It wasn’t the smoking gun President Donald Trump’s critics had hoped for. Far from it.
Some even thought MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s apparent scoop on Trump’s leaked 2005 tax return made him look good. After all, The New York Times had once suggested that he had avoided taxes, and others that he was faking the extent of his wealth.
The White House circulated a response before the segment aired, complete with its go-to “dishonest media” broadside.
“You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago,” a White House spokesperson said anonymously in a statement.
Donald Trump Jr. seized on the report minutes after the show ended, tweeting, “Thank you Rachel Maddow for proving to your #Trump hating followers how successful @realDonaldTrump is $ that he paid $44mm in taxes!”
The documents revealed nothing about the president’s financial ties, the subject of intense scrutiny from Democrats and others who think Trump may have concealed business relationships in Russia.
All told, Trump seemed to make it through the segment in pretty good shape — so good that a cyberspace chorus wondered for hours after the fact: Did Trump leak his own tax return?
Feeding the theory was the recipient of the two-page summary of the return, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and tax expert, who discussed it on Maddow’s show Tuesday night. The documents showed that Trump had earned more than $150 million that year and had paid $36.5 million in income tax — hardly the game-changing expose some believed it would be.
“It’s entirely possible that Donald sent this to me,” Johnston told Maddow. “It’s a possibility, and it could have been leaked by someone in his direction.”
Others noted that the tax return was labeled “client copy,” ostensibly indicating that it came from someone close to him, rather than the IRS.
“So,” a blogger at Redstate.com said, “either Donald Trump leaked this himself, or someone with a ‘client copy’ did. Given that there appears to be nothing embarrassing about the return whatsoever, and the world is laughing at Maddow, my money’s on Trump being the leaker. It’s probably the most favorable return for his narrative in existence.”
Others made similar observations on Twitter.
One person tweeted: “‘Client Copy’ signature stamp indicates leak of Trump return came from someone tied to him, NOT from IRS.”
Another person tweeted: “It is marked ‘client copy’. It is not the copy filed with the IRS. Did he leak it himself?”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, went farther, saying Trump may have released the documents to divert attention from debate over the GOP health care bill and the investigation into the administration’s ties to Russia, tweeting: “Trump probably released the 2 pages to show he paid taxes once to divert attention from Russia & CBO report on #Trumpcare. Y no other pages?”
The right-wing radio host Joe Walsh, meanwhile, pondered whether Trump was trying to “troll” Maddow, tweeting:
“What do ya bet that Trump himself leaked these tax returns to troll @maddow?”
If Trump or someone near him was the source of the leak, it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for the president. For years, Trump regularly posed as his own spokesman, using the aliases “John Barron” and “John Miller” to brag about himself and steer coverage about his personal life. (Trump has denied that he ever used a fake name, but he admitted under oath to doing so, as The Washington Post has reported.)
Trump has also proven himself a master of deflection, habitually taking to Twitter to distract from the day’s controversies. As David Smith of the Guardian noted, “It would be a classic Trump tactic to deflect attention from his troubles with wire-tapping claims and replacing the health care law.”
For months now, Trump has refused to release his tax returns, claiming his lawyers have told him not to do so because he is under audit.
But in its statement Tuesday, the White House said Trump had paid $38 million in taxes on an income of more than $150 million, both figures close to what the documents showed. It added that Trump was “one of the most successful businessmen in the world” and had paid “no more tax than legally required.”
“If all of Donald Trump’s federal tax returns are along the lines of this one,” Binyamin Appelbaum of The New York Times tweeted, “it would certainly be in his interest to publish them.”
After the story broke, Johnston said “Trump fans” made threatening calls to his wife and one of his children.
“Let’s have open debates, not threats,” he tweeted. “Calls to family are out of bounds.”