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WASHINGTON, Sept 29 — President Donald Trump reeled yesterday on the eve of his first televised debate against challenger Joe Biden after a bolt-from-the-blue report showed he has been avoiding paying almost any federal income tax for years.
The scoop from The New York Times (NYT), reporting that Trump paid only US$750 (RM3,131) in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, and none at all for 10 of the previous 15 years, was a shot to the jugular of the self-described billionaire.
Trump, who portrays himself as a hard-nosed businessman on a mission to drain the Washington swamp, dismissed the NYT story — which the newspaper says is based on examination of his long secret tax returns.
“The Fake News Media, just like Election time 2016, is bringing up my Taxes & all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information,” he tweeted yesterday.
But with several new polls on Sunday once again suggesting Biden has the upper hand, the Republican goes into the debate in Cleveland today ever more on the defensive.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll put Biden 10 points ahead of Trump nationally, at 53 to 43 per cent support among registered voters, while an NBC News-Marist poll gave the Democrat a similar lead, of 54 to 44, in key swing state Wisconsin — which Trump had carried in 2016.
Trump’s Democratic challenger is homing in on the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his controversial rush to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But the tax report threatens the core of Trump’s political identity — that vaunted ability to connect with blue collar voters.
Though its impact on voters was still unclear, the NYT report hands Biden piles of new ammunition.
And the Democrat’s campaign immediately opened fire with an ad comparing typical income tax payments by ordinary Americans, like US$10,216 for nurses, to that reportedly paid by Trump the year he took office: US$750.
Billionaire or bust?
The NYT story raises new doubts about whether Trump is really the man with the Midas touch that he portrays or a hapless spendthrift owing a lot of people money.
He is the first president in years not to make public his tax returns, claiming he can’t because he is under audit.
In his trademark brash style, he also once boasted that getting out of taxes “makes me smart.” Yesterday, he tweeted: “I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits.”
But according to the NYT, Trump’s tax returns show he managed large-scale tax avoidance partly because his supposedly successful businesses — particularly the golf courses — are such money losers.
The NYT said that Trump benefited from a US$72.9 million tax refund now subject to an official audit. He also reportedly took tax deductions on residences, aircraft and US$70,000 in hairstyling for television appearances.
And in a detail that raises the issue of potentially serious conflicts of interest, the NYT said that loans and debts of US$421 million and personally guaranteed by Trump are largely due for repayment in what would be his second term.
A former Democratic presidential candidate, billionaire Tom Steyer, tweeted that in 2017 he paid US$32 million in federal taxes. Trump is “a cheat, and he stinks at business. In November he’s going from the White House to the outhouse.”
Drug test demand
Even without the fresh fuel of the tax story, Tuesday’s Trump-Biden debate was destined to be a brutal affair.
Trump is intensifying his longtime smearing of his rival’s mental state. Biden “doesn’t know he’s alive,” is one of his new catchphrases.
And as the debate nears, Trump has said they should both take a drug test.
“Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?” Trump tweeted yesterday.
When asked by reporters about the demand over the weekend, Biden laughed before declining to comment.
But his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield had a blunt riposte: “Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it.” — AFP
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