But spinning Trump’s billion-dollar loss and potentially years-long tax break as genius is perhaps the only avenue open to the Trump campaign to preserve the perception that Trump is a brilliant businessman.
It seems likely that the story is true. The campaign decried the Times scoop as a violation of the law and threatened legal action, but did not deny the substance. Besides, Trump had already said much the same thing during the first presidential debate, when he responded to Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he had paid no income taxes by saying, “That makes me smart.” Trump can’t pretend the story didn’t happen or that he never said that, another favorite tactic, so he might as well own it.
A second, related attack is on the Times itself. Trump surrogates like Newt Gingrich were eager to pass along a story in Breitbart, whose CEO has taken a sabbatical to run Trump’s campaign, pointing out that the paper also paid no taxes in 2014.
It’s much too early to know what effect the tax story will have on polling. But one plausible answer is this: It will whip up Democratic fervor, and might put some undecided voters off Trump, but won’t have that great an effect on Trump’s standing among his own supporters. From that angle, the “genius” line is a way to help rally and consolidate the base.
The belief that Trump is a brilliant businessman constitutes a great deal of his appeal. That idea is questionable. Trump was born into money, had to declare corporate bankruptcy four times, and today is largely in the marketing business, franchising his name to developers and and tie-makers rather than actually building things. But his supposed business expertise is an important selling point in his candidacy. Business success was the second-most cited reason for supporting Trump in a Gallup survey, trailing only the fact that he’s not a career politician.
Stories suggesting otherwise seem to have largely glanced off Trump’s carapace. A recent survey, for example, found that most voters did not believe that Trump was born into wealth, even though his father, Fred Trump, was a successful businessman who later helped Trump with millions of dollars in loans and gifts. In March, Trump displayed what he called “Trump Steaks” at a campaign event in Florida. Although he once marketed such meat through the Sharper Images, these steaks were a sham—as reporters noticed, they were stamped with a local butcher’s logo, and Trump was widely mocked. The next day, at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a supporter earnestly told me that the fact that Trump was big enough to have his own steaks was one reason he backed Trump. If debunkings didn’t get through them, it is likely even more true now, as many voters say their minds are made up and unlikely to change.
The “genius” angle is also a sly bit of misdirection, since it distracts from perhaps the more outrageous angle of the story: That Trump got a tax break only because he lost $916 million. (Trump was at the time heavily involved in the casino business, a famously operator-friendly sector.) That is potentially damaging to his brand as a businessman.