Hot air and intrigue: did Donald Trump leak his own tax return?
Who sent the documents and why? They turned up in the mailbox of David Cay Johnston, a tax expert and author of a book on Trump, without explanation
On Tuesday night, Brian Fallon, former press secretary to Hillary Clinton, tweeted breathlessly: “The holy grail.”
Ninety-eight minutes and a somewhat anticlimactic Rachel Maddow Show later, Fallon tweeted again: “Dems should return focus to Trumpcare tomorrow & the millions it will leave uninsured, not get distracted by two pages from ’05 tax return.”
Dems should return focus to Trumpcare tomorrow & the millions it will leave uninsured, not get distracted by two pages from '05 tax return
— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) March 15, 2017
It was neither the holy grail, nor the smoking gun, nor the long-awaited release of all Trump’s tax returns with all their potential Russian secrets. Instead it was two pages, broadcast on Maddow’s programme on MSNBC, showing that in 2005 Trump earned $153 million and had to pay $38 million: including $5.3 million in regular federal income tax and $31 million in the “alternative minimum tax”, which he has said should be scrapped.
The White House got in its retaliation early, in fact even before the programme went on air.
“You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago,” it said in a statement emailed to journalists with unusual zeal and which also repeated the Trump trope of “the dishonest media”.
Watch: Trump’s 1995 tax records suggest no federal taxes for years
Rather than being a clarifying moment, it was yet again a small piece of a much larger jigsaw, begging more questions and fuelling further intrigue. Who sent the documents and why?
They turned up in the mailbox of David Cay Johnston, a tax expert and author of a book on Trump, without explanation.
Trump fans call & harass my wife & 1 of my children after I break story White House confirmed. Sad! Let's have open debate, not threats.
— David Cay Johnston (@DavidCayJ) March 15, 2017
Appearing on Maddow’s show, Johnston quickly floated the possibility that the tax returns might have been leaked by Trump himself. If this theory is true, 2005 would have been a sensible year from which to flaunt his wealth: his reality TV hit The Apprentice had launched in 2004. And on cue, Trump’s son Donald Jr tweeted at 10.08pm: “Thank you Rachel Maddow for proving to your #Trump hating followers how successful @realDonaldTrump is & that he paid $40mm in taxes! #Taxes”.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 15, 2017
It would be a classic Trump tactic to deflect attention from his troubles with wire-tapping claims and replacing the healthcare law, also known as Obamacare. But it would also be a risky one, driving attention back to the issue of why he is the first president in 40 years to refuse to release his tax returns. This is the man who, when in the first presidential debate Clinton suggested he doesn’t pay federal income taxes, interjected: “That makes me smart.”
Trump claims he cannot release his taxes while he is under audit. Yet he did so on Tuesday night in the White House’s pre-emptive statement. Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “The White House’s willingness to release some tax information when it suits them proves Donald Trump’s audit excuse is a sham. If they can release some of the information, they can release all of the information.
“The only reason not to release his returns is to hide what’s in them such as financial connections with Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin.”
The limited leak also shines a light on how Trump – and the rich in general – play the tax system to their advantage (“that makes them smart”). Johnston noted that in the 2005 return he continued to benefit from the roughly $916m loss he reported in his 1995 return, published last year by The New York Times.
“Using a loophole Congress closed in 1996, Trump converted that loss into a tax credit for the same amount he could offset against income,” Johnston wrote.
Trump’s supporters gleefully seized on the hype as a non-story. The holy grail, however, is still out there somewhere.