October Surprise: As Trump Tax Controversy Erupts, Will It Matter?

Posted: Oct 03, 2016 10:26 AM

Matt ran through the basics over the weekend, so go read his post to get a sense of what the New York Times reported on Saturday evening. In short, Donald Trump appears to have lost more than $900 million in 1995, and may have used the resulting write-offs to avoid paying personal income taxes for the better part of two decades. I say "may" because the Times openly speculates in its own story, using the phrase "could have" in its lead paragraph. Is this a scandal? And will any of it move voters? A few thoughts:

(1) As long as the US tax code remains a byzantine maze of carve-outs and special deals, rich and powerful individuals and corporations (who can afford to hire talented practitioners to navigate the system) will always have an advantage. If Trump used existing law to his advantage, that's hardly outrageous. Various Trump surrogates referring to his legal tax avoidance as Churchillian genius are going way overboard with their hyperbole, of course -- and that sort of analysis only invites the counterpoint that if his tax moves have been so brilliant, let's see all of them. But exploiting the laws on the books to minimum one's tax liability is common sense. On the merits, I find this kerfuffle less significant or telling than, say, various reports regarding Trump's "charitable" foundation.

(2) If Trump had followed through on his promise to release his tax documents, all of this could have litigated and re-litigated long ago. Some frustrated right-leaning Trump opponents are now faulting the party for not applying enormous pressure to force Trump to comply during the primary, so that GOP voters could have gotten a sense of what the media and Democrats might drop on him in the final stretch of a general election. I agree with the pro-transparency, kick-the-tires premise of this argument, but there is nothing about the 2016 Republican primary process that leads me to believe that this decades-old tax-related revelation would have dented Trump's chances very substantially, or maybe at all. Nevertheless, Trump reneged on his pledge (offering a nonsense excuse), allowing Hillary Clinton to speculate in front of 90 million people about what might be lurking in those records -- and allowing the New York Times to publish a cherry-picked (see update) story about his financial history.

(3) This seems to be 'nothing matters' cycle, so I'm very reluctant to call this a game-changer, even as the Hillary camp is pouncing hard. It does fuel two potentially potent Democratic narratives, which they'll run concurrently: First, Trump is a bad businessman, losing almost a billion dollars in a single year, and second, he then parlayed his terrible business losses into a self-serving scheme to avoid paying other taxes over many years. That's a one-two punch that may impact some undecided voters.  Truth be told, the biggest impact of the story may be to draw Trump into another weeklong, flailing, defensive frenzy. Moving from the counter-productive Alicia Machado hubbub to an extended debate about Trumps's business losses and (legal) tax avoidance is not helpful to Team Trump. Given what they're facing, this advice from Ben Shapiro is pretty sound:

(4) Trump wisely took the high road when Hillary experienced her health incident last month, smartly wishing her well, and letting the video of her collapse and resulting commentary speak for itself. That's now out the window. At a Pennsylvania rally on Saturday, the Republican nominee attacked the former Secretary of State over stamina, stating that she could barely "make it 15 feet to her car," complete with a derisive reenactment of the 9/11 incident. It's now October.  Under pressure, the "old Trump" has returned:

(5) It's now crystal clear that Americans believe Mrs. Clinton won the first presidential debate. Literally every single scientific poll has reflected that sentiment, most measuring a large margin for Hillary. A new WaPo/ABC News poll points to dominant debate victory, as her favorability advantage over Trump has grown. Fox News' latest survey shows Clinton as the decisive victor from that first forum, detecting a surge for her on both the head-to-head (+5) and four-way (+3) ballots. One metric on which Trump needed to move the needle was the temperament question. At Hofstra, before a record audience, he whiffed:

If he's still lashing out and tussling on unfavorable terrain by the St. Louis meeting, that will be a very bad sign.  In the meantime, can Trump do anything to shift the national discussion? Mimicking Hillary falling into her van isn't going to cut it. But is this tweet from an infamously bare-knuckled Trump ally a preview of coming attractions, or a head fake. The Clinton campaign may be holding its breath for the next few days. Hmmmmmm:

UPDATE - It sounds like this may not be over:

Also, an intriguing detail -- the Times says it appears as though the tax documents upon which they're basing their reporting (and the authenticity of which Trump's campaign has not disputed) was anonymously mailed from Trump Tower. Is that return address a prank, or is there a saboteur in Trump's ranks?