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Attacking Trump as a “Fake Billionaire” Is a Dead End

The real scandal isn’t that Donald Trump is secretly poor — it’s that our system let such an obvious fraud get so rich.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump stand on stage after Trump delivered his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

At long last, the elusive Donald Trump tax returns have become public thanks to a lengthy weekend exposé published by the New York Times.

In a big picture sense, the reporting simply confirms much of what we already knew: Donald Trump is a serial fraud and grifter whose swaggering New York tycoon schtick is more mirage than reality. Beneath the glitzy image Trump crafted through decades of media harlotry was a teetering commercial empire hemorrhaging money every year.

And, of course, he paid almost no federal income tax.

The latter point, which is almost certainly the highlight of the Times’ exposé, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2016 Trump openly boasted to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.” Nonetheless, the newly released numbers paint an astonishing portrait of how the president has leveraged the morass of the US tax code to make his bill so jaw-droppingly tiny that some Times readers probably did a double take upon reading. Trump paid only $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, having paid nothing at all in ten of the previous fifteen years — incurring losses that actually helped him reduce his bill.

One doesn’t have to be an expert in the finer points of tax law to think there’s something amiss about a billionaire business mogul paying less on their income than a nurse or grocery store clerk. Unless you have blue blood, much of the financial alchemy practiced by Trump, as documented by the Times, simply defies belief — the revelation that at least one of his children (Ivanka Trump) was paid “consulting fees” that reduced the family’s overall tax bill being a particularly egregious example.

Trump, however, is certainly no anomaly among America’s ultrarich — the US tax code being riddled with loopholes and exemptions for the exorbitantly wealthy, many of which became law thanks to bipartisan buy-in. No one put it better than the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter, who noted that the Trump family is a microcosm for what the US tax code creates by its very design: “An incompetent, intergenerational graft that [the] government rewards for draining the nation’s resources and destroying social value.” Indeed, if there were ever a walking case for the imposition of a 100 percent inheritance tax, it would have to be named Donald Trump.

Containing a dearth of revelations about the president’s alleged ties to Russia, the Times report may have been a disappointment to some liberal readers hoping the returns might be a smoking gun (speculation on this possibility having been absolutely rampant since 2016). Nonetheless, it’s created ample fodder for predictable gloating about the scale of his wealth being less than he’s implied.

This line of attack, which has recurred in one form or another since Trump first announced his candidacy in 2015, has a certain obvious logic. The image he’s built his reputation on, after all, manifestly is a fraud, and it’s that very image which he leveraged to win the last presidential election.

The thing is: Trump is still exorbitantly wealthy, and his grift is in many ways the same one practiced by plenty of America’s ultrarich, albeit to varying degrees. In 2016, Democrats couldn’t resist the urge to make Trump’s status as a “fake billionaire” a part of their overall message — even trotting out a retinue of supposedly more deserving plutocrats to endorse Hillary Clinton. If anything, it only served to underscore the gilded character of the Democratic campaign and aid Trump in his bogus effort to present himself as a populist taking on the nation’s elites.

Contrary to what some viral hashtags suggest, the scandal has never been that Donald Trump is secretly poor, but rather that the American system could allow such a fraud to become so rich. The president is a wealthy con artist, not a fake billionaire. Anyone who wants to see him beaten on November 3 should start trying the former and retire the latter for good.