by: Kevin W
Last night, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC tweeted the following, kicking off a series of events that ultimately helped Donald Trump’s image:
BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC.
— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) March 14, 2017
As someone who has already written about click bait, Maddow’s tweet set off some warning bells. If Maddow was about to release some bombshell report, why wait hours to air it? Wouldn’t a story like that at least warrant a breaking news interruption? Despite my better judgement, I tuned in to find out.
The first twenty minutes of her show were dedicated to recapping the reasons why presidents in the past have released their tax returns (short answer: to eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest) and discussing Trump’s real estate dealings in the early aughts. Understandably, the Twittersphere began to lose its patience waiting for Maddow to get to the promised story. Viewers were even forced to sit through a commercial break before getting down to brass tacks. I had no problem with the wait- it’s Maddow’s show, after all; she’s free to stretch the segment out as she pleases. The problem was, when she finally got to discussing the 2005 returns, there just wasn’t much there to justify the build up.
In the end, it was revealed that Maddow had obtained two pages of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return by way of a former New York Times reporter, David Cay Johnston, and discussed the document live on air.
So what did we learn from these two pages?
- Trump reported earning of around $153 million in 2005.
- Trump paid $38 million in income taxes in 2005, $31 million of which was paid under the alternative minimum tax.
- Trump wrote off $100 million in business losses in 2005.
What didn’t we learn?
Any specific details about Trump’s business dealings. The two pages Maddow released amount to a simple overview of Trump’s income tax return from a single year. They do not reveal any information on where his income came from, what specific deductions were claimed, or what, if any, charitable donations were made. These important pieces of information are still a mystery from not only 2005, but every year since due to Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns in their entirety.
All of this begs the question, why bother releasing those two pages at all? The White House responded to Maddow’s original tweet by preemptively releasing the same two pages and calling Maddow’s actions a ratings grab. If they were serious about discrediting the story, though, the White House should have gone a step further and released the 1040 in its entirety. If Trump released his tax returns and they revealed nothing but the ordinary transactions of a multinational businessman, then great, everyone can move on with their lives. His unwillingness to do so, however, only fuels speculation that he has something to hide. If all of his tax returns painted him as favorable as his 2005 return, then it would be in his best interest to release them all immediately.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Trump’s 2005 tax return could portray him in a better light than other years. In other words, while he may have paid income taxes in 2005, it doesn’t guarantee he did any year afterwards; without his returns, we can never know.
While Rachel Maddow may have gained a ratings boost with her report, she also handed Trump an easy win in the court of public opinion. Trump and the White House get to spin the story as proof he paid income taxes and that the “main stream media” is out to get him. In fact, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. jumped at the chance before Maddow’s show even ended:
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 15, 2017
Maddow’s report could be spun so much so in Trump’s favor that almost immediately there were theories that Donald Trump himself leaked the file. Doing so wouldn’t be out of character, since he’s leaked news about himself in the past, plus it plays right into the White House’s use of the news cycle. But the fact is Maddow didn’t have to open up this opportunity at all.
If revealing Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are to be taken as a legitimate concern that requires investigation, then allowing Trump Jr.’s kind of spin is dangerous. Think of his language in the context of the voting public. Yes, Democrats will ignore it and continue to call for Trump to release the rest of his tax returns while the White House and many Republicans will insist that his taxes are a non-issue. But there are also voters out there for whom Trump’s taxes are not a priority. It’s a very real possibility that voters on the fence about the tax issue may now be thinking, “well, he clearly paid taxes, case closed. Let’s stop hearing about this.” If public interest in Trump’s taxes declines, then Rachel Maddow did the public a major disservice in exchange for ratings.
Even worse, these two pages may prove to be a distraction from important issues more than anything else. With the Republicans’ healthcare bill facing resistance from many inside their own party, the tax story seems to be a welcome diversion for the White House. It also takes the focus off both Trump’s accusations of wiretapping by the Obama administration and investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Will the public care and continue to focus on the real stories? Let’s hope so, because buried under two pages of tax returns are bigger questions deserving answers.