Donald Trump and his associates have spent much of the past year deflecting questions about Trump’s stubborn refusal to release his taxes. What is Trump hiding? Embarrassing business relationships in Russia or elsewhere? Debts that might indicate conflicts of interest? Or maybe this billionaire’s tax payments have been embarrassingly meager. Or maybe Trump’s fortune – like his inaugural crowd and his stubby hands – isn’t nearly as big as he’d like us to believe.
So, when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow announced on Tuesday that "we’ve got Donald Trump’s tax returns," and that she would share them on Tuesday’s edition of The Rachel Maddow Show, the buzz among eager left-wingers was deafening. Finally, the truth about Trump would be revealed.
After an excruciatingly long set up, Ms. Maddow (and her guest, the journalist David Cay Johnston) shared two pages of Donald Trump’s 2005 federal tax return. These two pages, it turns out, are not very revealing. The return includes nothing especially incriminating and it indicates that, in 2005, Trump paid $35.5 million in taxes on $152.7 million in income — roughly a 24% tax rate. (You’ll recall that Mitt Romney took a political hit when his long-awaited tax returns revealed that he paid just 14% of his income in federal taxes in 2011.) One could almost hear the sighs of disappointment across social media.
These two pages were sent anonymously to Mr. Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who has written extensively on the ways in which rich people avoid taxes (most notably in his terrific book, Perfectly Legal.)
So, what’s going on? I strongly suspect that these two pages were sent to Mr. Johnston by someone in the Trump camp. Why? I am dead sure that, most years, Trump pays virtually no tax, and I strongly suspect that his unabridged tax returns would reveal all sorts of things Trump doesn’t want us to know. In 2005—for whatever reason—he paid taxes at a rate that, while appallingly low, is way higher than anyone expected. So, this cherry-picked morsel of tax info seems to suggest that, maybe, regarding Trump’s taxes there has been much ado about little. (This is like someone anonymously sending to a journalist one of George W. Bush’s college papers, a paper on which W happened to earn a B+; or someone sharing a short video of Rick Perry in which he does not say something idiotic. In each of these cases, the implication is deceptive.)
The next step: Trump’s people will complain that the revelation of Trump’s tax return is an appalling invasion by the spiteful anti-Trump media—aided and abetted, once again, by criminal leakers. Even still, they will assert, these two (improperly obtained) pages "show" that Trump (a) is, indeed, a very rich guy ($150 million in income!) and (b) pays his taxes. All of the speculation to the contrary? Fake news!! And Team Trump will act dismayed and morally outraged whenever they’re asked about Trump’s taxes.
Indeed, they’ve already started. The White House has declared that the revelation of these two pages by the "dishonest media" is "illegal." Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: "Thank you Rachel Maddow for proving to your #Trump hating followers how successful @realDonaldTrump is & that he paid $40mm in taxes!"
Leakers? Pay no attention to that orange man behind the curtain!
When and if we actually see Donald Trump’s tax history, it will inevitably show that he has been dodging taxes brilliantly and scandalously for his entire life—except, for some reason, in 2005. And I suspect that we will learn that he is not as rich as his $150 million income in 2005 suggests.