With the battle continuing to rage over Donald Trump’s ongoing suggestion that he may not release his tax returns before the November election, this exchange with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulous, which took place Friday, provides a glimpse into what Trump really thinks about all this:
Trump: I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.
Stephanopoulos: What is your tax rate?
Trump: It’s none of your business. You’ll see it when I release. But I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.
Trump’s claim that his tax rate is “none of your business” was generating buzz Friday. But the more important quote is his boast that he “fights very hard to pay as little tax as possible.” He deliberately repeated this, as if to make sure we would not miss it.
In one sense, this is dream fodder for Democratic ads, particularly since Dems are hoping to continue pressuring Trump to release his returns, and to portray his refusal to do so as evidence he’s trying to hide shady or immoral business practices, a line of attack that was probably effective against Mitt Romney in 2012.
But Trump plainly sees this as a positive for him, and that goes to the heart of his whole case for the presidency. In the interview, Trump said that he fights to keep his tax burden low because government “wastes” our tax dollars. Trump’s immediate goal is to undercut the potency of the attack on him over taxes: By openly boasting that he works to keep his tax burden low, he hopes to dispel the notion that he’s hiding something.
Trump hopes to elude Democrats’ attack by wearing his ability to milk the system as a chintzy badge of honor.
There’s more to this, though. With Dems likely to grow more aggressive in unearthing and targeting Trump’s business past, his pushback on whatever revelations pop up will basically be this: You’re damn right I’ve been a scummy businessman. Now I want to be a scummy businessman on your behalf and on America’s behalf.
It cannot be overstated how important this idea is to his candidacy, and indeed, to his entire self-created mystique. The idea is that, having long been a member of the elite that has milked the corrupt system for decades, he is very well positioned to end their scam — he knows how it works from the inside — and reform that corrupt system.
On the topic of campaign finance, Trump has said this explicitly, arguing that he knows how to deal with the problem of bought-and-paid-for politicians, since he has personally bought and paid for them himself. I strongly suspect that Trump will soon begin saying something like this about his taxes: Since I fight so hard to pay as little as possible, I get how the whole con works; I will fix things so people like me can’t get away with it anymore. That, too, will be a scam, since his tax plan would actually deliver a huge windfall to the rich that is pure fantasy, fiscally speaking. But no matter. Scam can be layered on top of scam, and Trump is certain he will get away with all of it.
The crux of the matter here is that Trump is betting he’ll be perceived very differently from Mitt Romney. The latter was a venture capitalist with an aloof, patrician, plutocratic manner, while Trump brashly flaunts his wealth and invites all of us losers to have a cut of it. But Dems will likely adjust their attack accordingly: While Romney was depicted as a heartless outsourcer and symbol of the cruelties of global capitalism, thus revealing his true governing priorities, Trump will be depicted as a sleazy fraud who is selling voters an economic bill of goods.
Trump hopes to elude that attack by wearing his ability to milk the system as a chintzy badge of honor. But at a certain point, general election voters will begin to decide how credible he is, and they may not be as easily fooled as GOP primary voters were — particularly since Democrats are likely to prosecute him far more mercilessly than his GOP rivals did. Trump is confident that his credibility is inexhaustible, but that could prove as inflated as his stated bottom-line worth appears to be.