Revelations that U.S. President Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal taxes the year he ran for election—and that in many others he paid nothing—threatened to undermine a pillar of his appeal among low-skilled workers and open a path of attack for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on the eve of his first presidential campaign debate.
Trump has been building a successful businessman image for decades, and even chose “magnate” as his code name for the Secret Service. But The New York Times revealed Sunday that in 2016 it paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year it won the election, and in 2017, it’s first year in office.
In 10 of the previous 15 years, he paid nothing in taxes
mainly because he reported losing more money than he had earned, according to the Times, which had access to tax return data for several years, information that the president tried to keep private in a long legal battle.
The report was released at a particularly precarious time for Trump. The Republican campaign is struggling to address criticism of the president’s management of the pandemic. In addition, the publication offers Biden an easy line to attack him in Tuesday’s debate. And since mail voting is already open in some states and there’s barely a month left for the election, Trump could run out of time to turn his campaign around.
“Donald Trump needs this election to go on Joe Biden as a candidate,” veteran Republican consultant Alex Conant said. “This keeps his attention directly on Trump’s personality and the chaos before the campaign’s most important night, the debate.”
Of course, Trump has faced – and survived – devastating revelations that would have sunk any other politician. The most striking was the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, in which Trump was being overrated about kissing and groping women without his consent. The video was released just two days before Trump confronted then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in her second debate, and at the time it was seen as a death sentence for her campaign.
At this point in the campaign, when many states are already being voted on and many voters remain undecided, it is unclear that any new discovery about Trump will make a difference. Support for the representative has remained fairly stable in recent years, according to polls conducted during his presidency.
However, tax reports strike the heart of Trump’s appeal, especially among working-class voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which propelled him to the presidency in 2016. About two-thirds of white voters without a college degree supported Trump, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, against just 2 out of 10 non-white people without a college degree.
Indeed, a Gallup poll in February 2016 showed that Republicans who wanted Trump to win the party’s candidacy mentioned his experience as an entrepreneur as the second most important reason to support him, behind only his status as a non-political racer.
Even today, when their voters are asked for the reasons for their support, they often point to their success in business as proof of their insight. And they often repeat the representative’s argument that he gave up very good conditions to serve as president, putting that sacrifice as proof that he ran for office not out of self-interest, but because he cares about improving the lives of people like his voters.
But the image of a man flying on private planes from one luxury property to another and who pays less tax than millions of Americans with much more modest lifestyles could lead to a rejection similar to that faced in 2012 by Republican candidate Mitt Romney when he was recorded in a private fundraising act saying that 47% of Americans who do not pay taxes on their income “depend on the government” and never vote.
“My job is not to worry about those people. I will never convince them to take personal responsibility and take care of their lives,” Romney said.
About half of Americans do not pay income taxes, although the average payment in 2017 was nearly $12,200, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Democrats rushed to take advantage of the news. Biden’s campaign online store was already selling stickers with the message “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump” on Sunday night.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schmer tweeted an emoji asking his supporters to raise their hands “if they paid more in federal taxes than President Trump.”
“That’s why he was hiding his tax returns. Because all the time I wasn’t paying taxes. But you do”
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy added.
And Rep. Richard Neal, Democrat for Massachusetts, chairman of the lower house Forms and Media Committee, said the report highlighted the importance of Democrats’ demand against the Trump administration demanding access to Trump’s tax returns.
“This report sheds light on the vastly different experience that people with power and influence have when interacting with the Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service compared to the average U.S. taxpayer,” he said in a statement.
In addition to news of Trump’s annual payments, the Times determined that many of his best-known businesses, including his golf circuits, had reported huge losses and that, while waging a difficult battle for re-election, his finances were in a particularly complicated situation due to the “hundreds of millions of dollars in debts that are going to expire and that he has personally endorsed.”
Trump is also being audited due to a $72.9 million tax refund, which could cost him more than $100 million if the IRS fails against him, the newspaper said.
Biden has recently redoubled his efforts to show Trump as a charlatan who has lied to his working-class voters. Instead, Biden tries to present his middle-class origins.
The Democratic leader has described the election as “Scranton v. Park Avenue,” pitting the town where he grew up in Pennsylvania with Manhattan, where Trump built his corporate empire and television career.
“This clearly fits that contrast Biden has shown,” said Joe Trippi, veteran strata of several Democratic presidential campaigns.
Trippi said that in the face of debate, Biden has something concrete to show when he tries to win over the still undecided small group of voters.
“You earn a few points with working-class voters, and we talk about Biden winning in places like Ohio,” Trippi said.
Conant, who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2016, noted that Trump got very defensive when Rubio, in a primary debate, said the tycoon would “be selling watches in Manhattan” if he hadn’t inherited millions of dollars from his father, Fred.
Trump waved his index finger shouting “No, no, no, no” and tried to interrupt Rubio, insisting he had borrowed. “That’s not so”, he said.
“As long as this campaign revolves around Trump,” Conant said. “He’s going to lose.”