Sunday began with Joe Biden burying himself in debate preparation, while Donald Trump headed for the golf course. Trump’s lies need no preparation, he need only match his lie to the question asked. And given his cult following’s lack of attention to fact, much less detail, often not even that.
It looked like official Washington had put the political world in stasis until Tuesday night, when Biden and Trump would face each other for the first time. This column holds a dim view of debates and, in particular, the concept of “debating” Donald Trump, an act that metaphorically reminds one of removing a wart with a chainsaw.
Waiting for this to become the defining moment of the campaign brought on a certain type of existential dread—after everything that has come the prior four years, could the entire American experiment turn on whether Joe Biden at some point said “millions” instead of “billions” in answering a question about farm aid?
The New York Times appears to have answered that question for us. A bombshell report finally revealing that great white whale of Donald Trump’s finances, his tax returns. Since Nixon, presidential candidates have been releasing their federal tax returns like clockwork. But Trump didn’t, for reasons we all knew before their release. Trump doesn’t pay any federal income taxes.
A tax law expert I am not, and the byzantine calculations through which Trump avoids taxes may very well be legal.1Trump apparently has an $80 million bet riding on one such undisclosed scheme, but if you ask his minions, who among us doesn’t have a nearly nine-figure dispute with the IRS pending? But to debate the legality of Trump’s tax claims is to miss the point. Not everything that is legal should be done, but in any event Trump claims he is the law, backed by his personal lawyer, William Barr. Arguing legalities with Trump and Barr is like the mouse arguing with the cat about the dinner menu. Even when the mouse wins, it loses.
No, the issue is not Trump’s legal standing; it is his psychology. Donald Trump does not pay costs. Ever. He gets bone spurs, and others pay the costs of war. He runs his casinos into the ground, and his lenders pay the costs to close the books. He gaslights America into ignoring the pandemic to keep his hotels open, and 210,000 families pay the cost of a funeral. Trump runs an incompetent White House, and a revolving door of subordinates pay the reputational, psychological, and financial costs.2Say a prayer for Brad Parscale. If we must. Trump cuts taxes and runs up deficits solely for reelection purposes, and future generations pay the future bill. And Trump engages in crackpot conspiracy theory, at the cost of one of America’s major political parties.
Even the one time Trump ever had to face the music, he got away with it. In return for lending Trump money in the 1990s for casino expansion, his lenders required personal guarantees on some of the loans. When Trump’s incompetence drove his enterprise to the brink of bankruptcy, the result was the financial equivalent of a Cold War—firing the missiles would have resulted in mutually assured destruction. The bankers left Trump with enough to maintain his opulent lifestyle, while they took a very deep bath. Of course, no one much cared at the time, because there were no angels.
But now, Trump has done it again. He took the cash flow generated from The Apprentice and plowed it into highly-leveraged property and resort purchases. As part of the leverage package, Trump again entered into personal loan guarantees of over $400 million. So far as I know, none of this is illegal.
But then he ran for President, apparently because it was the only reality show left that could juice his flagging brand. So now we know,3Yes, I know you and I knew, but now we know. and the only reason we know is that the New York Times obtained his tax returns. We now know that Americans were electing someone whose entire personal fortune and reputation depended on the country remaining open during a deadly pandemic. We now know they were electing a man owing the GNP of Tonga to…well, we still don’t know.4Yes, this is a “national security” problem, but the Trump Administration long ago stamped “I’m with stupid” stickers on the White House’s national security apparatus and staffed it with bro-tastic beer-pong enthusiasts. And we know that Trump used American taxpayers to subsidize his losses. How anyone could argue these are immaterial facts is beyond reason.5And where reason ends, Hugh Hewitt begins.
To say these omissions were a breach of fundamental trust is trifling now. Trump has delivered the American Republic to the brink of ruin, causing damage that will require generations to repair, if ever. Immense, unspeakable, incalculable costs. Costs that Trump has admitted he cannot comprehend. “What was in it for them?,” he says about the “losers” and “suckers” who were, unlike him, all too willing to pay costs. Of course, how much better to have sacrificed for the cause of freeing the slaves and restoring the Union, or to have defeated the Third Reich, than be, say, one of the brainwashed millions overcome by QAnon and other Trump propaganda. Who will sacrifice to free them?
Not Trump, because Trump never pays costs. He is a socio-political vampire. He sucks all around him dry, while passing the costs to the “suckers” and “losers”—you would call them “Americans” or “people.” It is they who have five weeks to finally, mercifully, and perhaps even too late, call Trump’s debts and hold him accountable.
Joe, finish him tonight.