The surprise about the big New York Times story on 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 and worthwhile norm, reneged on his promise to release his returns during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Story Continued Below
Pieces were written urging some brave whistleblower to come forward with them. Rachel Maddow excitedly broadcast leaked (and not particularly shocking) returns from 2005, presumed to be a mere appetizer. Democrats counted as one of the advantages of taking the House that they could use an obscure law to demand the returns. Indeed, the dispute resulting from the administration’s refusal to turn them over is probably headed to the Supreme Court.
All the while, the expectation, or at least the suspicion, is that the returns contained some awful secret, perhaps evidence that he is a tool of the Russians.
And here, the Times has obtained Trump’s tax information spanning a decade from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and the revelation is that he wasn’t doing as well as he said in public, lost a boatload of money in a period that nearly destroyed him, and made aggressive use of any tax advantage available to him.
In other words, exactly what anyone paying any attention, and not beholden to perfervid conspiracy theories, would have expected.
Yes, the amount of the reported loss, $1.17 billion is remarkable (although as Josh Barro of New York magazine points out, is surely inflated for tax purposes). Some of the details, especially Trump reporting a bigger loss than nearly any other taxpayer in this period, are memorable.
Surely, Trump doesn’t like having all the particulars extensively on the record and publicly 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, true to form, he may have exaggerated, saying on the program that he was “billions of dollars” in debt. He made his recovery part of his legend, writing a book called “The Art of the Comeback.”
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 would make him “smart,” and his taxes would be “squandered” anyway.
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 that we are one investigation, tax return, or subpoena away from the revelation that will finally bell the cat and bring Trump down — or even make a difference — is almost certainly forlorn. What would be devastating material against anyone else loses all shock value.
Certainly, it was news that he had paid off a porn star and a former Playmate 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 interference in the 2016 election was out in the open — the Trump campaign was happy to derive any possible advantage from the WikiLeaks disclosures, and Trump did all he could to deny the obvious Russian involvement.
We didn’t need a 400-page special counsel report to apprise us of that.
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 unrecuse. 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 Robert Mueller did, but it’s hard to find a game-changer.
None of this is to defend or excuse Trump’s business practices and accounting, 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.