Donald Trump. (Alex Edelman / POOL)
Revelations that US President Donald Trump paid just $ 750 in federal taxes the year he ran for election, and that he paid nothing in many others threatened to undermine a pillar of his appeal among low-skilled workers and open an avenue of attack for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on the eve of his first debate of the presidential campaign.
Trump has been building an image as a highly successful businessman for decades, even choosing “tycoon” as his code name for the Secret Service. But The New York Times revealed on Sunday that in 2016 he paid just $ 750 in federal income taxes in 2016 , the year he won the election, and in 2017, his first year in office.
In 10 of the previous 15 years, he had paid nothing in taxes, mainly because he reported losing more money than he had earned, according to the Times, which had access to tax return data from several years, information the president tried to keep private. in a long legal battle.
The report came at an especially precarious time for Trump. The Republican campaign is having trouble dealing with criticism of the president's handling of the pandemic. Plus, the post offers Biden an easy line to attack him in Tuesday's debate . And since voting by mail is already open in some states and there is only a month left until elections, Trump could run out of time to turn his campaign around.
“Donald Trump needs this election to go over Joe Biden as a candidate,” said veteran Republican consultant Alex Conant. “This keeps the focus squarely on Trump's personality and the chaos leading up to the campaign's biggest night, the debate . “
Of course, Trump has faced – and survived – devastating revelations that would have sunk any other politician. The most striking was the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, in which Trump could be heard bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent. The video was released just two days before Trump faced then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in his second debate, and was at the time seen as a death sentence for his campaign.
At this point in the campaign, with many states already voting and many undecided voters left, it is not clear that any new discovery about Trump is going to make a difference. Support for the president has remained fairly stable in recent years, according to surveys conducted during his presidency.
Yet the tax reports strike at the heart of Trump's appeal, especially among working-class voters in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, which propelled him to the presidency in 2016. About two-thirds of white voters without a college degree supported him. Trump, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, compared to just 2 in 10 non-white people without a college degree .
In fact, a Gallup poll in February 2016 showed that Republicans who wanted Trump to win the party's nomination cited his experience as a businessman as the second most important reason to support him, second only to his status as an outsider. politics.
Even today, when voters are asked about the reasons for their support, they often point to his success in business as proof of his acumen. And they often repeat the president's argument that he resigned from very good conditions to serve as president, putting that sacrifice as proof that he ran for office not out of self-interest, but because he cares about improving the lives of people like his voters .
But the image of a man flying in private jets from one luxury property to another and paying less in taxes than millions of Americans with far more modest lifestyles could provoke a pushback similar to what Republican candidate Mitt Romney faced in 2012 when he was videotaped at a private fundraising event saying that the 47% of Americans who don't pay income taxes “depend on the government” and would never vote for it.
“My job is not to worry about these people. I will never convince them that they must take personal responsibility and take care of their lives, ” said Romney.
About half of Americans do not pay income taxes, although the median payment in 2017 was nearly $ 12,200, according to the Internal Revenue Service of the US Department of the Treasury (IRS).
Democrats were quick to seize the news. Biden's campaign online store was already selling stickers with the message “I paid more income tax than Donald Trump ” Sunday night.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schmer tweeted an emoji asking his followers to raise their hands “if they paid more in federal taxes than President Trump.”
“That's why he hid his tax returns. Because all the time I was not paying taxes. But we do, ” added Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy.
And Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the report highlighted the importance of the lawsuit by Democratic representatives against the Trump administration demanding access to Trump's tax returns. .
“This report sheds light on the vastly different experience that people of power and influence have when interacting with the Internal Revenue Service of the Department of the Treasury compared to the average American taxpayer , ” he said in a statement.
In addition to the news about Trump's annual payments, the Times found that many of his best-known businesses, including his golf courses, had reported huge losses and that, as he fought an uphill battle for re-election, his finances were in a tight spot. especially complicated due to the “hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that will expire and that he has personally guaranteed.”
Trump is also being audited due to a $ 72.9 million tax refund, which could cost him more than $ 100 million if the IRS rules against him, the newspaper noted.
Biden has recently redoubled his efforts to portray Trump as a charlatan who has lied to his working-class voters . Instead, Biden tries to present his middle-class origins.
The Democratic leader has described the election as “Scranton versus Park Avenue,” pitting the town where he grew up in Pennsylvania with Manhattan, where Trump built his corporate empire and television career.
“This clearly fits in with that contrast Biden has shown , “ said Joe Trippi, a veteran strategist of several Democratic presidential campaigns.
Trippi said that in the face of the debate, Biden has something concrete to show when trying to win over the small group of voters still undecided.
“You win a few points with working class voters and we talk about Biden winning in places like Ohio ,” Trippi said.
Conant, who served on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign in 2016, noted that Trump became very defensive when Rubio, in a primary debate, said the mogul “would be selling watches in Manhattan” had he not inherited. million dollars from his father, Fred.
Trump waved his index finger yelling “No, no, no, no” and tried to interrupt Rubio, insisting that he had asked for a loan. “That is not so,” he said.
“As long as this campaign revolves around Trump,” Conant said. “You are going to lose.”