The GOP elite wants to brand Trump a loser — the humiliating release of his tax returns could help

Not only did Trump's candidates lose big in 2022, but he couldn't even make money selling White House influence

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 22, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Former President Donald Trump (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

It's no secret, among political junkies anyway, that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and much of the Republican elite have been casting around for a way to derail Donald Trump's bid to be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. It's a delicate operation, to be certain. Trump's allure to the GOP primary voting base isn't just that he triggers the liberals, but that he ruffles the feathers of the Republican establishment. It makes the deplorables feel powerful, watching people like McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy bow and scrape to the ludicrous reality TV host foisted on them by their own voters. So the strategy is always about trying to find some way to undermine Trump without provoking him to unload personal invective on Truth Social in retaliation. 

Some of the maneuvering is behind the scenes. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post documented this week, Senate Republicans helped slip an electoral count reform bill into a larger spending bill. The covert move isn't just about circumventing Trump's plan to steal the 2024 election, but to do so in a quiet and highly technical manner that will likely avoid his attention. 

The tax returns show that President Drink Bleach is about as good at business as he is at medical science. 

But mostly, Trump's opponents in the GOP are trying to brand him a loser. After Trump-backed candidates took a bath in the 2022 midterms — they fell behind non-Trump Republicans by an average of five points — a number of Republican pundits and politicians stepped forward to declare him an albatross around the party's neck. McConnell repeatedly shaded Trump by saying someone like him is "unlikely" to win. "What will Democrats do when Donald Trump isn't around to lose elections?" snarked the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board. "GOP voters should give up on the idea that Trump is a winner," argued the editors at National Review. Hopeful Republican op-eds predicting Trump has lost his luster have become a cottage industry. 

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We'll see, of course. But there's no doubt the bad press is getting to Trump, who seems incapable of even leaving his house these days. The announcement of his presidential run was conducted from the safety of the Mar-a-Lago bubble, but even then, it was lackluster at best. As Heather "Digby" Parton noted at Salon, "the former president tends to wander aimlessly around Mar-a-Lago, bored and lethargic, depending on his attendants to call around to allies to ask them to deliver 'affirmations' and cheer him up." He's even calling people who won their elections "loser," in his typical psychological projection. 

Calling Trump a criminal and a fascist may be accurate, but both tend to be assets for Trump in the eyes of his base. But, the theory goes, if Trump can be branded a loser, it would finally break the spell he has over his credulous base. The only problem is getting that message through their fact-repelling skulls that have been hardened through years of Fox News propaganda. 

Which is why Republican leaders should fall on their hands and knees and thank House Democrats for finally, after years of court battles, releasing Trump's tax returns from 2015-2020. Not because they reveal that Trump is a massive tax cheat, which only makes the base love him more. What's great about the tax returns is they show that President Drink Bleach is about as good at business as he is at medical science. Despite his years of dubious claims to be a "billionaire," the tax returns show that he spent most of his presidency losing money hand over fist. This is a guy who used to brag that he'd "make money" by running for president, after all. 

That Trump is a uniquely terrible businessman was known long before this. In 2020, the New York Times successfully obtained years of tax records, mostly from his pre-presidential life. Even those who had long been skeptical that a guy who hawked ringtones was really a "billionaire" were astonished at how very, very bad he is business. Over his lifetime, Trump was handed nearly a billion dollars by benefactors, first his father, then "Apprentice" producer Mark Burnett. Trump promptly flushed it all down the toilet. He didn't just fritter away at least $834 million in cash — the reporting showed he was at least $421 million in debt. That's over $1.2 billion lost over the years, and that's not even counting the many losses he's been able to use creative accounting to conceal.

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Still, even his biggest detractors tended to feel his fortunes would change in the White House. Surely even a moron like Trump could handle the task of sitting on his tush watching bribes flow in from foreign benefactors, right? He did not even bother to hide that "taking bribes" was a central feature of his presidency. He would speak publicly about the opportunities for memberships at Mar-a-Lago or stays at various Trump hotels, unsubtle reminders that these businesses were excellent ways for those with cash to seek favor with the White House. 

To a certain extent, it worked. Diligent reporters documented how the Saudi government would routinely buy out blocks of rooms at Trump hotels. Foreign officials would book not just rooms but events at Trump properties, and make sure Trump knew about it. Domestically, the bribery was just as bad, if not worse. As Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW) documented in 2020, government officials, political groups, and special interest groups would curry favor by holding events at Trump properties. Trump and his officials "used their platform to promote Trump businesses 426 times," driving tourist traffic from the MAGA fanbase. Trump even had a racket going with the Secret Service, where he would routinely book them at Trump properties for about eight times what he claimed he was charging them. 

But while taking bribes and robbing taxpayers is the easiest work imaginable, Trump was still hilariously bad at it. He had a "negative income" for four out of the six years that were released to the public. Overall, he saw a net loss of $60 million. As the New York Times reports, "the entirety of his core businesses — mostly real estate, golf courses and hotels — continued to report losses every year." The one year he actually made a decent chunk of money, $24.3 million in 2018, it was only because he sold off a bunch of property that he inherited from his father. Not only is it just another example of money being given to him, but it is a pittance compared to the hundreds of millions he owed going into the presidency, and is dwarfed by his overall losses while president. 

All of which is to say that Trump had an elaborate structure of real estate and hospitality holdings that were perfect for laundering bribes. But he is so bad at business, he was losing more than he was taking in. The man's only real skill is setting money on fire. 

These returns were released mere days after Trump's "MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT" that turned out to be an NFT peddling scheme, a naked grift less suited to a former president than to the has-been reality TV star that he is at heart. Even funnier, he's not even selling the cards himself but merely licensed his image to a shady company that sells NFTs, so that he only got a cut of the $4.5 million that was made. That's a lot of money for ordinary people, but for a real billionaire, it wouldn't be worth getting out of bed. It certainly isn't enough to start paying down his immense debt. None of this looks like the behavior of a successful businessman but instead looks like the grubby cash grab of someone who is probably broke. 

Trump's voters forgive him for being a liar, a criminal, a whiner and a narcissist, but only because they think he's a "winner" who owns the liberals. The GOP elite is betting the base can be dissuaded from backing Trump if he's stripped of that "winner" image, so voters can see the insecure loser underneath all the bluster. The NFTs portray Trump as a big, tough guy, but they are just cheesy and worthless crap. In this, they are the perfect symbol of who he is. The only question is whether Republican voters are ready to accept the Trump everyone else sees, the world-class loser whose "winning" exists only in the realm of lies and delusions. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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