Journalism professor Todd Gitlin wrote a sharp piece for The Washington Post on Thursday breaking down exactly how Donald Trump has successfully gamed the media – cable news especially – and turned it into a de facto arm of his presidential campaign. Trump has several decades’ worth of experience dealing with the press, as Gitlin notes, and he’s figured out how to bully and outlast interviewers until they give up pressing him for answers to difficult questions. “He takes advantage of the slipshod, shallow techniques journalism has made routine, particularly on TV — techniques that, in the past, were sufficient to trip up less-media-savvy candidates — but that Trump knows how to sidestep.”
It’s an important observation given how critical earned media is to the Trump campaign – he saved a lot of money on advertising during the primary because he could go on CNN whenever he wanted, rattle off soundbites and slogans with minimal pushback, and then sit back and let the rest of the media replay what he said over and over. That strategy stops being as effective if Trump is actually forced to answer difficult questions or, more likely, forced to come up with increasingly elaborate and off-the-cuff explanations for why he can’t answer. The place to start doing this is with Trump’s tax returns.
There is no actual reason why Trump can’t release his returns. He claims that he’s being audited by the IRS and won’t give his tax documents to the public until after the audit is concluded, but that’s utter nonsense. The reasonable suspicion that arises from all this is that there’s information in those returns that Trump feels would damage either his reputation or political fortunes, and he’s scared that it will come out before Election Day.
Trump’s refusal to release those returns cannot and should not be allowed to wither as a story. In fact, it should be treated as a straight-up controversy. The core of Trump’s campaign – the message that he pitches to his fans, followers, and converts – is that he is a spectacularly successful multi-billionaire businessman who knows how to make the great deals that will [insert Trump slogan here]. Contained in his IRS filings are documentary evidence to either prove or disprove the central message of his campaign for the White House, and Trump refuses – for no legitimate reason – to make it available.
There are plenty of theories circulating as to why Trump is sitting on his returns (Mitt Romney has been claiming that they might demonstrate Trump has financial ties to “criminal organizations”) but the most plausible among them is that they’ll show definitively that Trump lies about his wealth. Journalist Timothy O’Brien actually saw Trump’s tax filings as part of a lawsuit Trump filed against him after O’Brien reported that the self-described billionaire was actually worth $250 million or less. (Trump lost his suit against O’Brien, and he lost the appeal.) O’Brien has written extensively about how Trump’s own assessments of his wealth vary wildly from day to day, and how Trump games financial disclosure rules to vastly inflate his net worth. Because most of the relevant financial information remains confidential, all we really have to go on to determine Trump’s personal wealth are his own statements, and it’s pretty clear that he just makes stuff up. While being deposed for the lawsuit against O’Brien, Trump said his “net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.”
The way Trump plans to move past this is the same way he ducks every other controversial issue: he’ll restate his bogus excuse as often as is necessary until the press gives up. He’s going to wait it out or gin up some other controversial distraction to divert the press’s attention away from the issue. Past experience has given him every reason to believe that whatever questioning he’ll receive on the tax issue will be cursory, shallow, and easily ducked. Trump is, at this point, just taunting the press, and he has every confidence that they’ll react the way he wants them to.
It’s long past time to stop letting that happening, and Trump’s tax returns offer an excellent opportunity to reverse the easy press relationship he enjoys and start persistently challenging him on a matter that cuts to the core of his political identity.