Mystery surrounds leak of Trump tax returns

Speculation is swirling about who might have leaked President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE’s 2005 tax returns to MSNBC following the network’s surprise report on Tuesday night.

Trump has closely guarded his personal financial information, breaking decades of precedent by refusing to release any of his tax returns while he was running for president.

Democrats have long clamored for the release of the tax returns, suspecting they could provide evidence that Trump has business ties to Russia or other conflicts of interest abroad. 

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Yet for Trump’s political opponents, the release of the first two pages of the 2005 form, known as Form 1040, were a letdown. The document shows Trump paid roughly $38 million in taxes on $150 million in income in 2005 and paid an effective tax rate of 24.5 percent.

Absent any scandalous revelations, the focus quickly turned to the origins of the tax returns and how they found their way to the public seven weeks into Trump’s presidency.

Trump in an interview of Fox News Channel's "Tucker Carlson Tonight" said he had "no idea" where the leak came from.

“I have no idea where they got it, but it’s illegal, and they’re not supposed to have it, and its not supposed to be leaked, and it’s certainly not an embarrassing tax return at all — but it’s an illegal thing. They’ve been doing it, they’ve done it before, and I think it’s a disgrace."

His supporters have seized on the release as further evidence that “deep state” bureaucrats are out to undermine him through leaks from inside the federal government. 

Democrats and some in the media have suggested Trump leaked the documents himself to distract from an intraparty feud over healthcare that is gripping Washington.

The reporter who obtained the tax returns, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author of “The Making of Donald Trump,” speculated on Rachel Maddow’s show Tuesday night that Trump may have been responsible for the documents ending up in his mailbox.

Other reporters have highlighted how the returns are stamped with the words “Client Copy” and that Trump has a history of pitching and leaking favorable stories about himself to the press.

“This one tax return is not bad for him because he cherry picked one return from over a decade ago and had it leaked to the press,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted Wednesday morning. “The Trump camp released one positive tax return to distract from Russia hearings and the Trumpcare meltdown. That's painfully obvious.”

Others in the media were quick to run with that theory.

Adding to the intrigue, the Trump administration pre-empted Maddow by sending out a statement ahead of her broadcast stating that the president had reported $150 million in income and paid $38 million in taxes in 2005. 

The White House said Trump claimed a $103 million deduction and paid $5.3 million in federal income tax. The rest came mostly as an alternative minimum tax payment, which was originally created to help prevent tax avoidance by wealthy filers.

"Before being elected President, Mr. Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required," the White House said.

The White House release contradicted Trump’s repeated pledges not to provide tax information due to an IRS audit. 

But in a statement, the White House pushed back furiously at the notion it had anything to do with the leaked documents, saying that that it is “totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns” and that MSNBC must be “desperate for ratings” for being “willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago.”

Trump took to Twitter to insinuate that the reporter, Johnston, was lying about how he obtained the documents.

Trump’s allies have been angered by what they view an illegal effort to obtain sensitive information about the administration through leaks and other nefarious means. 

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has taken heat for going on Twitter earlier this month to publicly request IRS agents mail him copies of Trump’s tax returns.

On Tuesday night, the president’s allies in conservative media backed his point, with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity calling the release “more evidence of Obama deep state shadow government holdover saboteurs” seeking to undermine Trump.

“It's a clear and present danger that has emerged, and it’s threatening our democracy and the will of the people,” Hannity said. “Because we have people in our government today who are committing felonies now on a weekly basis. These saboteurs, they’re trying to prevent the president from doing the job that you, the American people, elected him to do.”

Scores of individuals who have done business with Trump have had access to his tax returns at some point, dramatically widening the field of potential leakers.

The Associated Press has reported that there are dozens of instances where Trump has turned over multiple years worth of tax returns to engage in business deals, to request a loan, or to comply with court orders.

Those who have received the returns are legally barred from talking about them but could potentially get away with anonymously mailing copies to reporters 

Meanwhile, conservatives have sought to turn the controversy into a positive for Trump.

The influential conservative media outlet Drudge Report was quick to praise Trump, highlighting how his tax rate compared to those paid by NBC, former President Obama and Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs order removing environmental reviews for major projects | New Trump air rule will limit future pollution regulations, critics say | DNC climate group calls for larger federal investment on climate than Biden plan Google: Chinese and Iranian hackers targeting Biden, Trump campaigns MORE (I). 

The Drudge Report posted a banner headline that said “Ides of Maddow” and linked to an article at liberal website Slate that called Tuesday’s episode a “cynical, self-defeating spectacle.”

There was almost uniform sentiment among the media that Maddow’s show had been a flop.

Her initial tweet about having obtained Trump’s tax returns provoked breathless speculation from Democrats that the MSNBC anchor might have come into information that could take the president down.

By the end of then night, liberals were despondent, saying that instead, Maddow may have improved Trump’s political standing.