Last night on The Rachel Maddow Show, the MSNBC host had the scoop of all scoops: A part of President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns. Both MSNBC and Maddow played that to the hilt. She reminded viewers: “The First Amendment gives us the right to publish this return.” She brought on David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who specializes in tax issues and has known Trump for decades. And the network promoted the hell out of the story in the lead-up to the airing.
And then that substantive scoop became a nothingburger. Not long before Maddow’s show, the White House released some of Trump’s tax info for 2005 to let the air out of Maddow’s revelation.
Then when Maddow went on the air, she only had two pages of Trump’s 2005 taxes to show, from what was marked as a “Client Copy.” And those two pages showed that Trump made more than $150 million in 2005 but only paid about $36 million in taxes, something he’s routinely bragged about in the past.
So in a matter of about 90 minutes, Maddow went from investigative reporter du jour to Geraldo Rivera opening up Al Capone’s vault. Johnston had to quickly shift to explaining why it was still important. And Trump got some relatively neutral publicity from something he may have leaked himself.
There’s still a lot to unpack, so here are five things you need to know about the whole Trump tax thing.
1. We Still Don’t Have Trump’s Full Tax Returns
Thanks to presidential candidates only releasing tax returns because of tradition and not law, we still haven’t seen the entirety of Trump’s tax returns. However, we have now seen a slice of the 2005 returns and 1995 returns that the N.Y. Times uncovered. That particular reporting revealed Trump could’ve gone without paying taxes for two decades.
2. We Still Don’t Know Who is Leaking Trump’s Tax Returns
With the NYT story and the Maddow story, it’s not exactly clear where these tax returns are coming from. The 1995 returns were mailed to the Times with a return address for Trump Tower while the 2005 returns that Maddow had were marked “client copy.” That means that it’s entirely possible someone within the Trump orbit is leaking these things. In fact, on air, David Cay Johnston suggested Trump himself might’ve leaked the returns.
3. Trump Wants to Eliminate a Tax That Had Him Pay 24 Percent in 2005
On the campaign trail, and during the transition period, President Trump talked about nixing the alternative minimum tax, which has taxpayers with numerous deductions figure out their tax returns twice and then pay whatever is higher between the AMT or regular taxes.
Had this tax been eliminated in 2005, Trump would have payed about 3.5 percent in taxes that year, which translates to about $5.25 million. And Johnston actually said on Maddow’s show that “he would have paid taxes at a rate lower than someone making $33,000 a year.”
4. The Tax Return Story Comes at a Busy Time for the Administration
Around the same time the tax return story was bubbling up last night, CNN had reporting that FBI Director James Comey would go public sometime today (Wednesday, March 15) on whether there’s a criminal investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump Campaign.
And both of those stories come at a time when the American Health Care Act (AHCA, or Trumpcare as some prefer to call it) continues to be pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike. The Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the AHCA showed that some $880 billion in federal funds would be slashed from Medicaid in the next 10 years and as many as 24 million Americans could lose coverage.
5. Publishing Tax Returns is Protected by the First Amendment
Despite the protestations of Sean Hannity, what The New York Times and Maddow did is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. And considering the issue relates to someone holding public office—in this case, the highest public office in the U.S.—those First Amendment rights are even stronger.
Considering how much info has leaked out of the Trump administration during these first 100 days, it’s not unreasonable to think we’ll be hearing about President Trump’s tax returns again. And maybe next time it’ll actually be more than a couple of pages.