The stellar reporting by the New York Times into Donald Trump’s piecemeal federal income tax payments is a classic example of how even the finest investigative journalism risks being hindered by the very things it seeks to expose – namely, the extraordinary and unprecedented contempt the US President has shown for rules, norms, and good faith.
The newspaper’s disclosure that the 73-year-old has done everything possible to harbour his wealth at the expense of the country he is tasked with leading is a damning revelation. The force of the story’s impact is largely derived from the brevity with which it is told. “Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in the year he won the presidency,” it began. “In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.” For trainee reporters learning how to craft a razor-sharp intro, there can be few better examples.
Beyond the headline, none of the other forensic allegations of how Mr Trump has employed dubious schemes and levers to enrich himself at the expense of his nation – whether it be using his own daughter, an employee of the family firm, as a consultant, or classifying personal retreats as investment properties – pass the smell test.
Any one of these objectively appalling insights would have been enough to put paid to an incumbent president’s reelection prospects. But the same has been said, time and again, over four bewildering years. It is a sign of just how disruptive Mr Trump’s presidency has been that the influence of such exhaustive reporting is at risk of being diminished so easily.
We have arrived at this crunch point again; a major piece of investigative work reveals in unsparing detail how the most powerful man in the world promised to sacrifice his own interests to look out for the people who had trusted him, only to game the system to ensure the reverse was true. The response? A soul-searching question: will it make a difference?
In an age so beset by scandal, lies, and assaults on common decency, bombshell reports about Mr Trump are degraded, and obscured in a fog of fatigue and misinformation, regardless of the explosive nature of its contents.
In part, that is down to the way elements of a partisan media contrive to frame the story around the president’s vague dismissals. But it is also down to the absurd new reality which robs journalism of its clout simply because it has the misfortune of confirming what many had long surmised.
The issue of Mr Trump’s taxes is a case in point. Having broken with a long presidential tradition by refusing to release his returns, and taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, Mr Trump’s actions invited a slew of speculation.
But intuition is no substitute for the truth. It is the role of journalism to cut through the noise to present the unvarnished facts. Sometimes, those facts are surprising, sometimes they serve to attest to the validity of suspicions. That should not lessen their impact.
That we should even be asking whether the tax exposé will have significant repercussions is a reminder of how successfully Mr Trump and his enablers have broken the system. But arguably the most important election in US history is weeks away, and those who wish to fix the republic require focus more than ever.
With further stories promised, the New York Times stands a good chance of pressing home the issue of Mr Trump’s taxes, and the timing of the first tranche of reporting – released just ahead of the first presidential debate – substantially increases the chances of the story landing, especially with early voting underway in several states.
Coronavirus has sent the US economy spiralling into the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression, and it is hard to underestimate the anger blue-collar voters in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania will feel knowing their president has made every effort to pay forward as little of his own money as possible.
Tapping into that – as well as the fallacy that Mr Trump’s business acumen makes him the best candidate to spearhead a recovery – is vital, though Democrats will know only swing voters can shift the needle. Those who have sided with Mr Trump from one catastrophe to the next will be unbowed.
Even if they are secretly appalled, they may not concede as much. As the economist and writer, Paul Krugman, has pointed out, there is a “when prophecy fails” dynamic at play among Mr Trump’s base; to admit the truth about him is to admit that you were conned.
But more than that, the Democrats need to present the tax story for what it is: a reminder that Mr Trump is a grave national security threat. In the next few years, he will be required to pay at least £327m in loans and other debts. That gives his creditors room to exert leverage over him, and it gives Mr Trump motive to do whatever he deems necessary in order to protect his financial interests.
Will it work? I’m unsure. The potential conflict of interest at the heart of a Trump presidency – a series of huge loans from Germany’s Deutsche Bank – was known in advance of the 2016 election, and that is to say nothing of numerous other scandals which preceded his victory.
All we can reiterate is that Mr Trump is emphatically not who he said he was, and that the grand experiment which put him in charge of one of the greatest countries in the world has been an unmitigated disaster. It is in America’s gift whether it takes a step back, or leaps screaming into the abyss.