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The Tax-Returns Story May Eat Up Precious Time For Trump

The 2016 presidential election has its first October surprise: several pages of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns. In the latest FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, the crew considers what effects the tax revelations might have on the final month of the campaign. The tax returns suggest that Trump may have paid little to no federal income taxes for years — a notion already widely discussed — but Nate Silver suggests that the story inherently hurts Trump by taking up time he needs to stage a comeback.

The team also unpacks the past week’s polls and previews Tuesday’s vice presidential debate.

Also, the podcast has two upcoming live shows: in Chicago on Oct. 7 and New York on Oct. 24.

Here is some of our conversation about Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns. The transcript begins around the 30-minute mark and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jody Avirgan: This weekend we got a glimpse of Donald Trump’s tax returns. A few pages of a 1995 tax return — mailed anonymously to The New York Times with a return address of Trump Tower — and they wrote it up and they published some of the actual documents online. The basic headline is this: That we learn from this 1995 filing that Trump claimed a $916 million loss that year. This was around the time that his Atlantic City casinos were going bust, and according to the Times and the tax lawyers that they spoke to, there is a way that the loss could be spread out over a total of 18 years to offset the taxable profits he earned from other businesses. In other words, it suggests that Trump could have avoided paying some taxes entirely for almost two decades… Clare, none of us are tax lawyers — I don’t even know how to find a tax lawyer — but as far as you know and have read, this was all perfectly legal, right?

Clare Malone: Yes. All perfectly legal, and I think it’ll be interesting to see if it does affect the polls. The Trump team’s line has been that the tax system in this country is incredibly unfair, but he’s also an excellent businessman and therefore took advantage of the legal privileges afforded to someone who can get away with this sort of deduction. So, I think throughout the campaign season Trump has sort of been priming people a bit by saying, that makes me a good businessman… So, it this sort of funny thing of — I don’t think it looks good to normal eyes, but also, there has been this sort of spin apparatus going for a while, where someone like Mitt Romney was very blushingly ashamed of his wealth and tried to downplay it a little bit.

Jody: Right, well, Romney spent years… kind of setting himself up to avoid the optics of a moment like this.

Clare: Right, and Trump’s thing is very much the opposite of Romney. So, Romney was the blushing establishment Republican and Trump is sort of the Rococo, nouveau riche — damn straight, he didn’t pay any taxes — Hessian mercenary of a politician.

Jody: Harry, is that a convincing argument for the types of voters that Trump needs to win over in order to get above [40 percent.]

Harry Enten: It works for 40 percent of the electorate, but the problem is that he hasn’t gotten it to work for more than 40 percent. I call it the Arthur Avenue Mario’s Italian restaurant argument, which is essentially, the guy brings out this piece of fish that may not be good or bad, but he says, “look at this great piece of fish that I brought you! It’s amazing!” And then you try the fish and you’re like, “oh, wait a minute, I’m not so sure,” but he’s basically trying to use his words to overcome the evidence that’s before you.

Jody: And then you don’t want to be the one who admits to yourself that you got a bad piece of fish.

Clare: It’s like the emperor’s new clothes.

Harry: Right. And so, I think most of these people are going to stick by him, but I would point out that the reason this is a story that has legs is because it reinforces a preconceived notion about Trump, and it keeps the news cycle going. And just go back to the old argument that I’ve had for a while is that the candidate whose name is in the news is the candidate that is losing, and the person that we’ve spoken about the past week has pretty much always been Donald Trump. A few weeks ago it was all about Hillary Clinton’s problems. Now it’s all about Donald Trump’s problems, and that is just very, very bad news for his campaign.

Jody: There’s also an element of hypocrisy here because — shocker, with Donald Trump — but the BBC, I saw, compiled a list of times that Donald Trump has shamed others for not paying taxes. So, he has tweeted about Barack Obama, who only pays 20.5 percent in taxes, and he’s tweeted articles that show that half of Americans don’t pay income tax, and he’s tweeted about the fact that the rich get soaked in this country and have to pay tons of taxes, and hedge fund guys get out of this, and then all of a sudden, we learn that he was doing exactly that — which I guess wasn’t that surprising, but when you are on the record in the past as shaming people for not having paid taxes and now you do it yourself, there’s just plain hypocrisy there as well.

Nate Silver: A while ago, we came up with a set of criteria for trying to evaluate whether a scandal will have legs and affect the outcome. So, this used to be called the Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test, EMPSAT. Question No. 1: Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence sound byte? I think this one can, that Trump lost a billion dollars and paid no taxes. No. 2: Does the scandal cut against the core element of the candidate’s brand? Yes. Trump is a successful businessman — cuts way against that, or at least demands more explanation. No. 3: Does the scandal reinforce a core negative conception about the candidate? I mean, probably it means some kind of shady business again and whatever else… This is also a story where it appears to be legal, but we have to know how Donald Trump lost $916 million in a year, about $1.4 billion in today’s dollars. It probably wasn’t a loss that he took himself. It’s probably some type of accounting loss, but what happened after that? What’s going on there?

Clare: I agree that this is going to be a story, but built into Trump’s brand is success, but also great failure, right? Americans already know that he was dead broke in the ’90s. So, in some ways, it’s news, but it’s something that we kind of knew about him. We all knew that he lost all this money, and yet the New Jersey Gaming Commission still let him run his casinos. I mean, there are lots of failures here.

Nate: I guess I’m making a slightly different point which is that this story is going to eat up a lot of the remaining news cycles, in part because the Times investigative reporters are strongly hinting that there’s more to come. If someone released this one year from one state out of all the returns Trump has filed, then — I don’t know if it’s a mole or what — but this could eat up a lot of the remaining time between now and the election, and it’s also a case where there’s no upside for Trump. I could totally see a world in which this is all kind of priced in and doesn’t matter, but from evaluating risks and rewards, it was like the health thing for Clinton. Maybe it would matter, maybe it wouldn’t, but there was no way in which it would really benefit Clinton. It’s kind of the same way for this story and Trump.

Harry: He’s trailing. So, anything that’s not a net positive for him is inherently a negative. As the time ticks down and we head to Election Day, he better find a way to get onto something else, I’ll tell you that much.

Jody: Clare… in the two times that I re-watched the debate, there was a Clinton moment that struck me both times where she kind of was doing some real signaling, maybe to the media and certainly to undecided voters, but she basically laid out very clearly four reasons why Trump may not have released his tax returns. She said, either the tax returns show that he doesn’t pay taxes, which is what we’re seeing in this story here, or it shows that he’s not as charitable as he claims, or shows he’s not as rich as he claims, or it would reveal that he has foreign interests that he’s beholden to. And I should add that it maybe is an amalgam of many of those things. Which of those four do you think would be the biggest scandal?

Clare: Well, this election has certainly proved that we’ve got something against foreigners in this country. So, in some ways, I think that the most damaging thing could be Trump has shady interests with certain, perhaps Russian government-backed holding companies, or something… I could see something like that being a deal breaker for people who are on the edge of things because for most of our lifetimes and for many voters who are, let’s say, middle aged… Russia hasn’t been a friendly force in the world to us… That, to me, would be the biggest gut punch-y sort of thing, and also, I think the thing that they are perhaps least prepared for, in some ways, as far as the rhetorical base that they have been laying for people.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in Apple Podcasts, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.