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The Right and Wrong Way for Biden to Attack Trump’s Taxes

The president is not a phony billionaire. He’s a real tax cheat.

JIM WATSON/Getty Images

The bombshell New York Times reporting on Donald Trump’s taxes is perhaps too complex a subject for Joe Biden to use as an easy political attack. For all that led “Trump’s taxes” to become a sort of Holy Grail among certain Democratic activists, the returns would never have been able to reveal the full extent of his finances and business dealings, for the simple reason that these are the documents he actually filed with the government, not some secret internal ledger. There was never going to be a line item labeled “bribe,” or itemized deductions for expenses incurred in committing financial fraud. And his returns, as described by the Times, do not tell one simple narrative; they can be interpreted in different ways.

The Times says, basically, that Trump made a lot of money from his television fame but wasted much of it on money-losing golf courses, and he is now deep in debt, with a ruinous bill coming due very soon, especially if he loses a protracted battle with the IRS over a refund he received in 2010.

He is, in other words, a bad business guy, even though his whole deal is that he is supposed to be a good business guy. He took a lot of income and turned it into a lot of debt. But regardless of whether his actual financial state resembles the picture painted by the Times, and even though many Americans are quite morally averse to debt, Trump has never shied away from admitting his reliance on it, in part to, as he did here, avoid taxes.

If my Twitter feed is any indication (I am not foolish enough to believe it is indicative of the electorate, but it is certainly representative of a selection of the elite conversation), there will be a strong impulse, among Democrats, to attack Trump as a Phony Billionaire, as opposed to the real ones. People imagine, with glee, Joe Biden standing on stage tonight, pointing to Trump’s paper losses, saying “Dumb Donald is so poor,” and waiting for the audience at home to shout back, “How poor is he?”

I’ve no doubt that some focus group data somewhere or other shows that these taunts could be effective. (Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried a version of this tactic in 2016.) It plays on, and heightens, Trump’s very real resentments about being disrespected by the power elite. But it is not challenging or tricky to make Donald Trump feel resentful, and Donald Trump is not poor. Poor people do not own golf courses in Scotland that lose curious amounts of money every year. To have access to the trappings of wealth despite being deeply indebted and possibly at the mercy of creditors is still to have access to the trappings of wealth. Donald Trump is rich until the moment the credit dries up and he starts losing his stuff.

So I don’t think Joe Biden should bother trying to convince Americans that his opponent is, for example, not as authentic a plutocrat as Biden-endorser Michael Bloomberg. No, Biden should focus on the audit.

As The New York Times describes it, the audit is the result of a large income tax refund Trump received in 2010, amounting to “all the federal income tax he had paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest.” He was able to claim the refund because of “a declaration of more than $700 million in business losses.” The tax documents don’t specify the source of those losses, but the Times connects them to his 2009 abandonment of his failing Atlantic City casino. In order to qualify for the full refund, Trump had to completely abandon the business, walking away without any further involvement. This is what he claimed he was doing, at the time. But after outside investors bought the casino out of bankruptcy in 2010, Trump received 5 percent of the company’s stock and warrants for another 5 percent” in exchange for the right to continue using his name.

No matter the specific circumstances, an audit should not take 10 years. I suspect this one has dragged for as long as it has because of political reasons. The audit is currently sitting with the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, a bipartisan-by-statute commission that reviews refunds as large as Trump’s. The committee has not moved on the matter, seemingly, since 2016. (In other words, it’s possible that it is yet another instance where partisan Republican attorneys are protecting the president from the consequences of his actions.)

It is very difficult to write about what Joe Biden should do, considering that one of the central themes of his campaign to date has been not caring what people like me think. But if I were advising Joe Biden on what to say about Trump’s taxes tonight, I’d point to the impossible complexity of Trump’s financial arrangements and business dealings, as typified by the circumstances around that audit, and tell Biden to promise that if elected, he would get to the bottom of it.

Biden may be politically obsequious to the financial class, but unlike some other modern Democrats, he is not particularly afraid of class warfare rhetoric, and he is willing to say things about making the well-off pay their “fair share.” What Trump’s taxes show is that we can’t even begin to calculate what certain extraordinarily wealthy people’s fair share is. The accounting is too complex, and the methods of shifting and hiding income are too numerous. Americans detest tax cheats. Biden can promise to restore law and order to the tax code by rebuilding the IRS and directing its attention not at ordinary Americans but at the sort of people who receive incredibly dubious $70 million refunds.

This could even have the secondary benefit of unnerving Trump much more than the claims about his “true” wealth. Donald Trump has always feared any investigation into his whole deal. It seems unlikely that he would be so consistently scared of it simply because the investigation might show, officially, that he is worth less than he claims to be. Another reason a person might worry about their whole deal being investigated is the fear that, if people learn the whole deal, something bad would happen, like pauperization or prison.

Joe Biden should promise not just to investigate Trump’s whole deal but to preside over a government that is unafraid of investigating the deals of all the other probable Trumps out there.