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How Trump could (but won't) defend his scandalous finances

The president could, right now, make this entire mess go away by disclosing his hidden financial records. But he won't, and it's pretty obvious why not.
Image: President Trump Departs White House For Pennsylvania Campaign Event
President Donald Trump speaks to journalists as he departs the White House on Sept. 26, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The revelations from New York Times' latest reporting on Donald Trump's finances are brutal, presenting the president as an over-leveraged fraud, a man who's repeatedly failed as a businessman, and a possible tax-cheat.

The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell added this morning, "Trump claimed no tax liability for so many years because, according to the documents reviewed by the Times, he sustained mindbogglingly huge, chronic losses. The magnitude of these reported losses suggests he has been a thoroughly incompetent businessman or has been cheating Uncle Sam. Most likely both."

Making matters just a little worse, the president has published a series of years-old tweets that suddenly make him look ridiculous. In 2012, for example, he published this gem complaining that then-President Barack Obama wasn't paying enough in taxes, at a time when the Democrat was paying vastly more than Trump paid during the first year of his presidency.

There's also this tweet in which he complained about Obama having to pay foreign taxes -- before we learned that Trump actually paid foreign governments more in taxes than he paid his own government -- and this 2013 missive in which Trump pushed the idea that he "will pay more taxes in one year than you pay in your entire life."

At a White House press conference late yesterday afternoon, the Republican denounced the revelations as "fake," and insisted that he paid "a lot" of taxes. Asked if he would produce documentation to support his claims, Trump said he would not.

This morning, the president published a three-part Twitter thread, further pushing back against the reporting.

"The Fake News Media, just like Election time 2016, is bringing up my Taxes [and] all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information [and] only bad intent. I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation [and] tax credits. Also, if you look at the extraordinary assets owned by me, which the Fake News hasn't, I am extremely under leveraged - I have very little debt compared to the value of assets. Much of this information is already on file, but I have long said that I may release Financial Statements, from the time I announced I was going to run for President, showing all properties, assets and debts. It is a very IMPRESSIVE Statement, and also shows that I am the only President on record to give up my yearly $400,000 plus Presidential Salary!"

To be sure, the details matter. When Trump described the revelations as coming from "illegally obtained" materials, for example, it seemed to be an implicit acknowledgement that the documents the Times relied on are legitimate. Note, yesterday the president told reporters, "It's fake news. It's totally fake news. Made up. Fake." Today, the news is "illegally obtained information." Since these two points are in conflict, he probably ought to pick one.

What's more, the Republican pointed to "the extraordinary assets" he owns, which leads to questions Trump isn't prepared to answer. As Matt Yglesias noted, "Why are the assets valuable if the tax returns say they generate massive Net Operating Losses? The books are being cooked in two different directions."

But stepping back, I'm also stuck on the simple solution Trump is carefully avoiding. The president could, right now, make this entire mess go away by disclosing his hidden financial records. If he's telling the truth, and the Times isn't, transparency would not only discredit the allegations against him, it would simultaneously make his critics look awful.

As Jay Bookman put it, "If the NYT story is 'fake news,' Trump can prove it by releasing just one page of his 2016 and '17 returns, that critical last page of Form 1040 that includes his signature and total tax paid. One page [and] he could thoroughly humiliate the media. He won't, and we all know why."

The president's response, as usual, is that he could release the relevant proof, and he could humiliate his critics, but he's choosing not to -- because he's under audit. And that might be persuasive were it not for reality: every modern American president, just as a matter of course, has been audited while in office. They've also released their tax returns to the public while under audit.

What Trump is saying, in effect, is that the evidence against him is fake, and the counter-evidence that would exonerate him must remain secret for reasons that aren't true. It's a position that's literally unbelievable.