Yet despite the dogged reporting from these outlets, these stories have failed to catch much attention elsewhere. During the last presidential debate, Biden challenged Trump to release his tax returns. “First of all, I called my accountants, underwrote it; I’m going to release them as soon as we can. I want to do it,” Trump said.
This is laughable: Trump said this repeatedly during the 2016 race, and he still hasn’t followed through; as usual, he blames the fact that he is under audit, though that is not a legal impediment to their release. (Most likely, he doesn’t want to release them for the same reason he is under audit: Something in there isn’t kosher.) Reporters laughed at his promise, and then moved on. They know it’s nonsense, but who cares? For close watchers, it’s just Trump being Trump (although most people are not regular Trump watchers). Pundits have concluded that nothing will change opinions about the president, and besides, if Trump loses the election, as expected, this will mostly be a dead issue.
But then again, what if he doesn’t? Then the president has more than $400 million in loans, many of them personally guaranteed, hanging over his head in his next term. He has no obvious way to pay them off. If he’s a private citizen, that’s a personal financial catastrophe. If he’s the president, it’s a national-security catastrophe. Would any bank dare crack down on a sitting president? What would it mean if it cut him favors instead?
There are plenty of other examples of scandals that have gotten too little attention, such as Trump’s continued railroading of the Justice Department, his near rejection of disaster-relief funds to California, his attempts to punish blue states for policy choices, and his efforts to convert Voice of America and its siblings into a pro-Trump propaganda network. Even his impeachment has been all but forgotten.
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The skimpy coverage isn’t due to the media’s fear of being seen as biased against Trump. Coverage of how the administration botched the coronavirus pandemic has generally been strong and consistent. The disastrous federal response will, however, remain a live story long after the current presidential term ends.
Paradoxically, the press has arguably also been too easy on Biden at times. Trump’s allies overreached with attempted hit jobs on his son Hunter Biden, trying to claim without evidence that Joe Biden was involved in unsavory business schemes. This, along with a fear of overemphasizing the issue, as it did with Clinton’s emails in 2016, has kept the mainstream press far from the story. But as Ross Douthat argues, the business entanglements of a potential first son are not a nonstory, nor are those of Biden’s brother. Biden is plainly not as vigorous as he once was, an issue that has gone largely unexplored. That’s partly due to old-fashioned notions of propriety that have prevented more frank grappling with Trump’s obvious mental unfitness for the presidency, and partly because Trump claimed that Biden was too senile to even run for president, a bar the Democrat easily cleared.
These are real failings by the press, but this is not a question of seeking some false balance: Trump is getting away with more, and receiving less scrutiny, than Biden is. If it is true that he’s getting that pass because the media presume he is an underdog, they are playing a risky game. Glossing over some of Trump’s more dangerous issues on the assumption that he will lose could itself affect the course of the election, and make his winning more likely. It’s happened before.