Cries of "fake news" won't save Trump from bombshell tax records story

Life outside the bubble

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Caught off guard that the New York Times has finally gotten its hands on years’ worth of Trump's federal income tax documents  — the ones he and his attorneys have worked so hard to suppress — Trump at a Sunday press briefing lashed out at the messenger. “It’s fake news, it’s totally made up,” Trump complained less than an hour after the story broke in the newspaper. “Everything was wrong, they are so bad.”

On and on Trump went, attacking the Times, while suggesting Sean Hannity deserves a Pulitzer Prize. But Trump refused to engage in any of the details of the newspaper's sprawling report that painted Trump as a failed businessman who runs up huge losses each year as a way to avoid paying federal income taxes. In 2016 and 2017, Trump paid Uncle Sam a grand total of $1,500. (Reminder: Trump ran for office bragging he was worth $10 billion.) For context, Barack Obama and George W. Bush both paid more than $100,000 in federal income taxes annually while serving as president.  

But it wasn't just the tax avoidance, and the $70,000 in hairstyling for television appearances Trump has claimed as business deductions over the years. It was the Times' portrayal of massive, chronic failures and staggering amount of debts that are coming due —hundreds of millions of dollars in loans Trump personally guaranteed. That kind of financial exposure makes Trump a national security risk. And yes, tax evasion is a crime.

 "It is impossible to read this exceptional @NYTimes story on Trump's taxes & not conclude he is a crook, his kids are crooks, his companies are badly mismanaged & his financial future is precarious," tweeted David Rothkoph. "His creditors own him. We need to know who they are."

Will the revelations of rampant duplicity matter with Trump's most ardent supporters and with Fox News anchors? No. We already know the right-wing media spin will be that Trump was being savvy when he got out of paying federal income taxes, and if every American could figure out a way to do that they should. By Monday night, the primetime lineup of Fox News talkers will certainly fall in line and attack the Times, without disputing a single key fact, and present Trump as the victim of a witch hunt.

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But the story will likely be a huge problem for Trump among independent voters who have been sprinting away from him, and from suburban voters who may have pulled the lever for him in 2016. And that’s always been the gaping hole in Trump's "fake news" strategy — it only works among his super-loyal followers.

At a time when Trump's campaign is lurching backwards and his "law-and-order" campaign isn't paying any political dividends, the Times expose represents a huge setback. In life outside the MAGA bubble, the tax return revelation is a big one because it’s hard to explain why, for the last decade, Trump has written off $26 million worth of dubious "consulting" fees. And it certainly appears the Trump Organization paid Ivanka Trump massive consulting fees for no-show work. All of this coming just five weeks before the election. The Times blockbuster is one of the more seismic scoops in campaign history.

All of which makes it hard not to ask, what if? What if the press had held Trump accountable on this topic in 2016. Instead, Trump got away with hiding his tax returns and thumbing his nose at transparency, while the press held his Democratic opponent to a higher standard. 

A quick 2016 review:

• No nominee for president in 40 years had refused to release his or her tax returns.

• Trump’s claim that he couldn't release his taxes because he was being audited had been debunked, many times over.

• The same press corps that had largely given Trump a pass on his taxes was simultaneously creating a new transparency standard and hounding Hillary Clinton about releasing transcripts to paid speeches she’s given.

During the entire campaign, Trump was able to play a cat and mouse game with an often-uninterested press corps:

LESTER HOLT: But there`s nothing in these returns you think that might make your supporters raise an eyebrow?

TRUMP: No, nothing…

HOLT: Donald Trump, that`s all the time we have. Thank you so much for your time.

TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, Lester.

HOLT: Good talking to you and congratulations.

TRUMP: Thank you.

Keep in mind, Trump's entire presidential campaign was built around the myth of him being uber-wealthy and uber-successful. It was built around the premise that because he was able to amass a $10 billion empire, he’d be able to “Make America Great Again.” But if you subtracted the $10 billion empire part of the equation, where would that have left  Trump’s campaign pitch four years ago?

Now we know the ugly truth. And cries of "fake news" aren't going to change that.

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