Donald Trump’s taxes: will the $750 revelation matter?

Why a report revealing the president’s tax details might not harm his re-election campaign.

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On Sunday, the New York Times published a story that had been kept from the American people for years: details of Donald Trump’s tax returns. When he ran for office in 2016, the president broke recent tradition by not releasing the returns – to a mixed response from the public. Now, thanks to the Times, we know that in the year he was inaugurated, he paid $750 in federal taxes. It may sound like a paltry sum for an individual who has built his reputation on an ability to create wealth. But will it make a difference to his 2020 re-election campaign?

There are all sorts of shocking revelations in the report by the Times, which has promised more stories are on the way. We know from the first article that Trump, for 11 of the 18 years that the paper examined, paid no federal income taxes. We learn that Trump did this by claiming losses on his signature businesses, such as his golf clubs, and claiming tax deductions on things like hairstyling. And we now know Trump keeps it in the family: Ivanka Trump received “consulting fees” for her work for the Trump Organization, which in turn helped reduce the family’s tax bill. We also discover how many millions the president’s businesses made while he was in office: Trump received $3m from projects in the Philippines and $2.3m from India in his first two years in the White House.

The story was hailed – rightly – as a major coup for the Times. The president’s dismissal of the story as “fake news” rang hollow, and the fact the news broke so close to the election gave reason, to his detractors, to hope that this might damage his electability. Most people pay more in taxes than Trump, and so might resent that he paid less in federal taxes than I pay for one month of rent.

But the president has been the subject of multiple scandals and they have not yet seemed to impact his hold on power. Before the last election, more than a dozen women came forward with accusations of inappropriate behaviour, including allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and it did not prevent his election. He was impeached over allegations that he improperly put pressure on the president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into a political rival, but was cleared of wrongdoing. Members of his administration participated in the Republican National Convention in defiance of ethics laws.

None of those things seemed to matter. And the additional trouble with this particular scandal is that the public knew much of it already. We knew that Trump was an unimpressive businessman and that The Apprentice resurrected his career, making him seem better in the boardroom than he was. We knew his history as a businessman involved failure after failure. We knew that he refused to pay what he was supposed to. We knew his family was enriching itself during his administration. 

What we didn’t know was that Trump paid $750 in federal tax returns in 2017. That’s a shocking number and a shocking reality. I just don’t know if it’s enough to shock people into thinking differently about Trump than they did before.

The people who are appalled at this revelation will likely fit it into their vision of the president as a conman who failed at business and is now failing the country. Or maybe they will think that, yes, it’s bad the president didn’t pay taxes, but what's worse is a system that allowed him to do so (this is both true and untrue: if what Trump did was decidedly above board behaviour, would a $72.9m tax refund be under audit, as it is now by the Internal Revenue Service?). And those who think all politicians cheat them, and at least Trump is honest about being a cheater, will likely continue to think that. The people who believe in Trump, and think it’s either fake news or it’s good that he’s able to game the system, will likely remain firm in that belief, too.

None of this is to say that the Times report was pointless. It’s a remarkable piece of journalism that will better inform the public and hold the president to account. That matters for its own sake. Nor is it to say that the reporting will definitely not impact public opinion; it very well might. We are, after all, close to the election, and there is a debate on Tuesday evening at which this will almost certainly come up. Perhaps this will be the thing that gets through to the always unpredictable American voter. 

But around this time next week, four years ago, Donald Trump was caught on tape talking about grabbing women “by the pussy”. A month after that, he was elected president.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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