Last night was perhaps the most significant insignificant live TV moment to date in the Trump presidency. Everyone tuned in. Everyone waited patiently for Rachel Maddow to take a leisurely, Maddow-like stroll through the cliff's notes of her months-long reporting on Trump's possible Russian ties. And everyone (mostly) left feeling like they'd just sat through every M. Night Shyamalan movie not named The Sixth Sense, i.e. overwrought plot, no big payoff.
This column will not comment on the merits or faults of Maddow's execution, timing, hype, general show format, or any other litany of rapid-fire criticisms hurled at her throughout Tuesday night's broadcast. We're less than 24 hours out from the live event and that territory has already been slashed and burned. Instead I wanted to share what kernels of insight we can take away from the otherwise unpalatable nothingburger that was the 2005 1040 reveal. I stumbled upon a thread that brings up some valid points if you strip away some of the far-reaching logic peppered in. Sam Abramson is a columnist for Huffington Post Politics, so as always, consider the source.
Point #1, though it fails to clarify that there is still no evidence Trump did so willingly, is valid. The statement released by the White House prior to the MSNBC broadcast essentially verified the authenticity of the documents, and leads to points #2, #3, and #4. The WH when given wind of breaking news has shown a propensity to immediately comment (see 9th Circuit decision). Those comments in turn prove that Trump's excuse for not disclosing his taxes is and always has been a front. We also now know that it's likely more tax info will "find its way" to news outlets and they are emboldened to run with it. Point #5 is more speculative than genuine, but we are in an era of feelings, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Trump's skeptics will lean on this return (whether correct or not) as the first crumb in the trail leading to nefarious places.
Point #7 is interesting because it does raise the concept of the Alternative Minimum Tax, "a supplemental income tax imposed by the United States federal government required in addition to baseline income tax for certain individuals, corporations, estates, and trusts that have exemptions or special circumstances allowing for lower payments of standard income tax," into the national conciousness. Why is that important? I'm not sure people care so much as to whether he paid it or not in 2005, but more the important question would be in point #8, or how it could affect his tax policy making. If the public knows his tax plan, which advocates for the removal of the AMT, could directly benefit his personal wealth in drastic ways, could it put more pressure on Congress come tax reform time? That remains to be seen.
This run of tweets I find particularly poignant, mostly because they categorizes the event for what it will mean, not necessarily what it meant. What we learned from Maddow's break was actually kind of good for Trump. We learned he actually paid taxes, and in a larger percentage than public perception would suggest. Overall that's a win for Trump. BUT, Maddow's show did bring Trump's taxes from the sidelines back to center court. Both Maddow's blog and David Johnston's sites crashed due to traffic volume. People want to know, and now Trump can't dismiss that. The White House also perhaps made the knee-jerk misstep of responding too quickly and defensively to the breaking news, inadvertently validating the documents and setting the precedent that any further documents will also require public comment. That begs the question, "Can you pick and choose when to lend credibility to tax documents when they leak, especially when the credibility of the president and staff has already been challenged in numerous, verifiable ways? Can the WH control the tax narrative?"
The answer in the short term is "No, it cannot." And that's a big problem going forward. It's reasonable to believe the pressure will increase on the administration to answer more questions about Trump's taxes. It's also reasonable to believe more details/leaks will likely complicate the nature of the answers the administration can give. Last night was a softball over the plate for the White House, and it made a timid, jerky swing and was able to foul tip it safely away. But what happens when the sharp curveball comes? We'll need more than a haphazardly drafted statement and contradictory morning tweets from the president to clarify those records. Eventually if records are released, with no avenue for WH recourse, Trump will be in a war of attrition. Either pull back the curtain of transparency, or have it nibbled away bit by bit by ravenous lawmakers and voters. This story might not have been the whopper Maddow & company hoped for, but they got the pilot light on the grill lit. Now we just have to wait and see how hot it gets.