The biggest shock about the latest “shock” revelations about Donald Trump’s attitude to paying taxes is that anyone finds it shocking. The New York Times’ story is a great one, and very much in the public interest; but it’ll make minimal difference to the US election. Maybe, inured to the excesses of the Trump years, that ought to be a shocking thing.
The moment I saw the news break a distant bell rang inside my head, and the words “that makes me smart” echoed down the years. It was Donald Trump’s actually quite smart response to Hilary Clinton reminding Trump about his record on tax back in the 2016 presidential debates. At that point, all that was definitively known about Trump’s tax affairs was gleaned from returns to local state authorities when he was bidding for a licence to run a casino.
Clinton stated, correctly: “The only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino licence, and they showed he didn’t pay any income tax”. She added, plausibly: “Maybe you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.” To which Trump replied that “it would be squandered too, believe me”. He didn’t deny it, and it looks as if Clinton was right – no federal income taxes paid for 10 out of 15 years and minimal $750 bills in some.
It’s odd that Trump has forgotten his own playbook, and now says the stories about him paying little tax are “fake news”, adding “I pay tax” (implying more normal levels), and looking to the Inland Revenue Service to vindicate him. A lawyer for the Trump Organisation said that Trump “has paid tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government, including paying millions on personal taxes since announcing his candidacy in 2025”.
Logically, Trump can’t have it both ways. Either he was smart and didn’t pay tax or he did pay tax and he’s not so smart. Not that it matters though, in stark political terms. The American people made their minds up about Trump and Biden many months ago.
Trump’s contempt for paying for “the swamp” is shared by his fan base, and most Americans (like most folk anywhere) try to minimise their tax bills as far as possible. Anyone with an ISA in Britain does so, for example. Few volunteer to send an extra cheque to HMRC like they might choose to generously donate to the RNLI or the RSPCA. I imagine the Clintons do too.
I remember many years ago being told by a Tory that if I objected to having my taxes cut by the then Conservative government then I should just send the money back. Taxes are not popular.
The Trump tax shocker won’t shift public sentiment much. The US polls nationally and locally have indicated that Trump’s chances of winning a second term are slimmer than he would wish, and have suffered in recent months. The Covid-19 disaster, the racial unrest, and the economic downturn are obviously more important than the tax thing. The time to be shocked by anything Trump says or does is long past.
We all know the script. Trump will do better than the polls, because too many people are ashamed to admit they’d vote for him, but he’ll still lose the popular vote and electoral college, but with no great fervour for Biden. The election will be disputed by Trump and litigated, irrespective of Biden’s margin of victory.
Trump will, as usual, bully and cajole, to shake the system up and dismay opponents until he can get his way. Some fear that the new Supreme Court will help him out. It might, in theory, but it is hard to see the court setting a general election aside. If they did, the result would surely be to re-run the ballot in some places, which might well yield the same result. They would not simply install the president for another term in office in defiance of the constitution, and the people’s will. Trump will be gone, and he’ll face some trouble over his tax and other affairs, but America will have more important things to fret over than whether Donald Trump is smart or not.