The Memo: Trump taxes put new spotlight on business record

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE’s record in business is under new scrutiny, undercutting the image of material success that was central to his election in 2016.

Trump reacted angrily on Twitter on Wednesday to a New York Times report the previous evening that outlined massive losses he appears to have incurred as a real estate developer and businessman in the 1980s and 1990s.

He described the story as "a highly inaccurate Fake News hit job," although no specifics were substantively disputed. 

Trump also contended that his large losses were in essence a tactic rather than a reflection of reality. 


"You always wanted to show losses for tax purposes....almost all real estate developers did - and often re-negotiate with banks, it was sport," Trump tweeted.

Trump’s sensitivity to any allegations that he inflates his financial worth has been apparent for years. The current focus on his past business record comes as he hopes to gain political benefits from a strong economic performance overall.

On Wednesday afternoon, leaving the White House for a rally in Florida, the normally voluble president did not take any questions from reporters.

The sheer size of the apparent losses — more than $1.1 billion between 1985 and 1994, according to the tax transcripts reviewed by the Times — is hard to explain away. The story asserted that "year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer."

Even some Trump loyalists expressed concern that the story could tarnish the president’s brand among some of his less committed supporters.

"It goes to the heart of his argument that he is a successful businessman," said one figure in Trump’s orbit, who added that the president was fortunate not to be facing former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBiden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security The secret weapon in Biden's fight against climate change Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE, a billionaire, in his reelection bid.

The Trump ally also argued that the kinds of business maneuvers the president appears to have engaged in served to highlight the gulf between him and the more modest lives of his supporters.

"I know what the president’s answer is going to be — 'Hey, everything I did was legal. Why would I pay more taxes than I have to? But the problem is when you’re a blue-collar guy, a W-2 employee who has a boss, it doesn’t look great when you see a really rich guy who hasn’t paid tax for eight out of 10 years," the Trump ally added.

Some Democrats and progressive seized on the issue.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration In the final chapter of 2020, we must recommit to repairing our democracy MORE (I-Vt.), who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, called Trump a “fraud” on Twitter. 

“Our tax system is rigged in favor of real estate moguls and those who inherit huge fortunes. We are going to make Trump pay his fair share,” Sanders insisted.

Progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBiden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' Ocasio-Cortez defends Harry Styles wearing dress on Vogue cover: 'It looks wonderful' MORE (D-N.Y.) also alluded to the controversy, tying it to the demand from Democrats to see Trump’s full tax returns — a demand that he has gone to great lengths to resist.

Ocasio-Cortez alleged that anyone who had suffered losses on such a scale would be “vulnerable to shady activity to get out of that hole.” She added, “If they became the most powerful public servant in America, wouldn’t you want to see their taxes?”

And Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVoters want a strong economy and leadership, Democrats should listen On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus MORE (D-Calif.) said at a public interview with The Washington Post that the Times story proved it would be “useful to see his tax returns.”

Sanders was the only leading 2020 contender to fully home in on Trump’s taxes. Others spent Wednesday highlighting different issues, including health care, abortion rights and school shootings.

Their stances suggest they believe those issues could resonate more than focusing on Trump’s tax data from decades ago.

For Democrats, there has long been a question of whether it is more effective to campaign under a stark anti-Trump banner or to focus more on proactive policy proposals.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, asserted that the Trump tax story was unlikely to resonate with voters outside of a Washington and New York media bubble.

“Who cares?,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “This has been litigated during the [2016] election. Democrats tried to attack him on this tax stuff, and it didn’t work — he won anyway.”

Feehery added that voters care far more about their own finances than Trump’s — and suggested that these kinds of stories could ultimately strengthen Trump’s bond with his base.

“Voters care more about what they pay in taxes than what Trump pays in taxes,” he said. “The establishment continually attacks Trump, and the result of that is people who are largely anti-establishment like Trump because he is being attacked on all these stupid stories.”

But the latest revelations seem sure to lead to a renewed interest in Trump’s business record. 

Democrats, at least, insist that will help them and hurt him. 

“I saw focus groups of Trump voters in 2016. They thought the fact he was a hugely successful businessman would make him a successful president,” Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, tweeted on Tuesday evening

“The fact he was a loser in business will hurt him. And that is why he’s kept his taxes secret,” she added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.