Donald Trump is playing whack-a-mole with his tax returns, only he’s the mole. Every time his head pops up with a new excuse for not releasing them, it gets whacked down by its own implausibility.
After being allowed to ignore the issue for the early part of the campaign season, he then began claiming his returns were being worked on, but they’re complicated given the gargantuan nature of his enterprise, and difficult to produce. Surely you can understand that; but they’re coming, no problem. This worked until last week. It began to unravel when fellow businessman Mitt Romney pointed out nothing was preventing Trump from releasing earlier years’ returns that were already done.
Hence, the mole’s head popped up with a new, improved version the other night at the debate: Now he’s claiming he can’t release his returns for the last four years, or 12, or 100, because they are being audited by the IRS and the reason they are being audited is because he is a big deal, unlike the other candidates, or, for that matter, you or me, and that’s why you don’t have to worry about whether his returns demonstrate that he is a big deal, because the fact that he is being audited proves it. Get it?
It will be interesting to see what the next excuse is, once it is well-known that nothing about an audit would prevent him from releasing the very returns that are being audited, although all indications are that he has absolutely no intention of taking that route, no matter how hard Romney or anyone else hammers him on it.
When Romney speculated about a possible “bombshell” being the motivation for Trump’s juking and jiving, what followed was classic Trumpian deflection, obfuscation, and word-play, followed by the usual marginally germane ad hominem counter attack: “Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy,” Trump tweeted. Never defend: Attack! Attack! Attack!
Trump, the Straight Talker?
Here’s the transcript of Trump’s response when Anderson Cooper asked him on CNN if he would release his returns:
Cooper: Why not just get them out there?
Trump: Well, because my returns are extremely complex and I’ll make a determination at the right time. I’m in no rush to do it. Nobody’s been bringing it up except Mitt Romney, and the reason he brings it up is that he lost in the last election and lost very badly, so I don’t know why he’s bringing it up. My tax returns are very complicated; I have many, many companies, I have, you know, tremendously, you know I have a very complex system of taxes, and, frankly, I get audited every single year, so, you know, my, unlike everybody else who never gets audited, I get audited every single year, which I think is unfair, but I go through large audits and that’s the way it is. But we’ll make a determination over the next couple of months; it’s very complicated.
Cooper: But point blank, does that mean you absolutely will release them, it’s just a question of when?
Trump: No, I’ll make a determination. I will be making that determine over the, over the next, I would say, couple of months we’ll make that determination, absolutely.
Quite a word salad, no? Bear in mind that this is one day prior to pressure causing him to upgrade his “audit” stratagem from being an inconvenience and annoyance, to some sort of legal barrier handcuffing his actions, however much he might otherwise love to cooperate. It is classic Trumpian obfuscation, deflection, bombast, and obscurantism. He could order his returns to be produced with one phone call, and they could appear within 24 hours or however long it took to find a hand-truck to retrieve them from in whatever closet or storage facility they currently reside.
No Matter What I Do, They’ll Vote for Me
What do you call his trying to make people think otherwise? I guess it’s not quite an outright lie, but, for sure, it’s a manifestation of contempt for his constituency and their willingness swallow whatever ridiculous dodge he chooses to toss their way.
Plus, let’s be clear, he made a firm commitment, which any stand-up guy would do. He is “absolutely” committed to making a decision. I wonder how that would fly with a woman who was told by her beloved that he was absolutely committed… to making a decision… about whether or not he was going to give her a ring. You know, later. He’d be getting a one-way ticket to Tool Academy.
Of course, Trump’s first response, his go-to dance move, is to attack. Why talk about his tax returns? Let’s talk about Romney’s nefarious motivation for asking for them, and the fact that Romney is a loser. This is what he does every single time, about every single issue, and it is just simply astonishing that he is getting away with it.
How come? That’s just one of the things people are starting to wonder about, finally. It may be too late to make a difference, but Trump’s world is beginning to close in on him in a way that Marco Rubio’s attack the other night was starting to reveal, and it’s threatening the Trump mythology on a lot of different fronts all at once.
Trump University Is a Scam
Bob Woodward on “Morning Joe” last Tuesday tried valiantly to get his fellow panelists to stop interrupting him long enough to allow him to make the point that neither they, nor anyone else it seems, want to hear: Donald Trump has simply not been vetted on the personal level, and there are a host of questionable aspects of his background that haven’t been pulled together into a comprehensive picture. Woodword was attempting to highlight, as just one example, the truly alarming implications of something as seemingly corrupt as Trump University.
Nobody’s gone to jail for Trump University (yet), and maybe they’ll find a way to argue there were no actual laws broken, but that doesn’t immunize it from being fairly described as exactly what it was: something anyone even minimally unencumbered by the blinders of an established agenda can recognize as being glaringly, inescapably a fraud. It’s a fraud configured, like pretty much all of them, to hoodwink unsuspecting and often desperate pigeons into coughing up their own dough, or allowing themselves to be used as a warm body to tap into federal (taxpayer) grants and loans, by opportunistic, amoral, and predatory fast operators.
Joe Scarborough’s position, stated and re-stated by talking over Woodward every time he tried to make the point, was that Trump University has been written about over and over, and it “doesn’t stick,” so move on, it doesn’t matter. Watch the exchange here, where Woodward tries to make his argument at 7:22.
The following day, Scarborough once again threw himself on the grenade, proclaiming there was no reason Trump should cave in to demands to release his tax returns, asking in a phrase of Olympian obtuseness, naivete, or sycophancy: “Why are his taxes relevant?”
Trump’s Business Acumen Is His Main Rationale for Winning
Well, here’s one way it’s relevant (there are quite a few): No presidential candidate in the history of the republic has been so completely reliant for his plausibility on one and only one very specific thing (with the possible exception of Dwight David Eisenhower, who won WWII, something Trump, so far, isn’t claiming to have done).
As Jonah Goldberg among others has pointed out, with Trump, it all boils down to this, absolutely nothing more and nothing less: “If I can build a $10 billion company, I can make the country great again.”
Over and over, Trump’s supporters fall back on the notion that, sure, he’s a little rough around the edges, and sure, he’s had to break a few eggs, but he’s built a $10 billion company (or eleven, or twelve, or whatever the number is today), and if he can figure out how to do that, we can rest assured that he can figure out how to build a 1,000-mile-long wall and get somebody else to pay for it, or bring back jobs from China, or let in only the good Muslims and keep out all the bad ones. Whatever.
You don’t need to know how he’s built a $10 billion company, since, for one thing, you and I wouldn’t understand all that arcane stuff, anyway, so he doesn’t think we ought to worry our pretty little heads about it. We just have to know that he did it, because that tells you everything you need to know, or should need to know, in order to have confidence that when he says he’s going to do something, by golly, he’s going to git ‘er done.
Rubio, as one example to the contrary, hasn’t built a $10 billion enterprise, so, unlike Trump, if he wants us to believe he’s going to fix the country, he needs to explain in a plausible way how he’s going to do it, or we’re going to doubt he can.
Why Trump’s Net Worth Matters
What is Trump’s real net worth, and how much does it matter? The answer to the former is that nobody knows, at least not yet, even though Trump touts his Federal Election Commission filings, as if having offered them up means all is known, when, in fact, it’s virtually impossible to decipher the brutally complicated three-dimensional skein of inter-related entities with the blunt-edged FEC financial reporting documents.
Trump most certainly knows this but prefers that you do not, in the same way he goes on about how he is “audited” every year, as if that is supposed to be some kind of imprimatur on what he is claiming, without any evidence at all. But “audit” sounds good and official and tycoon-ish, so it’s safe to move on.
Compared to the FEC filings Trump would have us believe are definitive, but which are most assuredly not, tax returns are something else entirely, infinitely more penetrating. No amount of purposely diversionary rodomontade is going to successfully render them either incomprehensible or irrelevant.
What about the latter? How much do the inner workings of his business and his net worth really matter?
Again, his credibility resides in the notion that he has built a colossal company worth ten or more billions of dollars. But what if he hasn’t? What if he hasn’t built a $10 billion company? What if he has only built an $8 billion company? Does that vaporize his premise, or does it simply change it to: “If I can build an $8 billion company, I can make the country great again”?
What if his worth is $4.5 billion, as Forbes estimates? “If I can build a $4.5 billion company, I can make America great again.” Still true? Suppose it is “Somewhere around $2.9 billion,” as well-schooled analysts at Bloomberg have posited?
What if it’s far, far less than that, and what if that’s one of the main reasons he doesn’t want to release any truly revelatory financial information?
When Does It Mean Donald Trump Is a Scam Artist?
At what point does all this stop being about the number and start being about something else, something far less coruscating, something shaky and uncertain and maybe a little bit ugly? At what point does it become about not telling the truth? At what point does it begin to feel like some kind of swindle? At what point does the dimension of the exaggeration begin to dismantle the architecture of the mythology?
P.T. Barnum was genuinely successful, remarkably so. As such, he was noteworthy and even admirable. But when we know that his impressive and undeniable achievements were based entirely on deft but flimsy hucksterism, does that render him inconsequential and hollow—or does the unflinching audacity of it all, the unlikely alchemy of it, make him, instead, presidential timber?
Woodward is right to wonder why all these questions aren’t being asked, why the “dots” he refers to aren’t being connected, why the full, integrated picture is being allowed to remain fragmented and hard to grasp, and you have to wonder why Scarborough and others are so willing to obstruct it from happening.
Why is no one calling BS on his continual practice of conflating and thereby excusing his own self-serving and ugly uses of certain laws and techniques with the more benign and acceptable versions of those same things? If his bankruptcies were a shovel he used to beat someone over the head and leave them in a bloody heap (and that’s pretty much what they were, if you ask his creditors and the vendors and their employees who got stiffed) he would respond that, hey, shovels are great things, everyone uses them.
You can dig foundations for hospitals or orphanages. If his eminent domain actions were a bulldozer used to steamroll property owners who had every right to the property they owned and didn’t want to give up, but which he wanted for his own purposes, he would say, hey, bulldozers are great: That’s how you create fields to grow wheat and feed the world.
Prove You’re Not Bluffing, Donald Trump
The incredible thing is that the media—and worse, other Republicans—are letting him get away with this sleazy game of three-card-Monte with the truth.
It is entirely possible that Donald Trump is an honest and truthful businessman, and an honest and truthful politician. It is possible that he is a less than honest businessperson (something Dana Loesch would certainly argue), not nearly what he purports to be, but is, nevertheless, an honest and capable politician. It is possible that he is a business fraud and a political fraud.
Nobody knows, and anybody who says he does is either implementing a strategy, discounting the obvious, blinded with clinical belief persistence, or a moron. Either that or decent, hardworking people so fed up with being called names and disparaged and undervalued that they want and maybe even need to believe they have found an authentic champion, and so just can’t bring themselves to believe their own lyin’ eyes.
If that’s the case, it’s on some level understandable, even courageous, and if it turns out that Trump isn’t all he claims to be cracked up to be, that will be, in the end, the one truly unforgivable thing.
That this could be the case at this late date is a failure of the media and the rest of the field. There is chatter that Trump isn’t releasing his returns because he wants to wait until he gets the nomination, because he doesn’t want to open his kimono that way if there’s no ultimate reward for it. If that’s the case, and he gets the nomination, and he then is forced to release his returns, the Democrats will redefine the concept of “field day.”
Let me put that another way: If the rest of the field allows him to get away with not releasing his returns—not the “complicated” ones he’s “working on,” but the ones from prior years that are ready-to-go, right now, this minute—it will be an act of monstrous political self-destruction.