Talk about burying the lede.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Donald Trump made big news by suggesting he wasn’t going to release his tax returns this year. But instead of trumpeting the news, the AP focused its headline on Trump's VP search. The outlet initially inserted just a handful of sentences about Trump’s declaration and didn’t question the inaccuracies embedded in his claims. (AP later updated its article with some more detail, including his contention that he merely told AP that he was waiting for the audit, not necessarily until after the election.)
Fact: No nominee for president in 40 years has refused to release his or her tax returns.
Fact: The same press corps that had largely given Trump a pass over his taxes this winter and spring was simultaneously creating a new transparency standard and hounding the Democratic front-runner about releasing transcripts to paid speeches she’s given.
Apparently tired of offering up weak rationales for refusing to disclose his tax returns -- like claiming he can’t release them because he’s always getting audited for being a “strong Christian” -- Trump seemingly floated a trial balloon that he might opt out of disclosing them until after the election.
In doing so, he’s basically daring the press to make a big deal out of his open defiance of transparency traditions.
Will Trump’s long-term bet work? It might, knowing the campaign press time and again has shown a willingness -- and even an eagerness -- to carve out sympathetic new rules for him.
Be herded into press pens at Trump campaign events? Sure.
Allow Trump to constantly call into television news programs? Why not.
It’s true that immediately after his tax proclamation to AP this week, there has been widespread coverage of the issue, and CNN in particular has played the story up big. The question is, will the press keep pushing this issue weeks and months from now? Will virtually every Trump interview going forward feature a section where he’s pressed about his tax returns and not allowed to obfuscate?
I’m not optimistic. Here’s how NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt recently handled the topic with Trump [emphasis added]:
HOLT: Tell me how the audit is going. You have not released your tax returns. You`ve talked about an IRS audit. Still going on?
TRUMP: It`s still going on. I mean, they`re going for a long time.
HOLT: How come it--
TRUMP: I`ve been audited and I`ll tell you, honestly, it`s very unfair. I`ve been audited every year for thirteen or fourteen years. Every year, I get audited. And I will absolutely release my returns when I-- when the audit ends.
HOLT: But there`s nothing in these returns you think that might make your supporters raise an eyebrow?
TRUMP: No, nothing. It`s a very standard audits. And I have them all the time. And I have other friends that are very wealthy, they don`t even know what I`m talking about when I say I`m audited. They said they`ve never been audited. I get audited every single year. And I think it`s very unfair.
HOLT: Donald Trump, that`s all the time we have. Thank you so much for your time.
TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, Lester.
HOLT: Good talking to you and congratulations.
TRUMP: Thank you.
That’s not exactly hard-hitting stuff.
And note how Holt let Trump hide behind the hollow claim that an audit prevented him from making disclosures. David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times investigative reporter who has covered Trump for more than two decades, detailed why the audit excuse doesn’t fly:
An audit is no reason for Trump to withhold his tax returns. Releasing them does not affect the IRS, and the agency has already said nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information. Moreover, Trump has no excuse for holding back tax returns from years no longer under audit.
Johnston thinks it’s possible that Trump, taking advantage of real estate depreciation laws, has paid no federal income taxes in some years. (Johnston claims Trump did that as a young man while claiming to be worth $3 billion.) Obviously, it would be shocking news to Trump supporters if a man who boasts of being worth $10 billion actually pays less in income taxes each year than people who aren't worth nearly as much.
At The Atlantic, David Graham zeroed in on Trump’s “long history of questionable finances” to emphasize why the tax returns matter.
What would also be noteworthy is if Trump has been lying about his wealth and his business success. (Lots of observers have cast doubt on Trump’s $10 billion boast.) The Republican’s entire campaign is built around the simple premise that because he was able to build a $10 billion empire, he’d be able to "Make America Great Again." But if you subtract the $10 billion empire part of the equation, where does that leave Trump’s campaign pitch?
Meaning, Trump’s tax returns aren’t just about transparency and good government. Trump’s tax returns go to the heart of his campaign, which means it ought to be an even bigger news story. But for months this year it wasn’t treated that way by the press.
Meanwhile, the press pile-on has often been relentless regarding Hillary Clinton and the demands she release transcripts to paid speeches she gave in recent years. In a scolding editorial, the New York Times compared the former secretary of state to a "mischievous child" for declining to release speech transcripts.
But as Media Matters has noted, a lot of politicians made money from paid speeches -- including speeches to financial institutions -- before becoming presidential candidates. And none of them were hounded so extensively by reporters.
That list includes:
Some of those Republicans even gave paid speeches while running for office.
Bottom line: Clinton has released years of tax returns. Trump hasn’t released any. If the press wants to do campaign articles about transparency, Trump is giving them a pretty good angle.