on that property and never moved into it and ultimately tore it down—he’s also a large shareholder in a bank called the Bank of Cyprus which has been implicated in Russian money laundering. The chairman of the Bank of Cyprus is the former CEO of Deutsche Bank to which Donald Trump owed all that money at the time he conveniently got this very large influx of cash from a Russian guy. The vice chairman of that bank until recently was our new secretary of commerce, long time Trump friend Wilbur Ross.”

As in X’s monologue, Maddow’s coincidences pile up relentlessly, remorselessly. You sit there, overwhelmed by it all, processing, trying to pick apart just why this is nonsense but having a tough time of it because every individual datum is accurate. This is how conspiracy theorists operate: bury your opponent in an avalanche of facts and suggest there’s some secret connecting them all together, a Rosetta Stone you’re on the verge of deciphering.

The real story in Trump’s tax returns

“His explanations have never made any factual sense,” Maddow said last night of Trump’s refusal to release his taxes. “The ‘I’m under audit’ excuse makes no sense. And if the ‘I’m under audit excuse’ doesn’t make any sense, then what does explain why the president hasn’t released any tax returns? When you get an excuse from them that doesn’t make sense you have to look for another reason. Alright, the stated explanation here makes no sense. What’s the real explanation? Well, choose your own adventure.”

And in that invocation of the seminal children’s books from the 1980s and 1990s, Maddow gives the game away. She has stepped beyond the world of reporting and into the realm of speculation, one where random facts can be rejiggered in any way the storyteller likes. All that’s missing is one key document, one clue to unraveling it all—in Maddow’s case, the full tax returns that will prove everything. There’s a certain appeal to this brand of thinking, as folks who dig Infowars and similar outfits have long known: the conspiracy theorist loves to theorize, to postulate, to hypothesize and propose and presume. In so doing, the theorist can force the world to conform to her presuppositions.

In the end, we only learned a couple of hard facts last night from Rachel Maddow: that Donald J. Trump earned a boatload of income in 2005 and that he paid an enormous amount of taxes on it. We also learned, sadly, that darkly conspiratorial thinking is just as welcome on prime time cable news networks as it is in the darker regions of the Internet.