Reporter's Notebook

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
Show Description +

People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)

Show 46 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #124: Taxes

I'm at a high school reunion in California, and in theory away from the news, but this can't go without brief mention for the record: the NYT story saying that Donald Trump’s near-$1 billion declared tax loss in 1995 might have kept him from paying any income taxes for 18 years since then.

Back in installment #95, I mentioned that whatever was in Trump’s tax returns must by definition be more embarrassing than his refusal to release them. Otherwise, he would have done what all nominees of the post-Nixon era have done, and provided tax information. In a related item a few days later, readers speculated that what he was trying to hide was the fact that he had managed to pay no federal tax at all.

The NYT report, by David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey, is worth reading in full. Also see this analysis in Bronte Capital, by John Hempton, of what the report might mean. Here is an important abundance-of-caution detail in the NYT about the bona fides of its claims:

The NYT today

37 days until the election.

I intend it as a kind of homage to Trump’s own online habits that I am posting this in the middle of the night East Coast time.

Donald Trump, in the middle of last night

Late in her losing primary campaign against Barack Obama eight years ago, Hillary Clinton put out her “3 a.m. phone call” ad. The idea was that real presidents have to deal with crises at short notice and with very high stakes. According to the ad, then-Senator Clinton’s greater experience meant that she’d be better at making those 3 a.m. decisions than the relative-rookie Obama would be. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you found that persuasive. If you preferred Obama, as I did, you were less impressed.

What does Donald Trump do at 3 a.m.? To judge by the social-media record, he sends out tweets—and real, “from the Id” personal tweets himself, rather than higher-road ones from his staff. The usual giveaway is the “Twitter for Android” label you see on Tweetdeck and other platforms, versus “Twitter for iPhone” from his staff.

Mnemonic clue: You can’t take the id out of Android. Thus a sequence of Android tweets about “Miss Piggy,” the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, last night.

Donald Trump last night

Judge for yourself what this says about Trump’s temperament, whose excellence he mentions in most speeches and at this week’s debate. For instance, this is how it came up at the debate:

Fidel Castro in 2004, a few years after Donald Trump's organization reportedly did business in his country while the U.S. embargo still applied. Claudia Daut / Reuters

Just for the record:

1) Cuba. Kurt Eichenwald today documented in Newsweek that Trump companies did business in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s regime, which according to Eichenwald’s documents was an intentional violation of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

The embargo was a stupid and self-defeating policy. But it was the law, which Trump’s organization, by all appearances, intentionally broke. Dealing with Cuba, in those days, was a bright-line taboo. You could get in trouble for having Cuban cigars. You were breaking federal law if you spent any U.S. money there. Yet this is what (apparently) the Trump organization went ahead and did—even as Trump gave speeches to Cuban-American groups about the evils of Castro and the need to keep him isolated.

In other years, this would be big news all on its own.

2) Foundation. In the latest installment of David Fahrenthold’s extraordinary saga in the Washington Post, he has revealed that the Trump Foundation, already surrounded by numerous “self-dealing” controversies, never had legal authorization to raise funds as a charity. As the story reports:

Under the laws in New York, where the Donald J. Trump Foundation is based, any charity that solicits more than $25,000 a year from the public must obtain a special kind of registration beforehand. Charities as large as Trump’s must also submit to a rigorous annual audit that asks — among other things — whether the charity spent any money for the personal benefit of its officers.

No further annotation. This is what is on the record about the man the GOP establishment still says should be commander in chief, with 39 days to go.

The USA Today logo.

USA Today came into existence early in Ronald Reagan’s first term. Since then it has covered eight presidential races: Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis, Bush-Clinton, Clinton-Dole, Gore-Bush, Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain, and Obama-Romney.

In none of those contests, with their significant differences in politics and personalities, has its editorial board expressed a specific preference for or against a candidate. Just now, in its ninth race, it has.

The editorial it has placed online, under the headline “Don’t Vote for Trump,” begins:

In the 34-year history of USA TODAY, the Editorial Board has never taken sides in the presidential race. Instead, we’ve expressed opinions about the major issues and haven’t presumed to tell our readers, who have a variety of priorities and values, which choice is best for them….

This year, the choice isn’t between two capable major party nominees who happen to have significant ideological differences. This year, one of the candidates — Republican nominee Donald Trump — is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the presidency.

It goes on to make the case in detail.


As a reminder, in the “things that have not happened before” category, this follows: the Arizona Republic, endorsing a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time ever; the Dallas Morning News, doing the same thing for the first time in modern history; similarly for the Cincinnati Enquirer; similarly for major business leaders and many others.  Noted for the record with just over 39 days to go, and early voting underway.

Just after Monday night’s debate, Donald Trump said that moderator Lester Holt had done “a great job. Honestly, I thought Lester did a great job.” You don’t have to take it from me. You can watch the CNN video below.

Three days later, right now as I type, Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire how rigged the debates had been and, in particular, how biased and unfair the “great” Lester Holt was: “I had to put up with the anchor and fight the anchor all the time on everything I said. What a rigged deal.”


Is this an example of what is known in writer-land as “keyboard courage”—of Trump’s being genial to people face-to-face and then excoriating them from a safe remove? Has he forgotten what he said less than 70 hours ago? Does he think no one will remember? Does he not notice or mentally process the contradiction himself?

I have no idea. I will contend that no one like this has ever gotten this far in U.S. politics before, and by “no one like this” I mean someone who seems either entirely unaware or entirely unconcerned by the disconnect between what he says and the world of observable truth. This is what Harry Frankfurt famously called not lying but bullshit. (Update David Roberts takes a good stab at explaining the inexplicable, here.)  


Bonus note: today the once-respectable former governor, former ambassador to China, and former “moderate” presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has announced that he will vote for Trump.

Governor, really? This is the time you make that call? With Trump still stonewalling on his taxes, on the heels of the “Miss Piggy” debate, and with rock-ribbed Republican publications like the Arizona Republic and the Dallas Morning News declaring for Hillary Clinton and against Trump? The likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have walled themselves in, but no one was asking you to declare. Wow.

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous dissent. Donald Trump begs to differ. (Wikimedia Commons)

After Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, he was asked on Fox News about his views on NATO and other American alliances. He gave his familiar “they’re freeloaders” answer:

The fact is we are protecting so many countries that are not paying for the protection. When a country isn’t paying us and these are countries in some cases in most cases that have the ability to pay, and they are not paying because nobody is asking….

We’re protecting all of these countries. They have an agreement to reimburse us and pay us and they are not doing it and if they are not going to do that. We have to seriously rethink at least those countries. It’s very unfair.

This has of course been a repeated theme in his speeches and interviews. Another example: after the Democratic convention, Trump told John Dickerson on Face the Nation, “I want these countries to pay for protection”—“these countries” being the usual range of U.S. allies.

On Monday night, in his debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump essentially acknowledged that he might not be paying any federal tax himself. Here was the remarkable passage:

CLINTON: Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because 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 license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

That makes me smart. Among the several hundred people watching the debate at the site where I saw it, there was an audible gasp at this line.

Everyone tries to minimize taxes. But not many “normal” people manage to avoid them altogether, or even contemplate doing so. Most Americans, regardless of politics, resent the rigged nature of our public systems and look for ways to corner-cut annoying obligations (“Yeah, yeah, juries are really important, but I’d just as soon not get picked”). But most still recognize some basic obligations we all bear—school taxes even if we don’t have children, paying for highways or emergency relief even in places where we don’t live—to keep the system going as a whole.

You might call this mutual burden-sharing part of Making America Great Again. You could call it “the price we pay for civilization,” if you were Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or “paying for protection,” if you were Donald Trump.


I’m not sure Trump would recognize any tension between his own outraged demand that allies start paying their way, and his reflexive response that “it makes me smart” for him to avoid paying his own way. And I realize that his committed supporters might embrace both sentiments at the same time: Those foreigners are screwing us! And, at least one shrewd guy figured out how to keep the IRS from screwing him!

But I can imagine this staying on as a reminder of the gap between Donald Trump’s economic/civic role in society, and that of most of his supporters. It was one of several related moments in the debate—significantly, all of them coming in unprompted responses rather than the usual lines from his speeches:

Former Republican senator John Warner, right, greeting former Senator Bob Dole in 2008. Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, was one of the long series of GOP nominees whom Warner endorsed, until this year. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Republican newspaper. Earlier this month, the Dallas Morning News made a first-in-modern-times recommendation of a Democrat for president over a Republican, in endorsing Hillary Clinton.

The news this evening from Phoenix is if anything more dramatic: the Arizona Republic has also endorsed Hillary Clinton. Why is this newsworthy? The beginning of the editorial, whose title is “Hillary Clinton is the only choice to move America ahead," spells it out:

Since The Arizona Republic began publication in 1890, we have never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president. Never. This reflects a deep philosophical appreciation for conservative ideals and Republican principles.

This year is different.

The 2016 Republican candidate is not conservative and he is not qualified.

That’s why, for the first time in our history, The Arizona Republic will support a Democrat for president.

The editorial’s tone gets tougher as it goes. The common theme in this series of for-the-record time capsule notations is things that have not happened before. The Republic endorsing a Democrat is one of those.   

Donald Trump on Twitter

In my current debate story I quote a body-language expert named Jack Brown on a surprising aspect of Donald Trump’s performance skills. Brown argues that while Trump’s gestures and expressions seem unusually operatic, they actually cover a smaller range of variation that most people’s do. You can go to the article for the rationale, but the non-obvious upshot, according to Brown, is that it is easier for Trump to lie “convincingly” than for most other people. There are fewer “tells” in his face and expression.

This is a way of setting up, for the record, another extraordinary aspect of Trump’s debate performance last night: his reeling off statements that he must have known would be trivially easy to disprove.

In the NYT today, David Leonhardt has a formidable list of Trump’s misstatements in the debate, with the straightforward headline “The Lies Trump Told.” It follows “A Week of Whoppers,” by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, in the NYT three days ago.

Here’s just a single illustration that jumped out at me from the debate:

Alicia Machado (R), in 1998 shortly after her reign as Miss Universe, interviewing model Nathalia Paris. Reuters

There’s no way to tell which moments might end up being remembered from last night’s first Clinton-Trump debate.

Perhaps Donald Trump’s implicit confirmation that he had not paid taxes (“That’s called smart!”)? Or his acknowledgement that he’d “sort of hoped” for and profited from the devastating crash of housing values in 2008 (“That’s called business, by the way”)? His Montgomery Burns-like comment that he had not paid subcontractors because “he was not satisfied with their work”? His frequent “manterruptions” of Hillary Clinton (“Wrong!”) or talking over her answers, as a modern counterpart of Rick Lazio’s over-aggressive stage manners toward her during their New York Senate debates in 2000? His resurrection of his false claims that Hillary Clinton had started the birther movement, and that he had opposed the Iraq war?

We won’t know for a while. But there’s a good chance that the already-famous exchange in the debate’s final few minutes, about the beauty-pageant winner he called “Miss Piggy,” will have a lingering effect.

The NBC story about it is here and the NYT’s is here; NBC is the source of the video below. Their subject is of course Alicia Machado, a one-time Miss Venezuela who was chosen as Miss Universe in the period when Donald Trump was in charge of the Miss Universe pageant.

Vice president Dan Quayle (left), Democratic VP nominee Al Gore (right), and Admiral James Bond Stockdale at the Vice Presidential debate in 1992. Stockdale was a hero of the Vietnam war, but he was unsuited to modern politics, and his debate performance was generally viewed as disastrous. It's the main standard for comparison with tonight's performance by Donald Trump. AP

Details later, because I start very early tomorrow morning, but: in the history of debates I’ve been watching through my conscious lifetime, this was the most one-sided slam since Al Gore took on Dan Quayle and (the very admirable, but ill-placed) Admiral James B. Stockdale (“Who am I? Why am I here?”) in the vice presidential debate of 1992.

Donald Trump rose to every little bit of bait, and fell into every trap, that Hillary Clinton set for him. And she, in stark contrast to him, made (almost) every point she could have hoped to make, and carried herself in full awareness that she was on high-def split-screen every second. He was constantly mugging, grimacing, rolling his eyes—and sniffing. She looked alternately attentive and amused.

If you were applying the famous “How does this look with the sound turned off?” test, you would see a red-faced and angry man, and a generally calm-looking woman. Hillary Clinton’s most impressive performance-under-public-attack so far had been the 11-hour Benghazi Commission hearings. This was another 90 minutes more or less in the same vein.

(Is this strictly a partisan judgment, since obviously I believe Donald Trump should not become president? I don’t think so. I  had no problem saying that for foreseeable reasons, Mitt Romney clearly bested Barack Obama in their first debate four years ago. Similarly, George W. Bush showed surprising strength against Al Gore in their 2000 debates.)

I don’t expect that this evening will change the minds of any of Trump’s committed supporters. But they have topped off at around 40 percent of the electorate. The question is the effect it will have on undecideds in a handful of crucial states. Especially undecided women (seeing Trump constantly interrupt Clinton while she was talking, and end up challenging her “stamina”), non-whites (hearing his praise for stop-and-frisk), and environmentally conscious younger and older people (hearing him say, falsely, that he had never said that climate change was a hoax engineered by the Chinese). We’ll see.

For now, a bad evening for the Republican nominee. Details soon.

Then-vice president Spiro Agnew, in sunglasses next to former president Lyndon Johnson, at a space launch in 1969. Four years later, he resigned because of a corruption scandal. Donald Trump's financial tangles are the most complex of any national-ticket nominee since Agnew. (NASA Great Images series, via Wikipedia)

In the waning moments before this evening’s first debate, let me note another remarkable story by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post that in any other campaign would by itself qualify as major news.

Fahrenthold reports just now another entanglement between Trump’s business interests and his ostensibly charitable foundation. You should read all the details in his story, but in essence: Trump directed some of his business partners to take at least $2.3 million in money they owed him as normal business expenses, and instead send that money to the Trump Foundation as “donations.”

Why does this matter? Because at face value it’s a tax dodge.

  • The person or company paying the money gets to classify the payment as a tax-deductible charitable donation rather than a normal business expense, which in many cases would mean more favorable tax treatment.

  • Trump and his companies, which earned this money as income, never have to report it as income at all, and therefore never pay the resulting taxes on it—federal, state, city, payroll, etc. This is so even though, as Fahrenthold has shown in other stories, Trump then freely used the Foundation’s money to pay personal, political, or business expenses. As he summarized in today’s story:
    Previously, The Post reported that the Trump Foundation appears to have violated laws against “self-dealing,” which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to help themselves. In particular, Trump appeared to use $258,000 from the charity to help settle lawsuits involving a golf course and an oceanside club. Trump also spent charity money to buy two portraits of himself, including one that he hung in the bar of one of his golf resorts in Florida.

  • If Trump had reported the money as personal income, and then donated it to the foundation, he would have received some tax benefits—but because of deduction-limits and for other reasons, he almost certainly would have owed more tax than he does by not reporting the income at all. Exactly how much money he might have saved is impossible for outsiders to say, since he has refused to turn over his tax returns.

In my memory of politics, this is the closest thing we have seen to prima facie evidence of financial misconduct since Spiro Agnew had to resign as vice president for accepting cash bribes.


Points to reflect on:

Donald Gregg, longtime advisor to George H.W. Bush and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, speaking to the press in Beijing after one of his negotiating trips to North Korea. He has just announced his support for Hillary Clinton. Reuters

Noted for the record, since nothing like this has happened before:

1) Business leaders. Rebecca Ballhaus and Brody Mullins of the WSJ surveyed political donation records from the CEOs of the Fortune 100 largest companies in the United States. Historically and by class interest, this is a group that would generally vote Republican and support GOP candidates.

This year none of them (zero) have made donations to Donald Trump’s campaign. Four years ago, nearly one-third of them gave to Mitt Romney. In this year’s cycle, 19 have given to other Republican candidates, and 11 have given to Hillary Clinton.

You could take this as a sign of Trump finally standing up against the elite. Or, you could take it as a sign that people who know something about business want nothing to do with Donald Trump.


2) Opinion leaders. It’s possible that the survey here in Wikipedia is incomplete—because, it’s Wikipedia! But it appears that of the dozen or so major publications that have made general-election endorsements so far, none (zero) have supported Donald Trump.