The New York Times released a blockbuster report this week about the information contained in the tax records President Donald Trump has long tried to keep hidden from the public. It will be tempting for pundits and reporters to demonstrate their savvy by arguing that this development doesn't really tell us anything new about Trump, and that voters won't care anyway. But this would be wrong. The story is a big deal. It may well change the course of the election, and assuming voters don't care about the most powerful man in the world being corrupt, self-dealing, and incompetent can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The idea that nothing in the returns could be damaging to Trump given what we know already has one obvious flaw: If there was no important negative information in them, why was he the first major party candidate since Richard Nixon not to release his tax returns, and why has he invested an enormous amount of time and money to keep anyone from seeing them once he was elected? Indeed, the Times story is incredibly damning.
It's true that the effective rate on the richest people in America is far too low — a problem Trump's tax cut bill made significantly worse. But it's simply not true that the amount of taxes Trump has paid are typical of the very richest people in society. Trump's $750 annual tax bill in his first two years as president is far, far lower than the roughly 24 percent the .001 percent were paying during the relevant years. (For perspective, $750 is the kind of tax levy that would be owed by a family of four making $53,450 a year, or a single adult with no children making $17,900 a year.) These extraordinarily low tax rates are the product of some combination of illegality and staggering incompetence.
Trump's low rates are hardly the only disturbing revelation in the story. He has $400 million in loans that would come due during what would be his second term as president if he wins re-election — an intolerable potential for conflicts of interest. And the story also reveals that he has stiffed his creditors to the tune of $287 million in "forgiven" loans — and then used various tricks to avoid paying taxes on that money. America's tax code needs serious reforms to make it more equitable, but none of this is at all normal or acceptable.
Nor is the assumption that these stories won't matter with voters particularly well-founded. It is of course true that the story won't matter with Trump's hardcore base — but that is beside the point. All presidential candidates, even the losers in the biggest landslides, deliver their party's base voters; that's what makes them base voters. Trump needs voters who aren't his base, and while the number of undecided swing voters is relatively small, they're outsize in importance.
The assumption that the story won't matter is particularly strange when you remember that the outcome of the 2016 election was almost certainly changed by James Comey's decision to announce the temporary re-opening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email management practices. This is not, as Nate Silver observed in his deep dive into the subject, because it changed the minds of a particularly large number of voters, but because the extra point or two Trump gained from the late tsunami of negative coverage about Clinton made a big difference to the outcome of an election decided by 80,000 votes in three states. (And in an election that close, many other relatively small events and decisions that can't be as easily measured could have altered the outcome.)
If a story about Hillary Clinton's email server management could change an election's outcome, why not a story showing Trump is a fraud as both a businessman and a taxpayer? And it's worth noting that Trump winning or losing isn't the only question. The margin of victory matters — for close Senate races, for the possibility that the Electoral College will malfunction and award the election to the popular vote loser, for the possibility that the outcome becomes disputed in the courts. Every point of national popular vote share is a big deal. It doesn't take all that many voters changing their minds about who to vote for (or whether to vote at all) to make a difference.
And it is also worth noting that a story's impact involves the discretion of the media itself. Email server security is an issue that has never been relevant to voters before or after 2016 — the story mattered because of the (vastly disproportionate) scale of coverage it received. Editors, reporters, and other political writers shouldn't try to project themselves onto imaginary voters; they should give this story the extensive coverage it merits, and it's up to the public to decide how to weigh it.
And finally, it is incumbent on Joe Biden's campaign to try to make it matter. While it's normally difficult for campaign messaging to break through, Biden has the golden opportunity of a Tuesday debate that seems to be generating an unusually high level of voter interest. Trump refusing to pay his fair share of taxes can be connected to the policy failures the Biden campaign has been highlighting — most notably, that he passed a massive tax cut for the rich at the same time as he urged the Supreme Court to take health care away from 30 million people. It could gain Biden some critical marginal support to highlight the story as part of his larger narrative about Trump's failures. And whether or not it ultimately affects the election, it's something as many voters as possible should know about.
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