Donald Trump heads into the first US presidential debate against Joe Biden on Tuesday night trailing in opinion polls and now reeling from dramatic newspaper revelations detailing his chronic financial losses and years of tax avoidance.
Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he ran for and won election, the New York Times reported. In 2017, he paid only $750 again. And he paid no federal income tax at all in 10 out of the previous 15 years.
Evidence that Trump is paying much less than many of his working-class supporters is likely to be weaponized by Biden, his Democratic rival, when the two men go head to head for the first debate in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Biden campaign was quick to seize on the report, releasing an attack ad contrasting Trump’s $750 payment with elementary school teachers (who typically pay $7,239), firefighters ($5,283), construction managers ($16,447) and registered nurses ($10,216).
Biden is hoping to persuade voters who had voted for Barack Obama but switched to Trump in 2016 that the president is a conman whose connection with working people is illusory. As the county barrels toward the election on 3 November, Biden has portrayed the contest as “Scranton v Park Avenue,” pitting his home town in Pennsylvania against wealthy Manhattan, where Trump built his branding empire and reality television career.
Other Democrats amplified Biden’s criticism. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer tweeted an emoji calling on followers to raise their hands “if you paid more in federal income tax than President Trump.”
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator for Connecticut, tweeted: “SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY DOLLARS. That’s why he hid his tax returns. Because the whole time, he wasn’t paying taxes. But you were.”
About half of Americans pay no federal income taxes, but the average income tax paid in 2017 was nearly $12,200, according to the IRS.
The supporters who attend his campaign rallies often cite his business acumen, and the sacrifice they say he made to go into politics, as reasons to vote for him.
But the New York Times report also showed that Trump has lost more money than he made, denting the successful entrepreneur image that he cultivated on the reality TV show The Apprentice. He even chose “mogul” as his secret service code name.
“Ultimately,” the New York Times wrote, “Mr Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life.”
More than $300m in loans for which he is personally responsible will come due within the next four years, the paper said. “Should he win re-election, his lenders could be placed in the unprecedented position of weighing whether to foreclose on a sitting president.”
The identity of the lenders remains unknown, raising questions over who might exert influence over Trump and whether he has conflicts of interest.
The president – the first since the 1970s to refuse to release his tax returns – initially resorted to his instinctive cry of “totally fake news” when the story broke.
On Monday he followed up with a series of tweets that said: “The Fake News Media, just like Election time 2016, is bringing up my Taxes & all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information & only bad intent. I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits.....
“.....Also, if you look at the extraordinary assets owned by me, which the Fake News hasn’t, I am extremely under leveraged - I have very little debt compared to the value of assets.”
The defense contained an apparent contradiction: that the tax returns were both fake and illegally obtained.
Then, in an attempt to deflect attention with a manufactured controversy, the president tweeted about the debate: “Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?”
There is no evidence that Biden is taking drugs.
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, has responded to such claims in unusually blunt terms by stating: “Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it. We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop Covid-19.”
Despite the endless dramas of the campaign, Biden has held a remarkably steady lead of around eight to 10 percentage points in most national surveys. He holds varying leads in battleground states. With some people already using early voting, the debate may not change many minds.
It comes amid a coronavirus pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans, ongoing protests against racial injustice and a fresh uproar over Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and and rapid nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The move earned widespread approval from Christian evangelicals and other conservatives. Barrett looks set to be confirmed by the Senate a week before election day despite fierce Democratic opposition. Trump’s taxes, however, appear to have changed the conversation on debate night.