The Memo: Tax story hits Trump at a bad time
Revelations about President Trump’s taxes have come at the wrong time for him, creating a negative storyline going into the first debate and burning more time off the clock before Election Day.
Trump has been struggling for traction against his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who has led him throughout the race in most opinion polls. The president needs something to change the trajectory of the contest, but the new tax revelations have now stomped all over Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of conservatives.
Trump’s base is famously resilient, and experts across the political spectrum acknowledge that it is unlikely they will be swayed by the revelations made by The New York Times.
In an explosive story published Sunday, the newspaper detailed how Trump has paid extremely low income taxes for years, including just $750 in both 2016 and 2017. The report also outlined widespread losses in some of Trump’s businesses, questionable write-offs in tax filings and considerable debts, some of which will come due next year.
The resilience of Trump’s base is in some ways beside the point. The president is behind Biden by almost 7 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average and has not exceeded 45 percent support in the most recent eight polls collated by that website.
Unless the polls are completely wrong — which they could be — merely holding on to his existing levels of support is no use for Trump. He needs to expand that support, and the details regarding his tax filings seem sure to thwart that goal, at least for the moment.
Trump has responded in typically pugilistic fashion to the reporting. He hit out as usual at the “Fake News Media” and said that his low tax bill was because he was “entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits.” In fact, the Times story addressed those issues.
The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., told “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning “people don’t understand what goes into a business” and complained that the Times story “doesn’t include property taxes, it doesn’t include payroll taxes, it doesn’t include real estate taxes. It doesn’t include so many of the things that he has been paying taxes on forever.”
Be that as it may, it is tough to square the president’s own image as a successful businessman with records that show him losing more than $300 million just on his golf courses since 2000.
Democrats contend that the divergence between Trump’s image and the reality revealed by the tax records could be a significant problem for him.
“The idea that Donald Trump is some sort of genius in terms of capitalism and economics — this blows a big hole in that,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina. “He is a failure as a businessman. He built a house of cards, and he has done the same thing to the country. The image of a successful businessman is, I think, decimated now.”
Harpootlian, who serves on Biden’s finance committee but made clear he was not speaking on behalf of the campaign, did acknowledge, however, that “we are talking about a very small group of people in the battleground states” who may remain undecided about which candidate to back in the election.
Independent observers broadly agreed that the story would have an impact — but not necessarily a dramatic one.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, noted that the new details created an “unfavorable picture” for Trump. But, he added, “I’m not convinced it is a turning point of turning points. There have been a lot of ‘turning points’ that have turned out not to be that. The electorate is pretty polarized.”
To be sure, there are plenty of Trump supporters who might see his low tax bill as a kind of business prowess and will continue to believe in the story of stellar business success that the president tells about himself.
But the taxes story, including the loans that must soon be repaid, is almost guaranteed to be a topic on Tuesday night’s debate. The first presidential debate is typically the most watched encounter, and Trump needs to seize the moment in order to reshape the race.
That goal is now more difficult to attain. The president is also beset by persistently low poll ratings for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as controversy last week over his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Biden in November.
Trump could pull a surprise of his own at Tuesday night’s debate. The president’s penchant for controversy could soon eclipse the story of his taxes.
But, for now, his campaign has suffered one more blow when it needs to be landing punches instead.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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