The surprise about the big New York Times story on President Donald Trump’s tax returns is that there are no real surprises.
Trump’s taxes have been an obsession of the left since he, in violation of a long-standing norm, reneged on his promise to release his returns during the 2016 campaign. Pieces were written urging some brave whistleblower to come forward with them, and Democrats counted as one of the advantages of taking the House that they could demand Trump’s returns.
The dispute resulting from the administration’s refusal to turn them over is now probably headed to the Supreme Court. All the while, the expectation, or at least the suspicion, was the returns contained some awful secret, perhaps evidence he is a tool of the Russians.
And here, The New York Times has obtained Trump’s tax information spanning a decade from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and the revelation is he wasn’t doing as well as he said in public and lost a boatload of money in a period that nearly destroyed him. In other words, exactly what anyone paying any attention would have expected.
Yes, the amount of the reported loss, $1.17 billion, is remarkable – although inflated for tax purposes – and some of the details memorable. Trump doesn’t like having all the particulars on the record to be discussed and mocked, but can anyone say that they are surprised? Trump himself, the Washington Examiner notes, talked about his precarious financial state in this period on the first episode of “The Apprentice.” In fact, he may have exaggerated, saying he had been “billions of dollars” in debt. As for Trump’s use of tax loopholes, he said in a debate with Hillary Clinton that if he didn’t owe any tax liability, that made him “smart.”
There really are no Trump mysteries. His flaws aren’t hidden away. He often attests to them himself, or demonstrates them publicly. For someone who cares so much about his image, and so assiduously crafts it, he’s a relative open book. No blockbuster report has more than a passing effect because each dispatch is, ultimately, another dot in a pointillist portrait of the president that was largely completed long ago.
This is also why the hope we are one investigation, tax return or subpoena away from the revelation that will finally bring Trump down – or even make a difference – is almost certainly forlorn. Obviously, it was news he had paid off a porn star during the presidential campaign and highly embarrassing. This is why Trump denied it for so long. But he’d already told us about his womanizing in his own words, often on “The Howard Stern Show.”
Likewise, the most blameworthy conduct regarding Russia’s election interference in 2016 was out in the open. The Trump campaign was happy to derive any possible advantage from the WikiLeaks disclosures, and Trump tried to deny the obvious Russian involvement. We didn’t need a 400-page special counsel report to break this news. Even some of Trump’s alleged obstruction, which you’d expect to involve back-channel scheming – and there was certainly that – was out in the open. He pressured Jeff Sessions in public to un-recuse. He publicly called Michael Cohen a rat. He told Lester Holt on a TV news broadcast that he fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation – specifically that it didn’t have anything to do with him. And he’s made no secret that he yearns for an attorney general who will protect him. You can add lurid details to this basic picture, and Mueller did, but it’s hard to find a game-changer.
None of this is to defend or excuse Trump’s business practices or his conduct in office. It is merely to say that he’s an extravagantly known quantity and will likely win or lose in 2020 based on what we already know, rather than the fruits of further investigation and fact-finding.
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