Trump taxes: Why Democrats are wise to keep focusing their attentions elsewhere

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows protecting health care is a better campaign message than focusing on Donald Trump's tax returns. (Getty Images)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows protecting health care is a better campaign message than focusing on Donald Trump's tax returns. (Getty Images)

Donald Trump is on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of debt coming due within the next four years, and very few people know who owns that debt, the New York Times reported on Sunday after finally getting ahold of the president's long-elusive tax returns.

He says he has been under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audit for years over a $72.9m tax refund he secured, one to which he may not have been entitled.

And many of his businesses have been hemorrhaging money for years, kept afloat in part by revenue from licensing fees from property owners to use his name on buildings in countries whose leaders he deals with to conduct US foreign policy, circumstances that create a conflict-of-interest minefield.

Dozens of other nuggets from the president's tax returns raise legitimate concerns that he is a tailor made "mark" for blackmail by American adversaries.

"The national security ramifications of his corruption are grave," Virginia Democratic Congressman Don Beyer, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee that is pursuing access to Mr Trump's tax returns through congressional and judicial means, said in a statement on Monday.

But aside from mostly one-off statements vowing to procure the president's tax filings and to continue conducting oversight on his conflicts of interest, the chatter among Democrats about the Times' reporting has not been as animated as one might expect given the gravity of the report.

Wise.

It's smart politics from the Democrats, who finally appear to have learned an important lesson: Mr Trump is impervious to the kinds of "bombshell" media reports that would have plunged any other presidential campaign in modern history into crisis mode.

Yes, those news cycles can help re-trigger the outrage of the Democratic party's liberal voting base.

But Democrats have learned the hard way – through both the impeachment process and numerous congressional oversight hearings that fell short of expectations – that focusing public attention on the president's perceived corruption, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest with governments abroad simply doesn't push voters away from him.

"I mean, yeah, you can fan the flames in the paper. And it's just one more bullet that you're firing at Trump personally. But I think you want to be focusing at this point on health care. On Covid. These issues that seem to work for Democrats pretty well," said Tom Davis, a former Republican House Oversight Committee chairman and current partner at the Washington, DC, lobbying firm Holland & Knight.

Now is not the time to reach for the latest shiny object and put it front and center in Joe Biden's campaign display case.

"At this point, in the last five weeks of the campaign, you need to focus your message," Mr Davis said.

That's exactly what they're doing.

In an interview with MSNBC on Monday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed the electoral impact of revelations from the president's tax returns. Instead, she urged Americans to focus on which party would keep them safer amid the coronavirus pandemic, a key issue area that has dampened support for the president throughout the spring and summer, polling has shown.

"Vote health," Ms Pelosi said.

"If you care about any sense of fairness in our economy and in our country, vote. And it all comes back to health anyway, because so much of the expenses that people have are about health care," she said.

Protecting the 2010 health care overhaul known as Obamacare became the single biggest issue in several swing districts that broke decisively for the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, helping the party win back a House majority it hadn't known since the beginning of the decade.

Now, with the coronavirus crisis still raging and the US accounting for 20 per cent of worldwide deaths from Covid-19 despite being home to just 4 per cent of the global population, delivering access to quality health care is once again Democrats' central campaign message.

It pervades everything.

"This election was, is, and will be about health care," Cole Leiter, the communications director for the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), wrote on Saturday in response to a tweet about how Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett could cast a decisive vote to strike down Obamacare in the GOP's pending before the panel.

Make no mistake: Democrats are not giving Mr Trump a pass on the ethical implications of his tax filings, issuing deep forebodings about his web of debts and business interests.

"This president appears to have over $400 million in debt. ... To whom? Different countries? What is the leverage they have? ... For me, this is a national security question," Ms Pelosi said in her MSNBC interview on Monday.

Democrats are pursuing those answers mostly behind the scenes, in legal filings and federal courtrooms.

Even Democratic national security experts such as Mieke Eoyang, a longtime Capitol Hill veteran, are keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize: a victory for Mr Biden this November fueled by kitchen-table issues, not Mr Trump's alleged corruption.

"For most people in this country, the things that affect them in their day-to-day lives are getting this pandemic under control, getting kids and the economy safely back to where we were, getting a vaccine," Ms Eoyang said.

The Biden campaign team ought to keep his message laser focused on the issues – the pandemic response, health care and racial justice – that have propelled him to a steady 7 percentage-point advantage in the polls throughout the summer, Ms Eoyang said.

"If you make this all about Trump and how bad he is, and don't really focus on how to make things better for the American people, that's doing a disservice," she said.

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