WASHINGTON – The bombshell revelations that President Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he ran for office and paid no income taxes at all in many others threaten to undercut a pillar of his appeal among blue-collar voters and provide a new opening for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on the eve of the first presidential debate.
Trump has worked for decades to build an image of himself as a hugely successful businessman — even choosing “mogul” as his Secret Service code name. But The New York Times on Sunday revealed that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he won the presidency, and in 2017, his first year in office. He paid no income taxes whatsoever in 10 of the previous 15 years, largely because he reported losing more money than he made, according to the Times, which obtained years’ worth of tax return data that the president had long fought to keep private.
The development comes at a particularly precarious moment for Trump, whose Republican campaign is struggling to overcome criticism of the president’s handling of the pandemic. It hands Biden an easy attack line heading into Tuesday’s debate. And with early voting already happening in some states and Election Day just over a month away, Trump may be running out of time to turn his campaign around.
“Donald Trump needs this election to be about Joe Biden as a choice,” said longtime GOP consultant Alex Conant. “This keeps the focus squarely on Trump’s character and the chaos going into the most important night of the campaign, the debate.”
Of course, Trump has repeatedly faced — and survived — devastating turns that would have sunk any other politician. That includes, most notably, the stunning “Access Hollywood” tape released in October 2016, in which Trump was recorded bragging about kissing and groping women without their permission. The video’s release came just two days before Trump was set to face then-candidate Hillary Clinton in their second debate and was considered a death knell to his campaign at the time.
At this point in the race, with voting already underway in many states and so few voters still undecided, it is unclear whether any new discoveries about Trump would make any difference. Trump’s support over the years has remained remarkably consistent, polls over the course of his presidency have found.
Yet the tax allegations go to the very heart of Trump’s appeal, especially among the blue-collar voters in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who propelled him to the presidency in 2016. Trump was supported by about two-thirds of white voters without college degrees, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, versus only about 2 in 10 nonwhite noncollege graduates.
Indeed, in a Gallup poll from February 2016, Republicans who wanted to see Trump win their party’s nomination cited his experience as a businessman as the second-most important reason they backed him, surpassed only by his status as a nonpolitician and an outsider.