Lawmakers from both parties seemed underwhelmed by the leaking of two pages from President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return.
Interviews on Capitol Hill Wednesday suggested few repercussions from what briefly had the potential to be an explosive development on Tuesday night.
The document was obtained by journalist David Cay Johnston and dissected on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show Tuesday. Twitter was abuzz with speculation in the hours before the show aired, but the tax return ultimately answered very few of the questions swirling around the president’s finances.
Trump claimed about $150 million in income in 2005, paying about $38 million in taxes for an effective rate of about 25 percent. Much of his tax burden was the result of the Alternative Minimum Tax, a provision he has proposed eliminating.
The White House issued a furious statement moments before the show aired, confirming the financial data contained in the document but blasting the network as “desperate for ratings” and claiming that reporting on the tax return was illegal.
Trump reiterated that point in an interview with WWMT Wednesday.
"First of all, it’s illegal to do,” he said. “I just think it’s so disgusting when people can take a tax return – which is supposed to be, almost sacred – and just release it like it’s nothing. I think it’s a terrible thing."
Although federal law prohibits the release of personal tax information, Maddow and some legal experts have argued the First Amendment protects her reporting. The New York Times took a similar position in releasing details on Trump’s 1995 tax documents last fall and no legal action has been taken against the paper.
The fact that the document was clearly marked “CLIENT COPY” and Johnston has no idea who sent it to him has sparked widespread conspiracy theories that the president himself leaked a return that makes him look relatively good. Johnston told Maddow this is entirely possible.
“This is something that Trump and his staff personally chose,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “They cherry-picked something so it would make him look like a fabulous businessman and a responsible American by paying taxes.”
He believes Trump leaked the document to distract the public from other issues.
“It’s yet another artful distraction on the part of the Trump administration,” he said. “Pretty easy to see through it.”
Trump tweeted Wednesday that MSNBC’s reporting was somehow “fake news” and questioned whether the document was truly mailed to Johnston. Speaking to WWMT, he called Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of a best-selling 2016 book on Trump, “a weird dude who’s been following me for 25 years.”
Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., shrugged off the revelation and the timing of it Wednesday. He said he is more concerned about the leak of confidential information about a person’s taxes than what the document actually showed.
“[Trump] pays higher taxes than many corporations pay as a percentage of his income,” he said.
He questioned why Trump’s opponents are still fixated on the issue of his taxes and other attempts to delegitimize him when there are much bigger issues for the country to address.
“The voters spoke,” he said. “If they were concerned about whether or not he released his taxes, he would not have won the presidency.”
Throughout the campaign, Trump resisted demands that he release his tax returns, claiming he was being audited and lawyers advised him against making the documents public. Since the election, the administration has indicated he may never release them.
Despite Trump’s angry tweet, his allies say the return proves that, contrary to some allegations, he did pay federal income taxes in at least one year and that his effective tax rate in 2005 was higher than those of critics like Sen. Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama in recent years.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said the public has to decide for itself how much Trump’s financial disclosures matter.
“The president has complied with the law as it now stands,” he said, though he added he would like to see disclosure laws improved.
Some Democrats have argued the White House’s willingness to confirm Trump’s 2005 income and tax rate proves the audit excuse is invalid. They continue to demand that the president at least release tax returns from years that are not under audit.
“There are so many questions swirling about these tax returns,” said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., who added that there is a simple way to put those issues to rest.
“Mr. Trump, release your tax returns and that will answer so many of these questions,” she said.
Mitchell dismissed the whole debate over the president’s taxes as a partisan sideshow.
“We’ve got real problems to address and challenges in this country,” he said. “We should spend more time, more energy focusing on that than we do trying to see if we can take another shot at either party. We’ve got things to do.”