“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” then presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a 2016 rally in Iowa two weeks before the caucuses there and the start of the 2016 primary balloting.
“It’s, like, incredible,” he said of the loyalty of his supporters.
More than four years later, the question looming before Trump as he takes the stage Tuesday evening against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for the first of three debates is whether a 10,500 word investigation in The New York Times about his, well, spotty tax records can do what -- in Trump’s own telling -- a bullet fired from his own gun could not do: chase away voters.
The expose, the first of a series that read at certain points as if geared for advanced accounting students, painted a picture of a president who used tax loopholes to actually pay income tax only 10 of the last 15 years, and then at ridiculously small amounts. It further painted a picture of a failed businessman who is far less wealthy and financially successful than he likes to boast; has business dealing in foreign countries that may constitute conflicts of interests; took questionable deductions; is in debt up to his ears; and may have originally run for president in 2016 to revive his by-then fading brand.
A Twitter user named Brad Simpson, an associate history professor at the University of Connecticut, artfully boiled the massive Times piece down to one tweet: “Abraham Lincoln paid 3X more in taxes in 1864 than Donald Trump in 2016. Not more as a share of his income. More in taxes.”
According to Simpson, Lincoln paid $1,981.67 in federal taxes in 1864-1865. By contrast, according to the Times article, Trump paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and in 2017.
Considering that the article appeared in the vehemently anti-Trump Times three days before the first debate – thereby impacting it – and five weeks before the elections, the question is: Does it matter electorally? Will this information on this platform move votes from the trump side of the ledger to Biden’s?
Mike Doran, an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute, seems to have his doubts. “Friend of mine from Oklahoma called,” he Tweeted on Tuesday. “Said he’s really concerned about this Trump taxes story. Every single NY Times subscriber in Oklahoma City is enraged over this. All seven of them.”
Doran’s point is that out there in America’s hinterland an article in the Times, not widely viewed as a beacon of objectivity when it comes to Trump, will not have the same weight as it might have elsewhere. And the election will be decided in the hinterland – maybe not in Oklahoma, but in battleground states like Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin.
One of the problems facing media outlets that tilt heavily in one direction or the other is that when they do run a significant investigative piece, it may be dismissed by many as suspect because it fits into what is perceived as the outlet’s clear political agenda.
Will the Times piece be seen by voters as a tremendous piece of investigative journalism by a news organization that just wants to get the truth out? Or will it be viewed as a transparent effort by an agenda-driven media outlet to sway the electorate just weeks before the election?
Those who hate Trump will read the article and have all their worst fears about him confirmed: he’s a phony, a cheat, a liar, a snake oil salesman, a 21st century flim flam man and con artist.
Trump’s supporters will read the article and say he is a good businessman who leveraged the system to his benefit, and what’s wrong with that? They will argue that the piece hints at impropriety and unethical financial behavior, but never comes out to say unequivocally that he broke the law.
From an Israeli perspective there were surely sighs of relief in Jerusalem that there was no “Israeli connection” to the story. Questions were raised in the piece regarding the propriety of Trump’s business dealings in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Azerbaijan, even the United Arab Emirates, but nothing about Israel.
No one could read that article and say Trump is pro-Israel because of business interests in Tel Aviv or Herzliya. The same, however, could not be said of his dealings with Turkey, a country where he does have business interests, and with whom his good relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has caused some head scratching over the years.
The only possible Israeli “angle” to this story in an indirect one. If the Trump campaign feels that the story is gaining traction and is dominating the conversation, they may want to divert it. And one possible diversionary tactic could be to push some of the Arab countries with whom Washington is talking regarding normalizing ties with Israel – say Saudi Arabia, Oman or Sudan – to move sooner rather than later.
The administration will want to counter the “bad news” from the article with some good news of its own. But with COVID-19 running both rampant and roughshod over the US economy, and with race relations at a boiling point, good news domestically (short of the announcement of the discovery of an anti-corona vaccine) will be hard to come by.
As crazy as it may sound, good news in the Middle East – in terms of one, two, or three other Arab countries announcing normalization of ties with Israel – may be easier for Trump to orchestrate. And while that would not knock Trump’s tax issues off the front pages, it would interject at least something positive for him into the news cycle.