The Media Today

The Times drops the mother lode on Trump’s taxes

September 28, 2020

Yesterday, the New York Times reporters Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire—and if you recognize the byline you’ll know where this sentence is headed—published a mammoth story based on recent tax returns that President Trump filed with the Internal Revenue Service, records that the Times obtained from sources with “legal access.” The paper reported that Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017—even less than Richard Nixon paid in 1970, when the public uproar was such that it set the precedent for presidential candidates (though not Trump) to publish their returns. In ten of the fifteen years prior to 2016, Trump paid no federal income tax at all, a result, in large part, of his persistent business losses. There are many other details in the story—from Trump’s ongoing IRS audit to his nearly-due debts to his conflicts of interest abroad—and, tantalizingly, the Times says there are more to come. That could mean an October surprise, which yesterday’s story technically wasn’t. Somehow, it’s still only September.

As my Columbia colleague Emily Bell pointed out last night, as well as not landing in October, the Times’s story was not exactly surprising. Its topline conclusion—that “ultimately, Mr. Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life”—is well-known, thanks, in no small part, to the past work of Buettner and Craig; last year, after they reported on Trump’s tax returns from 1985 to 1994 (during which period his businesses reported more than $1 billion in losses), I wrote that more recent records would surely come to light soon, and that when they did, the Times, rather than Congressional Democrats, would likely be responsible. (It should be noted that the story isn’t yet totally up-to-date: the trove that the Times just obtained does not include Trump’s personal returns for 2018 or 2019.) Still, as Bell also noted, the Times’s latest story paints “a comprehensively damning (and constitutionally dangerous) picture”—shining an important, if not shocking, light on a subject of enduring fascination that’s been at the heart of Congressional wrangling, court fights, and years of TV punditry. Given the byzantine complexity of tax reporting, the Times deserves credit, too, for the clarity of its presentation—as BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac noted, the story is “thorough and dense for those looking to parse details, but there’s one punchline detail that folks will remember for a long time: $750.”

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Clarity—backed up by meticulous detail—matters immensely in an information ecosystem defined by murk and mistrust. At a news conference yesterday, Trump—after dwelling for a while on murk past (Hunter Biden, the “impeachment hoax”) and present (his disinformation campaign around mail-in voting)—sought to weaponize those dark forces against the Times’s story, characterizing it as “fake news” and a predictable mainstream-media smear. Right-wing media figures funneled his cocktail of denial and deflection, including by seizing on the Times’s reporting, high up in its story, that Trump’s returns do not reveal “any previously unreported connections to Russia.” (This, of course, is not a vindication: as the story notes further down, the records mostly lack the specificity that’d be needed to elucidate the Trump-Russia nexus.)

Many right-wingers argued simply that the Times’s reporting won’t change many votes come November, in light of the entrenched polarization in the country. Many Trump supporters “are locked in the Fox bubble where this will be handled with kid gloves,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote, explaining the dynamic, “and they have been conditioned to believe that [the] NYT is an arm of the Democratic machine.” It’s tempting to conclude that Trump likely won’t face consequences for his tax avoidance; his evasion of accountability has been a defining story of his political career, including when it comes to his finances. In October 2016, Buettner, Craig, David Barstow, and Megan Twohey reported scandalous details from Trump’s 1995 state tax returns, three pages of which were anonymously mailed to Craig. We all know what happened next.

We should resist such cynicism, though. For starters, we have no idea what electoral impact the Times’s latest story may have, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do. Secondly, the electoral impact is beside the point: the story matters immensely for the historical record. As Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote in 2018, on the heels of another Buettner, Craig, and Barstow blockbuster that would go on to win a Pulitzer, such reporting is useful because it “transcends the headlines of the day, focusing on an elemental, fundamental aspect” of Trump and his presidency. “It is an example of journalism as long game,” Pope wrote, “a sport that more of us need to be playing.” His observations feel, if anything, even more resonant today—at a moment when “the headlines of the day” come so thick and fast that perspective gets drowned out, and “journalism as long game” may as well mean trying to remember stuff that happened last week.

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Below, more on the Times’s story:

  • The stakes?: While the electoral impact of the Times’s story may be secondary, it is, in one key respect, urgently pegged to the election. In recent days and weeks, Trump has threatened openly and repeatedly not to accept the result if he doesn’t like it. In evaluating those threats, it’s useful—as ever with Trump—to follow the money. Yesterday, Michael R. Bromwich, a former inspector general at the Justice Department, argued, based on the Times’s story, that, should Trump lose, “he faces federal and state prosecution for bank fraud, tax fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud, as does his entire family,” and will no longer be protected by the architecture of the state. Watch this space. 
  • Hold the front page: The tax story consumes more than half of the front page of today’s print edition of the Times (under a full-width, two-line banner headline) and continues for several pages inside. Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, wrote a note to accompany the story, explaining that the Times won’t be releasing the tax records themselves in order to protect the anonymity of its sources, and defending the decision to publish. “Some will raise questions about publishing the president’s personal tax information,” Baquet wrote. “But the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment allows the press to publish newsworthy information that was legally obtained by reporters even when those in power fight to keep it hidden.”
  • Further listening: In April 2019, Pope sat down with Craig, who’d just been awarded a Pulitzer for her 2018 reporting on Trump’s finances, for an episode of CJR’s podcast, The Kicker. (Pope and Craig previously worked together at the Wall Street Journal.) Pope asked Craig about criticisms of that story coming from both the right and the left, including that the Times delayed publication. (It didn’t). “It took us forever to do the story,” Craig said. “I’m not sure, no matter when we ran it, it would have got much more oxygen.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.