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Trump tax leaks likely 'won't change the way people vote'

Ines Pohl Washington, D.C.
September 29, 2020

In a normal election year, revelations that a US president was dodging federal taxes would seriously harm his or her chances at the ballot box. But some experts think Donald Trump might even benefit from his tax tricks.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, are facing off in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday in the first of three televised debates that are sure to add more fuel to the volatile election campaign.

Tuesday's debate comes just days after the publication of an exclusive report by The New York Times that revealed that Trump allegedly paid only $750 (€645) in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, the first two years of his presidency, and none at all for 10 of the previous 15 years. The report, which the Times says is based on the president's secretive tax returns, makes clear Trump was either an unscrupulous tax dodger, a bad businessman — or most likely both.

Read more: How to watch the Trump-Biden debate tonight 

The average US citizen pays $12,200 in taxes each year — 16 times what the president has paid. Unsurprisingly, the self-proclaimed billionaire immediately dismissed the revelations as lies spread by liberal media out to damage him.

Deliberate timing by the Times?

It can't be a coincidence that The New York Times — a liberal-leaning daily newspaper which has vehemently attacked the president for months — published this explosive material just before the first debate. The paper clearly hopes the revelation will help Biden make an impression on undecided US voters.

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Tuesday's 90-minute bout is the first of three televised debates that will be staged ahead of the election on November 3. They carry even greater weight than usual this year, with election campaigning reduced to a bare minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many tens of millions are expected to tune in.

The candidates will discuss six different topics, with 15 minutes devoted to each subject. Trump and Biden will be asked to debate who should succeed the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18. They will also discuss COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in US cities, their respective political records and the integrity of the upcoming election.

Read more: Little room for climate change in US election

Just as in 2016, US intelligence agencies are concerned about foreign interference in the electoral process. Trump, meanwhile, has been claiming for weeks that voting by mail is both unsafe and prone to manipulation — a perfect excuse should he lose the vote.

Incidentally, neither candidates' claims will be fact-checked during Tuesday's debate.

Tax revelations likely 'won't change the way people vote'

"This [income tax] story probably won't change the way people vote," said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University's Barnard College. Due to the country's polarized media landscape, Berman said many people will not even be fully aware of the leaked financial records. Besides, she said, US citizens have grown used to the countless lies and scandals involving Trump and will simply dismiss them.

Read more: Native Americans struggle to vote in US election

"Everybody knows what kind of person Trump is by now. And they vote for him because of his politics – or just because they don't like Democrats," she said.

In fact, some researchers think Trump's tax avoidance could actually appeal to some of his voters, who will regard it as a sign their president is a shrewd operator who will use all available loopholes to his advantage.

Read more: Biden vows to end 'this season of darkness for America'

What, then, are Biden's chances of winning over undecided voters in this first debate?

Trump's Democratic rival will have to play up his strengths, laying out why he is better suited to steering the US economy through the pandemic and working on its recovery. He should also stress that his administration would be staffed with seasoned experts who can hit the ground running, said Berman.

"We learned in 2016 from the Hillary campaign that an entirely negative campaign is not particularly efficacious," she said.

DW will broadcast Tuesday's debate live from 2:45 CET. Find out how to watch the debate here. Trump and Biden will meet for a second debate on October 15 in Miami, while a third debate is scheduled for October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. Vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Californian Senator Kamala Harris will face off on October 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl