At long last, Eric Trump just assured us that his father, Donald Trump, has “absolutely” paid federal income taxes in recent decades. But he said it in about the most evasive and non-confidence-inspiring way possible.

On CNN after Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate, Dana Bash grilled the younger Trump on whether his dad has paid federal income taxes.

Trump responded affirmatively, but it was like pulling teeth — and he continued to deflect in a way that suggested he was defending a man who hasn't really paid them. He was clearly avoiding just flat-out saying it.

Let's break this into three exchanges:

Exchange No. 1

BASH: Can you just put this to rest? Has your father paid federal income tax?”
ERIC TRUMP: We pay a tremendous amount of taxes.
BASH: Federal income taxes?
TRUMP: Yes. And beyond taxes, we employ tens and tens and tens of thousands of people. The difference between my father and Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton has lived off the government her entire life. She's never created a single job.

Exchange No. 2

BASH: Eric, my question, though, is has he paid federal income taxes over the last 18 years? Yes or no?
TRUMP: Of course, yes. Absolutely. My father pays a tremendous amount of tax. We as a company pay a tremendous amount of tax.

Exchange No. 3

BASH: If you could just put a button on this: Have you seen your father's income tax returns?
TRUMP: I don't study our tax returns. That's why you have ...
BASH: But have you seen them?
TRUMP: Of course you see tax returns. I don't —
BASH: But have you seen your father's tax returns?
TRUMP: I'm answering the question. Of course I've seen my father's tax returns.
BASH: And he's paid federal taxes?
TRUMP: My father pays a tremendous amount of tax. As a company, we pay a tremendous amount of tax. And it goes so far beyond federal income taxes. How about real estate taxes? How about employment taxes? How about sales taxes? How about every other type of tax that goes into that?

Trump does respond in the affirmative twice when asked if his father has paid federal income taxes. But everything else about these answers — and basically everything the Trump campaign has said for a while now — suggests that he's defending a man who hasn't.

Eric Trump actually used the “tremendous amount of taxes” talking point no fewer than seven times, according to Talking Points Memo. Even when he was responding in the affirmative, he quickly returned to that talking point — shifting the debate from federal income taxes specifically to taxes more generally. This is a tactic you use when you are trying to answer a different question than the one you are being asked.

The question is why he needs to do that. The Trump campaign has had ample opportunity to simply come forward and assure us all that the Republican presidential nominee has paid federal income taxes over the years. Even if the candidate doesn't release his tax returns, making that basic assurance would at least provide a counterpoint to the New York Times article last weekend about how Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss in 1995 that could have allowed him to avoid federal income taxes for as many as 18 years.

Instead, the campaign has spent the better part of the past 10 days:

  1. Making the case that it would be smart if he did indeed avoid paying federal income taxes
  2. Not saying whether he actually did.

Eric Trump's interview puts the campaign on the record as saying that he has indeed paid federal income taxes. But you have to wonder why it took this long to say it and why it can't be stated more directly.

Until then, it's hard to take Eric Trump at face value here.