What would it take for a story about Donald Trump to be surprising? This is, after all, someone who has, in the past few days alone, refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power in November and demanded that his opponent take a drug test before an upcoming presidential debate. The release of the pee tape, an actual murder on Fifth Avenue—these might raise an eyebrow. But at this point, the most surprising thing Donald Trump could do is not act like Donald Trump—not be a venal cretin for the first time in his life.
On Sunday evening, The New York Times published a bombshell report based on 15 years of the president’s tax returns, documents that he has fought to keep from the public. They reveal that Trump is either one of the greatest failures in the history of American business or one of its greatest frauds—and that he is likely both. He has paid almost nothing in taxes over that period and only $750 the year he became president. He has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on failing businesses. More than $400 million in loans will come due over the next four years, raising the possibility that his creditors could attempt to foreclose on a sitting president. Should he lose the election, he may face prosecution for a host of charges, including tax fraud and money laundering.
It’s damning, but, as the conventional wisdom rang out not long after the piece was published, hardly surprising. We’ve long known that Trump was a phony and a fraud. The Times’ earlier reporting had suggested that Trump hadn’t paid income taxes for several years in the 1980s and ’90s, while his reported net worth is widely considered to be dubious. Even without the facts, it seemed likely that he was hiding his taxes for good reason: In one 2016 presidential debate, Hillary Clinton made the case that Trump’s tax returns likely showed that he was bad at business and deeply dependent on unsavory characters and foreign governments. She was right. His supporters didn’t care.
Trump, the thinking goes, will wriggle out the way he always does, decrying the fake news and boasting, as he did in 2016, that cheating on his taxes proves that he’s a good businessman.
But the presumption that Trump will remain Teflon drastically undersells the content of the Times report. The deep cynicism that has set in about Trump and the American electorate—that nothing he does is surprising, that no revelations about his conduct and character will damage him—is misguided. The Times report is not only incriminating in a way that could have profound consequences for the election but is also the latest contribution to a mass of evidence that will weigh heavily on Trump’s chances.
Much of the hand-wringing about the Times report has focused on its potential impact on Trump’s base and right-wing media. Fox News has covered the disclosures about Trump’s finances in predictable fashion, highlighting the president’s denials and attacks on the paper’s reporting. Trump’s allies in both the media and in Congress have also seized on another narrative, that the returns do not reveal the kinds of financial ties to Russia that many speculated would explain the president’s chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin—as if the president would declare an illegal foreign income stream on his tax returns.
Then there’s the base. Since Trump declared his candidacy more than five years ago, people have been searching for the revelation that will break the intense loyalty that tens of millions of people have for the president. So far, any number of damning stories that one would expect to affect conservative voters—Stormy Daniels, Trump’s denigration of soldiers who died in the line of duty, his manifest disdain for any kind of religious feeling—have failed to make a dent. And there is little reason to believe that the tax story will be thing to break the fever. In 2016, Trump dismissed questions about his failure to pay taxes by claiming that he would use his cheating expertise to unrig the system. It would not be surprising to hear him make a similar case in Tuesday’s debate.
But there are many voters out there who are not loyal Democrats and do not belong to the president’s base. The con artistry revealed in the Times report is particularly effective in reaching these voters. Trump maintains a polling advantage over Joe Biden on the question of who voters believe would better handle the economy. Trump’s tax returns reveal a businessman adept only at losing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. He might literally be the worst businessman in America; as the Times notes, in some years, “Trump lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.” It got so bad, and Trump got so desperate, that he may have run for president just “to shore up his disastrous financial situation.”
One could argue, moreover, that stories about Trump’s fecklessness and incompetence have been effective. The president’s base may stick with him through thick and thin, but he remains historically unpopular. The desire for a silver bullet that ends the madness is understandable but also unlikely in a hyperpartisan electorate. Instead, stories like the Times report serve as perpetual reminders of Trump’s many failings as a businessman, a president, and a person—a drip, drip, drip that will likely weigh on voters come November. The $750 number, in particular, underlines exactly what Trump is all about. It’s yet another instance of a notorious skinflint at work—no need to dish out four figures to the IRS.
It’s worth noting that Trump himself finds the story to be damaging and embarrassing—there is a reason why he has fought every effort to force him to release any information that reveals the true state of his finances. The Times report shows conclusively that he has the opposite of a Midas touch, that he’s perpetually in the red and has less than $1 million in securities to sell. While many have pointed out, correctly, that Trump’s tax evasion points to systemic problems with the American tax system, his cheating and financial losses are extraordinary, an order of magnitude greater than the norm. His biggest accomplishment as president is to make the tax code even more unfair—and more advantageous to him personally.
In 2016, the Democrats lost in part because Clinton was seen as being just as corrupt as the president. No one can possibly think the same of Biden, with this report reinforcing his “Scranton vs. Park Avenue” theme. That $750 in taxes is not going away anytime soon, and the Times has indicated that there are also more scoops to come.
Is any of this surprising? Maybe not. But it’s outrageous all the same.