October started with a bang, and it looks like it will only get more explosive from here.
Sunday morning saw Donald Trump’s team furiously spinning a bombshell Saturday night New York Times report that revealed portions of his 1995 tax returns, showing a $916 million loss that would have allowed him to avoid paying personal income tax for up to 18 years. But hints are emerging that Hillary Clinton may soon be responding to an October surprise of her own, setting up the prospect of both historically unpopular nominees spending the closing weeks of the campaign navigating waves of new revelations.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, hours after the Times published its tax story, longtime Trump ally Roger Stone tweeted, “Wednesday @HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.” Stone did not respond to a request for more information on the coming revelations, but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said his organization was preparing to publish damaging information on Clinton. Last week, “Morning Joe” senior producer Jesse Rodriguez tweeted, “Julian Assange set to make an announcement from his balcony in London next Tuesday, according to @WikiLeaks.”
Further muddying the path ahead, the expected WikiLeaks dump could take a toll on Trump as well. According to one person close to the Trump campaign who has been briefed on the implications, but not the substance, of the coming reveal, “It ain’t great for either candidate.”
The tax revelations and the prospect of a damaging document dump inject further volatility into a competitive race where undecided voters are choosing between not just Trump and Clinton, but also third-party candidates and the option of staying home on Election Day.
For now, it’s Trump’s closest allies dealing with the fallout of a bombshell. And they remain isolated in arguing that the tax revelations vindicate the billionaire businessman, with party leaders conspicuously silent so far on a story that threatens to create a second consecutive week of negative coverage of Trump’s flailing campaign.
“My response is he’s a genius,” Rudy Giuliani said on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.
“Absolute genius,” the former New York mayor continued. “I mean, the man in ‘The Art of the Deal,’ this is described. First of all, we’re talking about 26 years ago, perfectly legal. We should get that straight immediately. This is a perfectly legal application of the tax code. And he would’ve been fool not to take advantage of it.” Giuliani also compared Trump to men like Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill, saying all had come from massive setbacks to achieve greatness.
Despite Giuliani’s professed pride in Trump’s returns, the Republican nominee has resisted calls to release them, something a majority of Americans say he should do. He and his surrogates have offered various rationales, including the claim that Trump is under audit by the IRS, but an audit did not prevent Richard Nixon from releasing his returns in 1973, and Trump is the first nominee in four decades to keep his returns hidden. While Trump has bragged about his no-holds-barred approach to tax minimization, when Mitt Romney released his most recent tax returns in 2012, they showed he paid more tax than necessary, a move designed to show that he paid his fair share and to avoid criticism of the tax loopholes exploited by the ultra-rich, who often pay a lower effective tax rate than middle-class workers.
Chris Christie also professed to be in awe of Trump’s tax-minimizing prowess. “The genius of Donald Trump has been to make sure he follows the law,” the New Jersey governor said on “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace.
Asked by Wallace whether his position was “no apologies,” Christie responded, “Oh, for gosh sakes, no apologies for following the law and taking a bow for saying even before this story came out we need to change the tax laws.”
But Christie also refused to concede that Trump actually used the loss: “You can’t come on TV this morning and say that Donald Trump did not pay taxes for years and years when that’s not what the story said.”
When Wallace contended that he concluded Trump had likely avoided paying taxes given that his campaign’s late-night statement on the story did not deny the Times’ suggestion that he did so, Christie responded, “Well, that’s a big assumption on your part.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Giuliani told host Chuck Todd that the story justified Trump’s refusal to release his returns. “This points out one of the reasons why releasing tax returns is so bad. The New York Times writes this long story. And then somewhere around paragraph 18 they point out there was no wrongdoing. Now, people have a hard time understanding how taxes work.”
Some on the right immediately derided the “genius” line.
And on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Giuliani told host Jake Tapper, “You are ignoring completely the fiduciary obligation that he has to all the people around him to run his business at the lowest possible expense.” But that argument is a strained one. Fiduciary duty generally refers to the duty of care public company officials owe to their shareholders to operate a business to maximize shareholder value. Trump reportedly took the loss on his personal income tax returns, so fiduciary duty to investors would likely not apply. Suggesting it would apply would mean that Trump’s family members could sue him for not using losses to offset his tax burden, a far-fetched scenario.
So far, the rest of the Republican Party has declined to echo the Trump campaign’s talking points. Neither House Speaker Paul Ryan, who last month called on Trump to release his returns; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did the same in June; nor RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has stepped up to defend Trump’s tax history.
“I’m old enough to remember when Rudy Giuliani was a serious person. And Chris Christie. And Newt Gingrich. #TrumpismCorrupts,” tweeted Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
Clinton’s surrogates, meanwhile, tried to paint Trump’s avoidance of federal personal income tax as a revelation that he both failed in business and didn’t pay his share.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who has needled Trump on his undisclosed returns — reprising his role from 2012, when he trolled Romney for hesitating to release his — seized on the revelations.
“Trump is a billion-dollar loser who won’t release his taxes because they’ll expose him as a spoiled, rich brat who lost the millions he inherited from his father,” Reid said in a statement. “Despite losing a billion dollars, Trump wants to reward himself with more tax breaks on inherited wealth while stiffing middle-class families who earn their paychecks with hard work.”
The Senate minority leader also charged that Trump is hiding the identity of creditors whose leverage over him would threaten the national interest. “Trump is over-leveraged and deeply indebted to someone, but until he releases his taxes we won’t know who. The implications for America’s security are severe. The American people deserve to know who has leverage over this man who wants to be president,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the revelations undermine Trump’s efforts to position himself as a “champion of working people.”
And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tied the issue to the ability of the rich to take advantage of the tax code. “Trump wants to even make a bad situation worse by repealing the estate tax,” he charged on ABC’s “This Week.”
Said Sanders, “If everybody in this country was a genius like Mr. Trump is, not paying any taxes, we would not have a country.”
Ben White contributed to this report.
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