HEMPSTEAD, New York—Donald Trump didn’t have much to say about whether he pays federal income taxes during his debate. And in the post-debate spin room at Hofstra University, his campaign’s answer wasn’t much better.
The segment over Trump’s tax returns was among the sharpest of the debate, due to the uncharacteristic aggressiveness of Hillary Clinton’s insinuations and the lackadaisical nature of Trump’s responses. Clinton, after a dicey early segment on trade—in which she seemed jarred by either Trump’s combative demeanor or her own spotty record on NAFTA and TPP—seized the offensive when the question turned to Trump’s tax returns. Clinton suggested that one reason he may not be releasing them is because “he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” as he didn’t in some of the years we know about.
“That makes me smart,” Trump interjected.
When the subject turned to infrastructure spending, Trump said to Clinton that “we don’t have the money, because it’s been squandered on so many of your ideas.”
“And maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years,” Clinton said, before Trump interrupted again: “It would be squandered too, believe me.”
Maybe Trump was just making one of his “jokes” here, but since Clinton didn’t press further about what “would be squandered” meant, we don’t know whether that was an admission that he doesn’t pay any federal income taxes or… ?
Fortunately, at debates, one can turn to the spin room for immediate illumination from campaign staffers. Unless they, too, have no clear answers.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller’s responses to a serious of questions from reporters was an intricate tap-dance around the main question: Does the candidate pay federal income taxes every year? Let’s roll the tape.
Q: You’ve said he pays taxes. Does he pay federal income taxes?
Miller: You’ll see everything when he comes forward and the routine audit’s completed.
Q: You can’t say whether or not he pays federal income taxes at this point.
Miller: Of course he pays taxes.
Q: You did not say federal income taxes.
Q: Does he definitively pay federal income taxes and has he done so every year?
Miller: Mr. Trump pays considerable taxes, of course he pays federal taxes, and we’ll see that when it comes out.
Q: Has he paid federal income taxes over the last 20 years?
Miller: Of course Mr. Trump has paid tremendous amounts of taxes, and we’ll see that when it comes forward.
Q: So that’s not a yes or a no?
Miller: He’s paid taxes at every level.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, another Trump spokesperson, deflected similarly when asked if she could say, in the time period we don’t know about, that Donald Trump paid federal income taxes every year.
“I personally can’t,” she said, “because I’m not his accountant and it’s not information I’m aware of, but that’s certainly a question you would have to ask him.” Trump was in the spin room at the time, speaking to approximately 750 million cameras, so that wasn’t likely. “I would imagine he has, but, again, I’m not his accountant so I don’t know the answer to that.”
Knowing whether your candidate has paid federal income taxes every year, and being able to relay that information to reporters or—what’s that other category?—interested Americans, are two things generally not beyond the capabilities of spokespeople for presidential campaigns. When then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested (without any apparent evidence) that Mitt Romney may not have paid federal income taxes in some years, the Romney campaign responded with fury, immediately, that of course he had. But on Monday night, all we got was a lot of hand-waving.