On October 2, just a little over a week ago, the New York Times dropped a sprawling 15,000-word report on Donald Trump’s “dubious tax schemes during the 1990s.” According to the investigation, Trump had benefited from massive infusions of wealth from his father for years, much of it received via fraudulent tax-avoidance schemes. The report offered one clear reason why Trump, unlike presidents before him, has refused to make his own tax returns public. Extrapolating from his father's returns, it's likely that Trump’s contain information that could undercut Trump’s image — first as a developer, then as a celebrity, and finally as a president — as a self-made entrepreneur who built his fortune on a single million-dollar loan from his father, a load that, as he repeatedly emphasized in interviews, he had to pay back “with interest.”
Instead, the Times report claims, Trump received the equivalent of $413 million from his father’s real estate holdings, as well as a loan of $60.7 million (140 million in 2018 dollars). The investigation was 19 months in the making — a point emphasized by a 24-minute Showtime mini-documentary that went behind the scenes as journalists chased the story. One pivotal scene shows New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet urging the team, back in December 2017 — at the height of the tax reform debate — to publish what they already had, instead of pushing for more. “My fear is you’re gonna miss an amazing news window to write about Trump’s taxes,” Baquet said. “It might even influence the debate over tax reform. If people got a sense of how one wealthy family over generations were able to use America’s tax laws to avoid paying taxes and enrich themselves, that’s gonna be such a powerful moment of debate.”
Reporter David Barstow resisted. “We’re seeing things that are clearly over the line in terms of legality,” he said. “Just fraudulent behavior.” Over the months that followed, the Times investigative team acquired years of Trump’s father’s tax returns, allowing the Times to substantiate those claims. (The president’s lawyer denounced the story as “100 percent false, and highly defamatory.”) The story exploded across Twitter: According to the metrics visible in the documentary, there were 161,000 concurrent views from Twitter within moments of publication. As New York Times Washington correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum put it, in a tweet retweeted more than 16,300 times, “Do you know how high the bar is for the NYT to directly accuse someone, let alone a sitting president, of tax fraud, which is a federal crime? It’s very very high. And here we are.”
And yet, one week after publication, it’s not clear what the ramifications of the story will be for Trump. The allegedly fraudulent activities took place nearly two decades ago, far outstripping the six-year statute of limitations on federal tax fraud. While there’s no time limit on civil penalties, and New York city and state regulators are “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation” opened up by the Times report, it’s unclear if (and it seems unlikely that) the IRS will audit Trump or pursue charges.
Did the story miss its perfect news window — or was there never one in the first place?
The investigation may also have received less public attention or discussion given that it was released amid the thick of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh — a potential explanation for why, as Politico’s Jack Shafer put it, it became the “bombshell that bombed,” virtually undiscussed by the agenda-setting Sunday political shows. Just hours after the piece went live, Trump appeared at a rally in Mississippi, openly mocked Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate Judiciary testimony, and did what he arguably does best: He shifted the news cycle.
That news vacuum, and the way the news cycle has accelerated to the point of a one-day attention span, both probably did contribute to the speed with which the tax story has evaporated from our general consciousness. Maybe, as Baquet theorized in the documentary, the investigation would’ve prompted different conversations if it had been released during the congressional push for tax reform. But we can’t be sure that that, or waiting a week, or a month, would have changed much. Did the story miss its perfect news window — or was there never one in the first place?
At its best, investigative journalism seeks to illuminate abuse of specific systems and the power structures that allow them to go unchecked, often revealed through inspection of bland, arcane, impenetrable documents. See: the inner workings of the Nixon White House, the Pentagon Papers, the cover-up of abuse on the part of the Catholic Church, the secrecy around the actions of Harvey Weinstein. That illumination then creates a public scandal — a disruption of the status quo — by changing the way we fundamentally understand the subject.
Take the Catholic Church: For years, the dominant understanding of the church was that it was benevolent and always acting in the best interests of all parishioners and children under its care; investigations into shockingly widespread clergy abuse and the subsequent cover-up punctured that belief. This applies to celebrities, too. Love or hate TMZ, when it published transcripts of Mel Gibson’s sexist, anti-Semitic rant during his arrest for DUI, it fundamentally undercut most people’s understanding of who he was and what he represented.
Scandal — and the public outrage that characterizes it — forces change. Over the past 20 years, the Catholic Church has paid millions in restitution; Mel Gibson was (temporarily) blackballed from Hollywood; Harvey Weinstein faces criminal charges and will (presumably) never work in Hollywood again.
In the lead-up to and aftermath of Trump’s election, media organizations have thrown millions of dollars in resources toward investigative journalism aimed squarely at him, his family, and his fortune. And, as Times reporter Susanne Craig told CNN, in her eyes the tax investigation “sets down a factual narrative of his life that is very much in contrast with the one that's largely out there now.”
Even when a story like this reveals new information, it doesn’t quite illuminate anything we didn’t already know.
But is that, in fact, true? On some level, even when a story like this reveals new information, it doesn’t quite illuminate anything we didn’t already know — or at least suspect, or understand as true, even without hard proof — about Trump. There is no resulting scandal, because none of the information actually unsettles the foundation of Trump’s image.
An affair with Stormy Daniels? Proof that he’s a ladies’ man. The allegations of sexual misconduct and assault? Proof that he’s an unapologetic boor. The Access Hollywood tape? Proof that he’s a man of a different era who refuses political correctness. Reports of his inability to understand complex political and economic policy? He’s a simple man, not an elitist. A tape rumored to have Trump saying the n-word while taping The Apprentice might dominate the news cycle for a day or two — as each of these other stories has — but ultimately it fades away. It wouldn’t be scandalous, because Trump has already demonstrated his racist views: As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it, “America Doesn’t Need Another Tape to Know Who Trump Is.”
If anything, each revelation has done the opposite of what scandal should do: It didn’t revise your understanding of Trump, but reinforced what you already thought about him. If someone already loved him, they loved him more; if they already hated him, they hated him more. Which isn’t to say that these stories aren’t worth reporting or publishing, but they highlight just how strange and unprecedented their seeming lack of effect is. They don’t disassemble Trump’s image; they simply harden any existing reaction to it.
For years, investigative journalism has bounced off Trump. Still, during the election, some hoped that if someone could just get their hands on his tax returns, they would be able to illuminate something rotten and hollow at the very core of his larger narrative — something so damaging that his entire image, and political career, would collapse. But that sort of supposition relied on one particular reading of Trump’s image, shared by pundits and analysts and academics across the political spectrum, including the Times’ Baquet. Namely, that his appeal was rooted in a (slightly bedazzled) version of the American dream — living proof that you could start small and end bigly.
In many ways, Trump propagated that understanding of himself: As the Showtime documentary points out, he’s spent decades telling the story of the mere $1 million loan he received from his father. And while that narrative may have been pivotal to the understanding of his rise, since then his image — through multiple bankruptcies, through his exploitation of the tabloids, through Trump Steaks and his embrace of a caricatured version of himself on The Apprentice — has shifted. Trump is still an embodiment of the American dream, but of a particular version of it that has far less to do with bootstraps and hard work and far more to do with working the system. He’s the American dream the same way that the Mafia or Frank Abagnale, the inspiration for Catch Me If You Can, are the American dream. He’s a proud scammer.
Trump is still an embodiment of the American dream, but of a particular version of it that has far less to do with bootstraps and hard work and far more to do with working the system.
Some might call Trump’s strategies devious or craven, testing the limits of legality. But for Trump and those who admire him, that’s not a point against him; it’s the point itself. Trump was born into a certain sort of privilege, but never enough to elevate him to the elite societal echelons, and corresponding acceptance, that he so craved. Instead, he scammed his way into the Manhattan social scene, wielding the same signifiers of wealth — the Ivy League schools, the model wives, the conspicuous consumption. And he did it by exploiting bankruptcy laws and tax codes — and bragging about it. He worked a system that had otherwise been closed off to him, even as he closed it off to others. It’s arguably that, not the so-called bootstraps narrative, that makes him so appealing to millions who find that they, too, have been blocked from the societal ladder we’ve been taught to climb. And that’s exactly why the tax story, like the Washington Post’s broad, Pulitzer Prize–winning look at his supposed philanthropy, didn’t land with the explosive impact some might have expected.
The Times investigation into Trump’s tax history is ongoing, as are many others, and we don’t know what else they could potentially uncover. But even if new reporting does reveal something truly narrative-altering about Trump — if there were a tape of him denigrating his supporters, or if he really ever did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue — it seems likely that much of Trump’s base would still refuse to accept that revelation, or its implications. Why believe journalists who are the same elites who’ve rejected Trump all along, who’ve presented his success, however “untraditional,” as criminal? Those same journalists have spent the past two and a half years repeatedly asking Trump voters, “Have you changed your mind yet? What about now?”
At this point, it’s as if rejecting journalists’ leading questions about Trump and ignoring the latest news has become a point of pride. And as for those who already dislike Trump — a historically unpopular president who lost the popular vote — there’s very little that could lead them to revise their opinions of him. (If there’s someone out there who regrets not voting for Trump, I’ve yet to hear about them.) It’s hard to imagine anyone stumbling upon the one secret that would truly shake people from those deeply entrenched positions. Of course, that’s not a reason to stop looking.
Trump’s past may be filled with shadows, but he’s spent every day of his presidency showing the public who he is and the ideals he represents, whether it’s through his actions, his tweets, his rallies, or his hirings and firings. The would-be scandals fizzle not because readers are fatigued, or because his base doesn’t care. It’s because each new story feels like reading something you’ve known all along. ●
Dean Baquet is the executive editor of the New York Times. An earlier version of this post misstated his title.