Wednesday February 26, 2020

US presidential election: Tax, tweets and tumult

With five weeks to polling day, Bill Clinton's infidelity is descending slowly into the public's eyeline, writes Siobhán Brett

4th October, 2016
Basketball fans wear Trump and Clinton masks at a game last week Pic: Getty

Phones across America were lit up by the news on Saturday night.

The New York Times had obtained a 1990s copy of Donald Trump’s tax returns, wrote an illuminating report about them and issued a push notification to mark the occasion: “They suggest he could have paid no federal income tax for 18 years”.

In a pleasingly traditional sequence, the documents were posted to Suzanne Craig, a staff reporter familiar with the terrain.

The newspaper’s executive editor Dean Banquet at the start of September said he would risk jail to publish the candidates tax returns, which is illegal under federal law. Within hours of publication, a lawyer representing Trump promised a suit against the paper.

But -- much apart from the fact that a public interest defence ought to apply tidily to an instance where no journalist has broken the law -- the Times’ work is done. The public now knows about the $916 million (€814 million) loss filed by Trump in 1995, a sum the Times described as “large enough to wipe out more than $50 million a year in taxable income over 18 years”.

The Trump campaign response to the story could have been quickly and accurately dreamt up and penned by any person even loosely familiar with its unique timbre.

In it, Trump was declared “a highly-skilled businessman” who “knows the tax code far better than anyone who has ever run for president”. And, laughably in the face of the revelation, “the only one who knows how to fix it”.

The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing

The preferred Trump response to adversity is to plough ahead. By Sunday evening, network news programmes were leading with a remark of his that coincided with the publication of the returns: a suggestion at a rally in Pennsylvania that Clinton was not “loyal” to her husband.

Yesterday, talk of tax was secondary to that, to remarks Trump made about veterans who suffer from PTSD, to allegations that Trump had been sexist and inappropriate on the set of The Apprentice, and to news that the New York attorney general ordered the Trump Foundation stop raising money in the state, with immediate effect.

Recent events succeeded a batch of distinctly unpresidential tweets by Trump(in the middle of the night, New York time), in which he branded Alicia Machado, the former pageant contestant whose testimony Clinton raised in the first debate, “disgusting” and, in the same breath, free of context, urged his followers to “check out sex tape and past”.

“Trump jumps into the gutter”, read a Politico headline, rather generously (from where, precisely, was he jumping?).

At the first debate last Monday, Trump, visibly angered by the telling of the Machado story, luxuriated in saying he was going to say some “rough” things about Clinton but decently resisted. It seems obvious that he will not demonstrate anything like the same restraint in the second debate.

Last week also featured the issuance of a greater-than-usual number of press releases by the Trump campaign.

One grouping of literature was headed “FOLLOW THE MONEY” and included a massive cut-and-paste run-down of reports about Denis O’Brien, referencing “close ties” with the Clintons.

Writing in The Irish Times last week, columnist Colum Kenny suggested that the O’Brien release “may not be deliberate Trump payback for overt political assaults on him by senior politicians in the Dáil this year” but deemed it “enough to worry Irish voters”, and said it “shames Ireland”.

Does it? Going further, Kenny concluded the current government needed to “backtrack rapidly and to make it clear that it is as happy to work with Trump as with Clinton”. This likely affords Trump’s round-up, one of dozens disseminated each week, too much weird weight.

It's not like Irish leaders are alone in their mistrust.

Meanwhile...

The Clinton campaign had a week comparatively tranquil and uneventful.

The e-mails sent by the campaign to supporters and donors struck the same hi-lo tone as they have from the start, calling desperately for a single dollar at a time in one e-mail, belittling Trump in another, provocatively cautioning “we’re 37 days from Donald Trump sliding gleefully into the White House” in a third.

But with 35 days left to polling day, one nagging matter that has loomed large for a while seems to be descending slowly into the public’s eye-line.

The New York Times’ flagged it last Friday, and a further piece in yesterday’s paper chronicled the arc of a subject that Trump has yet to get to in any real way: Bill Clinton’s infidelity and the extent to which his wife was involved in allegedly trying to discredit women who came forward with allegations of harassment, assault and unwanted advances.

When Trump does decide to take this on — soon is the sense — it is not likely to be a delicate shot, nor a thoughtful, effective, evidence-based skewering. “She’s nasty,” Trump said during an interview about this, "but I can be nastier than she ever can be.”

Further reading

Roger Angell for the New Yorker, explaining why his 19th US presidential election is the most pivotal yet, is even-handed, honest, clear, wise and moving.

“The suspension of reality lends itself to authoritarian politics because it makes liberal democracy impossible.” In a bright, challenging post on Medium, Ned Resnikoff suggests that Trump gains support by behaving erratically (consistently) and hampering voters’ grasp on reality.

If you need a laugh, and you might, Alec Baldwin impersonated Trump for Saturday Night Live the night before last, to fine effect.

“…Monday’s television duel between the two candidates is the exception that proves the rule: a brief moment of shared experience in the public square. The rest of the time, American voters are off in their own echo chambers, hearing views that reinforce their own.” Timothy Garton Ash asks readers of The Guardian which of two “information cocoons” they reside in.

At Jezebel, Anna Merlan remarks with characteristic saltiness on the remarkable ease with which Trump and Newt Gingrich are content to criticise Alicia Machado.

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