Mitt Romney, in a fit of irony, suggested yesterday that the reason Donald Trump has not yet released his tax returns is because he has something to hide.
This, from the former candidate who in 2012 initially refused to release his tax returns because he had something to hide — that something being the fact that he had used every loophole available to pay a ridiculously low tax rate.
Romney wasn’t just talking about Trump — he also expressed concern that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have also not yet released their taxes — but he did place greater emphasis on Trump’s lack of disclosure. As he told Fox’s Neil Cavuto, “Frankly, I think we have a good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes.”
As he continued, “I think there’s something there. Either he’s not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is or he hasn’t been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay, or perhaps he hasn’t been giving money to the vets or to the disabled like he’s been telling us he’s doing.”
Ok, sure. There is probably all kinds of stuff in Donald Trump’s tax returns that, if they showed up in any other politicians’ tax returns, would be some combination of damaging and embarrassing. Mitt Romney knows this all too well. But Donald Trump is not a normal politician, who pretends they are a bastion of morality until proven otherwise. Donald Trump has never pretended to be anything other than a shady businessman. He’s always been greedy, and now he wants to be greedy for America. Being a tax dodger wouldn’t blow a hole in his narrative; it’d enforce it.
We don’t have to guess what Trump’s reaction would be if it was revealed that Donald Trump pays lower taxes than his secretary. We have a somewhat analogous case study. At multiple times during the campaign cycle, people have asked Donald Trump to explain why he’s such a good businessman if he’s declared bankruptcy four times. Check out his answer:
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In Trump’s telling, his bankruptcies aren’t a problem because he, like other wealthy businessmen, used the available laws to his fullest advantage. And he wants to do that for the country. He even implied that he would do something similar regarding our national debt, and while Trump magically waving our obligations away may be emotionally satisfying for viewers who know that the debt is a very big number but not how it works, doing so would both destroy our credit rating and cause a global economic meltdown. In short, Trump turned a personal negative into a political positive while promising disaster. And the voters loved it.
This is basically how his answer on any tax revelations will go. Gaming the system to pay a low rate? He’s using the laws available to his advantage, just like anyone else would do in that situation. After all, no one knows the tax laws like Trump. Not as much money in there as he’s claimed in public? Since when has that been a problem? Not as much money given to charity as he says he’s given? Since when did he say he donated anything personally? All donations to the vets are going through his foundation. Besides, he’s been busted for skimping on charitable claims before.
What’s more, this is a Republican electorate that has been told for decades that taxes are bad, and has been told for the last seven years that tax evasion is patriotic. There is a significant and growing subset of the Republican Party that believes sincerely that taxes are unconstitutional theft. The “grassroots” movement that emerged in opposition to President Obama is named after a tax revolt. When it was revealed in 2012 that Mitt Romney had used offshore tax shelters in the Bermuda and Switzerland to avoid paying US taxes, Lindsey Graham defended him, saying it was “really American” to use whatever legal means available to avoid giving money to the IRS.
How did Graham frame his argument? “I don’t blame anybody for using the tax code to their advantage.”
None of Romney’s hypothetical bombshells would in fact be bombshells for Trump. He’s set a different standard for himself, and his voters are fine with it. If the Republican establishment wants to bring him down, they’re going to have to do better than a dig that worked against them four years ago.