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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

'Expose' on Trump taxes undermined media credibility (again)

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has long demanded President Trump release his tax returns, and Tuesday she finally got the scoop: In 2005 private businessman Trump made a lot of money — and paid a lot of taxes. (Screen capture)
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has long demanded President Trump release his tax returns, and Tuesday she finally got the scoop: In 2005 private businessman Trump made a lot of money — and paid a lot of taxes. (Screen capture)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 09:01 pm
If Donald Trump didn't leak his own tax return to Rachel Maddow, it had to be the Russians. Nothing less than a self-serving plant or a commie plot could possibly explain how the left-leaning TV commentator's would-be scoop could have gone so terribly wrong while simultaneously providing a textbook definition of "fake news."   Maddow, who promoted her Tuesday show on MSNBC by promising to at long last reveal Trump's elusive tax returns, took so long to get around to it — she veered off into a bizarre 20-minute monologue about Trump and the Red menace — that the White House actually spilled the beans before she did. At long last did America learn that, in 2005, private businessman Trump earned $153 million and paid $36.5 million in taxes. That's a tax rate of about 25 percent, placing Trump ahead of MSNBC's 2013 rate of 24 percent, socialist and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' 13 percent in 2014 tax returns and even the 18.7 percent paid by President Barack and Michelle Obama in 2015. The average effective rate for the top 1 percent of income earners in 2005 was 19.7 percent, several points lower than the rate Trump appears to have paid, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Is that really a scandal? Probably not even to never-Trumpers — especially when no less than Hillary Clinton has publicly speculated that Trump's prior refusal to release his tax record was intended to hide the fact that "he didn't pay any federal income tax."

Thanks in part to Maddow and investigative reporter David Johnston, to whom her information was originally mailed anonymously, that suspicion has been debunked — so far as 2005 is concerned, at least. But that didn't stop Johnston from speculating on Maddow's show that Trump's continuing denial of additional tax records is designed to hide "who he's beholden to."

That, at least, is a legitimate point. As I have noted before, Trump should follow recent tradition and release his tax returns not because he has done anything wrong (if he had he would have been prosecuted) but because Americans deserve to know about any potential conflicts of interest. Until Trump does so, such speculation will continue.

But one wonders what Maddow was thinking when she tantilized her audience with the implied promise of a smoking gun she knew, or should have known, would fire only blanks. Did Trump's critics really believe Americans would be outraged that he paid "only" 25 percent when most Americans earning more than $1 million were paying 27.4 percent?  Or that, as the Associated Press reported, he would have paid much less if not for the alternative minimum tax Trump's campaign targeted for repeal?

I don't want to pay a penny more in taxes than is legally necessary. Neither do you. Neither does Trump. Is that really news, much less cause for impeachment?

 As a reader, you normally see only what I write. But I and most journalists spend the vast majority of our time looking for and researching stories, scouring through records and conducting interviews. Sometimes all that behind-the-scenes work yields fruit and sometimes it doesn't, but good reporters don't go to press until they have the facts to support what they believe to be true. The problem with Maddow's approach wasn't with the facts themselves but in the manner in which they were presented — a manner that, ironically, seems to have benefited Trump at her expense.

Thus the populist but ultimately unfortunate and even dangerous appeal of Trump's crusade against "fake news." Did some Trump aides speak with Russians during the campaign? Apparently so. But so did Clinton aides. Were some holdover U.S. attorneys asked to leave when Trump took office? Yes but previous new presidents, including Obama, did the same. Did Obama "wiretap" Trump, as the president claims? Or is Trump simply trying to deflect attention with a claim that is scurrilous if untrue?

These and numerous other questions and concerns — many invited by Trump himself — justify and demand inquiry. That's the constitutionally protected obligation of a free press. But as Maddow has just demonstrated, not even the Russians could do a better job of undermining media credibility or boosting Trump's than journalists who allow their own suspicions and fantasies to get ahead of the facts.



This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.




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