The Slatest

Oh, That’s Why He Didn’t Want Anyone to See His Taxes

The Trump Vincibility Watch considers the implications of certain financial documents.

Trump, standing in front of a pickup truck outside the White House, gestures while speaking.
Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Trump Vincibility Watch is a subjective and speculative estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump actually loses the 2020 election or, in other words, that he suffers the consequences of his actions for the first time in his life rather than wriggling out of yet another jam (see: the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine scandal, the 2016 popular vote, his six bankruptcies, and everything else).

So:

• The resorts, hotels, and buildings the Trump Organization owns are not generating enough money to pay back its debts.

• Trump has personally guaranteed $421 million worth of those debts, of which about $300 million is due within the next four years, and doesn’t seem to have any way to make good on them except by liquidating assets.

• One of the ways he appears to be trying to keep cash on hand is by claiming things that aren’t legitimate business expenses (like transfers of money to his daughter and payments to lawyers working on cases related to his political campaigns) as business expenses so he doesn’t have to pay income taxes.

• It’s possible that the IRS will determine a $70 million refund he filed for in 2010 should not have been issued. He originally claimed the refund by abandoning his stake in casinos whose investors were fed up with him; the best-case scenario for him, in other words, is the IRS accepting his version of events about a situation in which he formally admitted that, for him, trying to make money running casinos was a lost cause.

• After repeated sell-offs, he may hold as little as $873,000 in securities, which would be a good, comfortable amount to have if he were an upper-middle-class professional living in Short Hills, New Jersey, rather than someone who is supposed to come up with $421 million by 2024.

• His only recent sources of new revenue are deals to license his brand name in countries like India, the Philippines, and Turkey, whose leaders want (and have gotten) the United States’ tacit permission to suppress and kill dissidents or members of ethnic minorities in their countries.

Those takeaways—along with the eye-popping, extremely shareable detail that the high-rolling president paid a whopping $750 in income tax in each of two different years—are derived from the New York Times’ exposé about Donald Trump’s covertly obtained tax returns.

One surprise in the piece is that Trump’s claim to be under a long-running IRS audit, a story he kept telling to skeptical reporters throughout his last campaign and his presidency, is apparently true. What’s not true is his accompanying claim that the existence of the audit prevents him from releasing his returns himself. The Times story suggests some more plausible reasons for his reluctance to share: because the returns appear to show that he has pressing debt problems, is bad at managing businesses and assessing investment opportunities, has committed tax fraud, and has compromising private relationships with foreign regimes.

It’s hard to imagine the Times’ report will convince Trump’s current supporters to interrogate their view of him as a successful businessman. But it also seems unlikely to help him convince independent voters—who generally already believe that he is dishonest and has committed crimes—to support him over Joe Biden.

Look at the photo above: That is the president at the White House Monday morning, showcasing an electric pickup truck made in Ohio by a company called Lordstown Motors.* Trump is presumably holding this event with this truck because he wants to convey that his presidency has created a resurgent American manufacturing economy. But the outlook for the Ohio electric truck manufacturing sector is not going to be the top story on many news broadcasts or websites today. Nor is there much chance it will be a major subject at Tuesday night’s debate.

In 2016, Trump was able to survive personal scandals like the Access Hollywood tape because an equal amount of media and voter attention was focused, during a period of relative economic stability, on the purported corruption of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. At the time, a crucial number of Americans saw Trump as someone who was personally distasteful and erratic, but in a way that might help them by “shaking things up.” In 2020, the idea of “things” being further “shaken up” is unappealing, and Trump’s efforts to make Joe Biden’s purported corruption a major story have not worked.

The tax bombshell, moreover, is not exactly crowding into a news cycle that would otherwise be good for Trump. Before the Times published its piece, the top political issue of the day was going to be the possibility that the judge he just nominated to the Supreme Court will vote, in Trump’s words, to “terminate” the very popular Affordable Care Act provision that guarantees access to health coverage to Americans with chronic medical conditions.

It is unlikely that Biden, who has run what the professionals call a “disciplined” general election campaign, is going to throw out the talking points he planned to use at Tuesday’s debate in order to fixate on a report in the New York Times. But he certainly intends to discuss the pandemic and the economic collapse, during which the president has attempted to avoid taking responsibility for his own ineptitude by lying, fudging numbers, and trying to change the subject—an approach that has only created cascading crisis cycles rather than resolving what you might describe as underlying deficiencies. Trump’s promises to voters, an enterprising presidential rival might argue, are like his promises to banks: a lot of talk that he hasn’t been able to back up. Aren’t all of us, Deutsche Bank included, ready to call it a wash and move on?

Or so Joe Biden could say. I imagine. Trump, in any case, is a candidate of ESCALATING VINCIBILITY.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2020: This piece originally identified General Motors as the manufacturer of the electric pickup truck that Trump stood in front of at the White House on Monday. Lordstown Motors, which operates out of a former GM plant, manufactured this truck.

A "Trump Vincibility Watch" graphic of six rows containing the letters T-R-U-M-P. The row that is highlighted reads "MP."
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo by Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images.