Happy Scribe

Hi, I'm Amanda, and I'm currently in Freeport, Illinois, visiting the debate site of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and reflecting on our history while looking ahead to our own presidential debates this year.


This podcast was recorded at two nine p.m. on Monday, September 28th. And things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.


I assure Amanda that she's not the only one looking forward to some presidential debates this week. Yes.


Lincoln Douglas style.


Hey there. It's the NPR Politics podcast. Susan Davis. I cover Congress and I'm used to Rasco. I cover the White House.


And we have NPR's chief economic correspondent and longtime friend of the pod, Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott, great to be with you.


So President Trump's tax returns have largely been hidden from the American public until now. The New York Times published an investigation on Sunday saying, among many, many other things, that President Trump paid only 750 dollars in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. The Times obtained about two decades worth of information from Trump's tax returns. NPR has not independently confirmed the New York Times report. President Trump has brushed it off.


Well, first of all, I've paid a lot and I paid a lot of state income taxes to the New York State, charges a lot. And I paid a lot of money at stake. It'll all be revealed. It's going to come out.


So, Scott, you've read The New York Times story. What are the biggest revelations in this report when it comes to the president's financial record?


The Times is saying that President Trump paid only seven hundred and fifty dollars in 2016 and 2017, and also that in many of the 16 years before that, he paid no federal income taxes at all.


Now, that's surprising because that was a period when the president was earning hundreds of millions of dollars from his successful run, playing a business tycoon on the TV show The Apprentice and also lots of lucrative endorsement deals that grew out of that, that the Times suggest that either the president is actually losing an enormous amount of money on his other business ventures so that that wipes out his tax liability or that he's using some creative accounting to create the illusion of tax losses to whittle away at his income tax bill.


He's also just in a staggering amount of debt. That's right. He's got hundreds of millions of dollars in loans that he has personally guaranteed, which are going to come due in the years to come. Now, it's early on in his career, the president personally guaranteed a lot of loans and it almost bankrupted him. He he dodged a bullet there, but he was careful in the mid part of his career to to not put his own assets on the line when borrowing money.


So it's interesting that during this period, again, when he had a lot of income coming in, that he was also personally guaranteeing substantial loans, which could put his, you know, his own fortune at stake if those come due and he doesn't have the cash to pay them in the military in security clearance circles, carrying that kind of debt is can be a red flag. And it could similarly be seen as a red flag for the commander in chief.


We should say, though, there is nothing in in this New York Times report that that flags any new information about ties to Russia. You know, there's been a lot of suspicion with the hidden tax returns that maybe there's some smoking gun in there about secret ties to Russia. And The Times did not find any evidence of that.


And the thing about those debts and them coming, they could come due. If Trump is reelected, they could come down while he's in the White House. And so as a creditor, how are you going to feel about going against, as you said, the commander in chief, the person sitting in the Oval Office? So that is something that is, you know, will be hanging over the president's head and over his creditors.


And one thing that this report doesn't clarify is who exactly he's indebted to.


Right. It just lists his liabilities, but not necessarily who the lender was.


And again, that's because we're working with sort of partial information here, not the not the actual not the full picture.


And there were some issues with him also paying these consulting fees to Ivanka Trump on these projects where people involved in the projects say they didn't think there was any consulting. This is like hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so there is a question of whether he was, you know, using this kind of creative accounting to avoid having to pay taxes on giving gifts to his children. So that was something else that was brought up in the in this New York Times reporting.


There's a little bit of deja vu here. Back in 2016, just before the election that year, The New York Times reported on some fragmentary tax information showing that Trump had lost more than 900 million dollars in a single year and that by carrying those losses into other years, he was able to reduce or eliminate his tax liability for the better part of two decades. That that might have been, you know. A black mark in another politician, for example, Mitt Romney in 2011 actually overpaid his taxes because he was embarrassed to be seen with a tax rate well below that of many Americans.


But Trump, I think, is not too concerned by the notion of a really minimal tax bill that makes me smart, is the way he characterized that during one of the debates in 2016.


Isha, how is the White House responded to this story? President Trump has been calling this fake news, even though he hasn't specifically said what he thinks is fake about it or what's not true. The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., did say that. He pointed out that while Trump has paid a lot of other taxes, he pays property taxes, he pays payroll taxes. So there shouldn't basically he was trying to argue that there shouldn't be so much attention just on this income tax.


No, yet, Donald, Donald Trump, Jr.'s explanation. There is really just a distraction. I mean, whether the whether the president is current on paying payroll taxes or property taxes or sales taxes or any other kind of taxes really doesn't speak to whether he is fulfilling his obligation to pay income taxes, which, let's remember, income taxes are what fund vital government programs like vaccine research and school lunches and Secret Service protection for the president and his family. Most Americans don't have the kinds of avenues to duck those taxes that real estate developers do.


And it's even questionable whether most other real estate developers have been as aggressive in in using those sort of tax tax loopholes or tax dodges that that the Times are suggesting the president has been.


All right, Scott, we're going to let you go for now. But The Times has said that they've got more stories coming on these documents. So I imagine we're going to have you back in the pod pretty soon.


Thank you. I'll look forward to it. All right.


We're going to take a quick break.


And when we get back, we'll talk about the potential political fallout from this news, support for this podcast.


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With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the president is hoping to fill the seat with a conservative judge. And evangelicals who play an important part in American politics have been waiting for this moment. But how did evangelicals become such a powerful force? Listen now to the history of evangelicals on the Throughline podcast from NPR.


And we're back and we're joined by Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico, how's it gone? Well, pretty good. So Horsely just walked us through sort of the financial details that were in The New York Times report.


But this is information that the president's political opponents and we should note some prosecutors have been trying to get at for years because of the potential political implications.


So I know it's early, but I'm curious if you sort of have a take yet on what you think the impact of this could be for President Trump?


Well, I mean, I think in the short term, you know, we've got the debate tomorrow night, which is the first debate of these three, and they debates can be consequential. And obviously, this president's going in on defense because of his handling of coronavirus race relations and his need to sort of expand and build out and win over independents and suburban voters who had one last time.


And this is just going to add to the list of things that he's going to be on the defense about.


The thing I find so interesting about this story politically is that the hardest thing to build in politics, right, is a national known brand, which is what Donald Trump had certainly in 2016. And a lot of that brand was he is this successful businessman and he's going to bring this success to the whole country.


And this story, at least based on the information that the Times has in the way they reported it, totally contradicts that narrative.


It totally weakens this argument that the president is a good businessman. But I wonder how hard it is to change that brand once it's been so defined in the public for so long. It's like, what if tomorrow they reported Joe Biden wasn't from Scranton and didn't actually have any kids or whatever it is that you associate with them, that you believe so strongly if it undermines it?


I don't know how willing voters are even to believe it.


I mean, there was so much reporting on President Trump's business failures in 2015 and 2016. I mean, everyone knows that four of his companies he took into bankruptcy like it's not a secret what difficult times his businesses ran into while he was heading them. So, you know, whether that's going to matter to Republicans who pulled the T-shirt on and say. Ninety 92 percent of them approving of the job that he's doing. Who knows if that's going to make much of a difference with them.


This is really going to be about that targeted, you know, very small slice of voters who are sitting on the fence.


And this is something that, Sue, you've mentioned that generally politicians don't want to look like they aren't paying their fair share. But Trump has said in the past that it makes them smart not to pay as much in taxes. Right.


That's sort of what I mean about Brand. I mean, I just wonder of any other sort of rich man or woman in politics had this kind of story written about them. It would be so devastating to them if this was about Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg or Meg Whitman or Tom Steyer or any of the millionaires and billionaires that have run for office before. This seems like the kind of story that would be politically devastating regardless of what party you're in. But with Trump, so many of the old rules just don't always seem to apply.


Now, I do think that one thing is I think it will bother Trump this idea that he is not a good businessman. I mean, we have seen this over and over again. So how that plays into his response and is that a way that Biden could get under Trump's skin? Because he is obviously very sensitive about this idea that he is a great businessman. So when we think about the debate, the question is how often is is Biden going to try to dig in on this?


Because there are a lot of other topics that are supposed to be the focus of the debate tomorrow night, not necessarily this.


So is Biden able to work that in this is like politically a silver tray gift to Joe Biden for an attack to make it the president on national TV on the eve of probably the most impactful presidential debate? The first one is when you get the highest viewership, the story like this, it's like if Joe Biden can't make an issue of this, what can he make an issue of? Right.


And I think, though, the biggest thing here is transparency and authenticity. Right. I mean, a lot of people always talk about Trump, as you know, you might agree or disagree with them, but he's authentic because he tells you exactly what he thinks Biden is going to say. Look, I've released how many decades of my tax returns. You still won't even do that. You know, and you're a phony when it comes down to whether or not you're a good businessman.


That doesn't even matter. Let me pivot to the fact that let's talk about the issues that matter to people while you've been running the country and 200000 Americans have died from coronavirus. I think that's very much the kind of line of attack and pivot that we're likely to see from Joe Biden. All right.


Well, that's a wrap for today, but we'll be back late tomorrow night to wrap up the key moments from that first highly anticipated presidential debate and whether or how this all plays into it. You can find all the ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode. Susan Davis, I cover Congress.


I miss Tarasco. I cover the White House. And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent. And thank you for listening to the NPR Politics podcast. And a special thanks to our funder, the little market, for helping to support this podcast.