Why Nobody Seems to Care About Trump Scandals

At this point, corruption, dishonesty, and insanity are just baked in.


Jack Shafer dissects “The New York Times Bombshell That Bombed.”

It arrived on Page One of the New York Times last Wednesday with all the subtlety of a supertanker berthing at a sailing marina, consuming all the editorial space above the fold. Based on more than 100,000 pages of documents, countless interviews, and the voluminous Freedom of Information Act requests that accompany such investigations, the piece, written by three of the paper’s ace reporters, was more than 18 months in the making. Overflowing eight broadsheet pages, the 15,000-word story, titled “Trump Took Part In Suspect Schemes to Evade Tax Bills,” served also as the subject of a Showtime documentary. It accused President Donald Trump of “outright fraud” involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

The piece stirred both New York City and state regulators to commence investigations of their own that could ensnare the Trump family in years of consuming legal battles and force them to choke up hundreds of millions in fines and penalties. But even though the Times aggregated this piece for slow readers, produced clever video takes on the material and reprintedthe original as a special section of the Sunday paper, the story has all but melted from sight. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “very boring,” as did Trump. By the time the pundits convened on the big Sunday political shows, the story was a goner—according to Matt Gertz at Media Matters, none of the shows covered it. (State of the Union mentioned it in passing; Joy Reid had a segment; and CNN’s press show, Reliable Sources, interviewed one of the Times authors.)

Why? Perhaps it’s because a tax fraud story doesn’t burst with the crowd-pleasing juices of pieces about mistress payoffs, Russian meddling, the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the hurricane response in Puerto Rico, Hope Hicks’ lies, and Kellyanne Conway and the Hatch Act. A story—no matter how long—about tax evasion is too dry to arouse the public into acts of viral chatter. Stories about mistresses and spies and firings and lies give every reader a platform where they can stand to voice their opinion. But a tax story provides no scaffold. Taxes are so painfully complex that most of us outsource our own filings to an accountant or a piece of software. Sure, the Trumps might have swindled various tax collectors out of hundreds of millions, but even devoted followers of the news have trouble following a narrative dealing in grantor-retained annuity trusts, illegal loans, dubious gifts, and fraudulent mark-ups of expenses. If only Trump had robbed a bank!

The Times story was also undercut by Trump’s willingness to own what he did. He’s repeatedly grinned when asked about his low tax bills and said they only prove how smart he is. In his formulation, theTimes exposé is just the death rattle of a dying newspaper. In his lawyer’s words, the Times piece is “100 percent false, and highly defamatory.” Here, Trump is taking his own advice on what to do when accused of assaulting women: “Deny, deny, deny.” And in the short term, it seems to be working! Three days after the Times investigation ran, the paper’s top political reporter, Peter Baker, called the week the “best” of Trump’s presidency.

Shafer argues that part of the problem was the Times’ rollout. He thinks they would have been better off pushing the story as a series, with bite-sized pieces coming out several days in a row. Additionally, he believes the fact that it was a NYT exclusive worked against it; because the story was built on exhaustive original research, other outlets couldn’t easily jump on the story and amplify it with their own reporting.

Those are all intriguing considerations. It’s also true, as Shafer acknowledges, that the timing was simply unfortunate: the Kavanaugh investigation and confirmation were sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Even the NYT’s own “The Daily” podcast spent precisely one episode on the Trump tax story, sandwiched between a sea of Kavanaugh episodes. Indeed, they’re still rolling out Kavanaugh stories days after the confirmation.

But I would argue the problem is more fundamental: Trump’s corruption and dishonesty is simply baked in at this point. His critics already assume the worst and his defenders are oblivious or simply willing to dismiss the scandals because “all politicians are dishonest” and at least Trump is getting things done. I pointed this out on Twitter even before Shafer’s column:

Glenn Thrush notes that it’s not just the NYT story on taxes, either:

He’s right.

Americans have likewise grown bored with the Mueller investigation. Despite continued indictments and even criminal convictions, people have lost interest almost two years in. Similarly, news that the courts are allowing various businesses and Congressional Democrats to sue Trump for Emoluments Clause violations was all but ignored.

A longstanding Twitter meme is “If Barack Obama had done [X thing Trump did] Republicans would . . . .” The thing is, nobody could have imagined Obama doing those things, so it would have made a splash. With Trump, we just roll our eyes and dismiss it as Trump Being Trump.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Media, Russia Investigation, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I think that there are other factors at work here too, such as:

    1. Fatigue

    There are simply so many things that have been reported about specific stories dealing with the Trump Administration that get reported on a daily basis that it’s hard even for those of us who follow the news on a regular basis to keep up. Many of them, such as the recent NY Times report on the Trump family finances or the NY AG investigation of the Trump Foundation, are complicated and not easy to explain quickly or to explain why they could be relevant to the Trump Presidency.

    2. Mystery

    Outside of the public indictments that have been filed, we simply don’t know the current status of the Russia investigation, to pick the most relevant example. Mueller seems to be chasing many leads, and may even already have a smoking gun aimed at Trump or someone very close to him. But he’s not talking nor is his investigation leaking anything so it’s easy for Trump and the Republicans to say the whole investigation is much ado about nothing.

    We aren’t likely to hear anything more from Mueller before the midterms are over, so that’s going to continue.

    3. Media Bubbles

    For a conservative who gets their news principally from Fox and other conservative news outlets, many of these stories either (1) don’t exist or (2) evidence of the “Deep State” conspiracy against the President. That makes it easy for Trump and his supporters to dismiss them.

    4. People are basically set in their opinions about Trump, for now. If you look at Trump’s job approval and favorable numbers you see that they have not varied significantly since he became President. Yes, they are historically bad, but they are stable more or less.

    Add into this the “baked into the cake” idea you’re suggesting and the fact that, with notable exceptions, the popular media doesn’t really do a great job of explaining some of these more complicated stories, and I think we’re getting close to an explanation for why all these stories are not hurting Trump as much as one might think they should.

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  2. Eric Florack says:

    Funny how the corruption we saw with the Democrats never gets mentioned.

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  3. Guarneri says:

    And in this edition, the NYT and OTB discover that rich people hire professional accountants and take aggressive tax positions in complicated tax matters. Stay tuned, for next week they discover that the NYT journalists are not double majors in tax accounting and that repeated audits by the IRS have not come to the same “fraud” conclusions.

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  4. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Guarneri: So we may assume that 1) you ARE a tax account and 2) you’ve seen the IRS audit documentation and can confidently assert that nothing’s wrong.

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  5. An Interested Party says:

    And above we have two perfect examples of some of the reasons why so many people don’t seem to care about Trump’s corruption…we get, “But, but, Democrats!!!” and “Tax law is far too complicated for you dumb people to understand”….nice to see so much enabling of so much corruption…

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  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Eric Florack:
    @Guarneri:

    his defenders are oblivious

    Nice of you two to prove James’ point for him.

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  7. Hal_10000 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    4 is a big part. A lot of people have been saying, “If Obama had done this …”. And that’s true; many of the things Trump has done would have caused meltdowns if Obama had done them. But that’s because Obama ran, at least partially, on his character. We *knew* Trump was scum when we elected him. Much of this is already baked in. We had a similar thing with Bill Clinton. When the Lewinski scandal broke, a LOT of people responded with, “Yeah, well we knew he cheated on his wife when we elected him.” It’s a matter of expectations versus reality.

    I would also add that this particular scandal is ill-suited for public outrage. It involves complex tax laws and attempts to avoid taxation, which most people are sympathetic too. It’s hard to distill into a single concept. Other scandals boil down to a simple line — Russia helped Trump win the election, Trump paid his mistress to be quiet, Manafort was a corrupt traitor. This is a big difficult for even the most politically connected of us to grasp. Trump is right; it’s boring. That doesn’t make it not important but it makes it resonate less.

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  8. rachel says:

    @Hal_10000: This one’s pretty simple too: the Trumps used every method they could dream up — legal and otherwise — to shirk their taxes.

    Another easy one: Donald Trump is a greedy phoney who’d cheat his nearest and dearest out of a nickle if he got half a chance.

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  9. Franklin says:

    @Guarneri: No, it’s not a surprise to anyone that people try not pay more taxes than necessary. I should think, however, that you would know the difference between “aggressive” tax reporting and “illegal” tax evasion.

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  10. Kathy says:

    We won’t see his base abandon him in large numbers, ever, even if he were to live-stream himself killing, skinning, gutting, roasting and eating his youngest son(*). The animus in that group is that great.

    But he will eventually lose support int he GOP if/when something criminal is found by Mueller, especially now that they have their judges in place.

    As to what might break, perhaps soon, see this link.

    The salient part:

    The campaign also said in a legal filing that any alleged agreement between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks to publish the emails could not have been a “conspiracy” because Wikileaks’ decision to release the stolen emails was not an illegal act.

    This makes more sense than a direct conspiracy with Putin. Russia hacks the emails, and Trump cuts a deal with Wikileaks to publish them. The filing described above seems like a tacit admission. Hey, if you were charged with receiving stolen goods, you don’t argue the fence you got them from didn’t steal them.

    (*) Of course trump would never do that. He’d hire someone to do it for him.

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  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Franklin:

    the difference between “aggressive” tax reporting and “illegal” tax evasion

    Even if Drew, the only businessman in America worse than Dennison, is correct…the fact remains that Dennison ran against a system rigged for the rich, and against the common man, and yet has done zero to alleviate that condition. In fact, he has made the condition worse.
    He ran on a tax plan that would increase taxes on the rich, that would actually hurt him, and cut taxes for the middle and lower classes. In fact the tax plan passed did the opposite and benefited Dennison himself to the tune of millions.
    It appears that gradually the oblivious are starting to catch on to the con. We can only hope.
    In the meantime I take great solace in the fact that Mueller has his tax returns.

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  12. CSK says:

    The fact remains that Trump, unlike every president since Nixon,* and many nominees and candidates, has refused to release his returns. There’s a reason for that, and it’s probably not a good one. The choices are three:
    1. He’s a sleazy crook.
    2. He’s owned by the Russians.
    3. He’s a lot poorer than he wants us to believe he is.

    *Gerald Ford released summaries of his returns.

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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The Republicans corruption and dishonesty is simply baked in at this point. Their critics already assume the worst and their defenders are oblivious or simply willing to dismiss the scandals because “Demoncrats are worse” and at least they are pissing off the the Libtards.

    FTFY, James. You’ll get my bill in the mail.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I just plain and simply have to ignore certain stories for the sake of my blood pressure.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy:

    The campaign also said in a legal filing that any alleged agreement between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks to publish the emails could not have been a “conspiracy” because Wikileaks’ decision to release the stolen emails was not an illegal act.

    Pay no attention to those Russian intermediaries behind the curtain!

  16. Tyrell says:

    Here are some other factors:
    Short attention spans, people are more into social media, football season is in full swing, and people are not into the news networks or newspapers anymore.
    I had a news network on this morning for hurricane news. What did I see? The news hosts sitting there hollering at each other and fussing about Trump’s comments about the Federal Reserve*. Right there typifies what is going on today. I don’t recall Charles Kuralt screaming at people. Most of the time I am getting my news from alternative sources that are not slanted, do not holler, and give information. I am not ashamed to admit using Newsela, Xyzya, Scholastic, and Popular Science for information. I also use the CNN excellent science and tech news (“Pioneers” is great).
    Ted Koppel had some interesting comments the other week about today’s news networks.
    *The Federal Reserve – a powerful, secretive private bank. Few presidents have dared to challenge it. There is a bill in Congress to have an open audit of the Fed, but is still stalled.
    “Where are the missing $trillions?”

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  17. JKB says:

    @Franklin: I should think, however, that you would know the difference between “aggressive” tax reporting and “illegal” tax evasion.

    And in a decade or so, assuming the, with all appearance of being politically motivated, city and state investigations make it to court, we’ll discover which it is.

    There is no scandal in the NYT story, only insinuations based on interpretations of laws that experts can argue against and which won’t be knowable until after an adversarial proceeding lasting probably a decade or more.

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  18. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    1. Fatigue

    There are simply so many things that have been reported about specific stories dealing with the Trump Administration that get reported on a daily basis that it’s hard even for those of us who follow the news on a regular basis to keep up.

    Every now and then I have to take a break from the slow-motion train wreck that’s the Cheeto White House.

    But also there is way too much reporting with headlines that over-promise and under-deliver. That is, the headline hints at some mayor revelation, and you get some overblown minor item which, on its own, is largely innocuous, irrelevant, or inconclusive (like the Michael Cohen recordings, for example).

    The Times piece on tax fraud is relevant and big. But, as has been noted, too complex, and too long term. If all the allegations are true, nothing concrete will come off it for months at least.

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  19. Teve says:

    The stock market, which Dennison supporters credited to him, has fallen 1,433 points since the tariffs kicked in. I held off on buying a $500 AC unit because of them. Ford’s gonna quit making the Fiesta I drive because higher prices for metal make it untenable. They’ve already lost a billion Ameros. My relatives in Kentucky who make a living farming soybeans are hurting.

    Can’t wait to see how the Trump Chumps attribute all that to some Democrat somehow.

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  20. steve says:

    ” rich people hire professional accountants and take aggressive tax positions in complicated tax matters. ”

    Nice weasel words, but what the article said is that they actually lied. They didn’t even report a lot of stuff and counted on the fact that the IRS rarely investigates gift tax issues.

    Just a bit OT, but it also gets totally ignored that Trump routinely refers to Democrats as evil and as a mob. No big deal. Call some Republicans deplorable and i tis the end of the world. Poor babies.

    Steve

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  21. Scott F. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I would add a Number 5 for the example being set by the Republicans in Congress. Checks and Balances lies in tatters, as the GOP-led committees are providing zero oversight to Trump. Trump being Trump wouldn’t be an easy out, if there was anyone on the right side of the aisle who was willing to hold him to account for merely his most heinous actions.

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  22. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I completely agree with what you are saying Doug.

    And it’s one of the most depressing things I’ve read in years.

  23. Guarneri says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    No, although I do have complex tax returns that make mine about 2 inches thick every year. I understand the complexity of the issues. But if you had a brain you would understand that my very point was that declaring fraud in the face of multiple IRS audits and obviously complex issues is the most grotesque type of speculation. If you had a brain.

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  24. Guarneri says:

    @steve:

    And the IRS ignored it. Got it.

  25. Guarneri says:

    “….the fact remains that Dennison ran against a system rigged for the rich, and against the common man, and yet has done zero to alleviate that condition. In fact, he has made the condition worse.”

    Really. Please give us your assessment of how the mortgage interest and property tax deduction limitations have made it worse.

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  26. Guarneri says:

    @Franklin:

    And you have proof of illegal how? You know, you guys have championed about 20 different sure fire impeachable stories so far. (This time, for sure. – Snicker). Care to ever be right?

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  27. Guarneri says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    No, just interested in proof, not wild speculation. You guys have had him on the brink of impeachment how many times now. Do you intend to ever be correct?

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  28. Guarneri says:

    “Even if Drew, the only businessman in America worse than Dennison, is correct…”

    That’s interesting. Yet somehow I’ve amassed a net worth probably in excess of the aggregate net worth of 80-90% of the usual suspects here. Just lucky I guess…..

    Oh, and I can even put my pants on correctly each morning. Practice….

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  29. grumpy realist says:

    @Guarneri: EVERYONE’S Reggie Johnson on the Internet….

    Why don’t you go ahead and claim that you’re a Nobel laureate in Economics? It’s just as believable.

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  30. Neil Hudelson says:

    Please spring my comment from moderation.

  31. wr says:

    Not quite sure why my non-obscene, no-links comment got sent to spam…

  32. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    seems may things are going to spam…

  33. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Reggie Johnson

    I’ve been googling this but I don’t get the reference?
    Did you mean Reggie Jackson?

  34. Teve says:

    Christ on a cracker the DJIA lost another 540 points today.

    MAGA!

  35. grumpy realist says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: The weight-lifter? Might have gotten his name wrong.

    (Basically, it was a meme I ran into some time ago on physical fitness blogs. Anyone can claim to be The Ultimate on the internet with no proof whatsoever.)

  36. Liberal Capitalist says:

    If I throw a brick through a store window and steal a TV… and no one sees or records it, then I got away with it. But it is still theft.

    Theft, but unpunished by law.

    If I throw a brick through a window, and the cops see me, but I’m their friend… Then I may get away with it. But it is still theft.

    But if I don’t get away with it, and I am detained, and I have a good lawyer, then I may still get away with it.

    Theft, but unpunished by law.

    The Times story did not garner the deserved reaction because the people who voted for Trump don’t care. They likely would do the same if they could. That is where the Trumpist party is now at.

    Ask not what you can do for your country. Period.

    Those in power that COULD do something, controlling the House and Senate don’t care, because they need to keep their side winning.

    Theft, but unpunished by law.

    It is as simple as that. Kleptocracy wins in the current power structure.

    Trump wins. Florack wins. Guarneri wins.

    Well… Trump wins.

    Florack and Guarneri will realize that they got screwed with increasing prices, decreasing American salaries, decreasing 401K’s, but they will never admit it. Same with the rest of the Trumpists.

    Small price to pay for liberal tears.

  37. gVOR08 says:

    On October 4 Kevin Drum wrote:

    Why does Trump think he can get away with this? It’s easy: this is precisely the kind of story that the press will forget almost instantly. It’s an exclusive to the New York Times, which spent over a year on it, and there’s very little prospect of following it up. There won’t be new documents dropped every few days. There aren’t people to interview to advance the story. There aren’t politicians with axes to grind who will start up investigations and keep generating news. As long as Trump himself ignores it, there’s very little the Times can do to keep this story in the public eye day after day.

    If Jack Shafer paid more attention to lefty bloggers maybe he wouldn’t be surprised by the world working the way the world works.

  38. The q says:

    Sorry, I don’t think we are taking this seriously enough. I was watching the trump rally where he ridiculed Ford’s testimony and the crowd behind him howled along in almost a sadistic glee Then, following the lead of the lunatic in chief, started chanting “lock her up” regarding DiFi. Trump’s crowds are one step away from this passage from Shirer’s Berlin diary, after he goes to his first Nuremberg rally in 1934 with all the gothic pageantry….. “in such an atmosphere no wonder, then, that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high. Man’s—or at least the German’s—critical faculty is swept away at such moments, and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself.”

    ……..“every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself.”…….Look no further at the above comments by florack and Guarneri for proof this is happening right here, right now. Not sure how close they are to burning books or humans….but give Trump time and ? who knows. It can AND has happened.

    Trump is attacking the press, the Justice Department, the liberal Democratic “mob”, the intelligence agencies, the FBI, in short the counter balances and checks on his imperial impulses.

    The framers wisely separated powers and installed brakes in the system designed to impede a demagog from taking over.

    First, the electoral college would overturn election results if necessary to eliminate the popular vote.

    Next, the Senate would advise and consent and the house would investigate any executive level shenanigans. And finally the Supreme Court would be an additional check.

    Those bulwarks have been pretty much demolished by the Republicans. They put a perjurer on the court who will support the imperial presidency by interpreting the law in a way advantageous to the President and the Republican Congress refuses to investigate his collusion.

    So, add #5, planting the seeds of fascism where 40% of the public has basically turned off their minds and have decided “every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself.”

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  39. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    There has been tax fraud for and by rich people for as long as there’s been a tax code. There’s been draft evasion by rich people for as long as there’s been a draft–in Lincoln’s time the draft was evadable by anyone with $5o and some one to report in his place as a substitute (and I expect that most of the time, the $50 was the only part of that duo that mattered). This type of stuff isn’t actually news and probably never has been. Important information? Probably. Interesting from an eventual historical perspective? Absolutely. The fact that Drew and Florak and screaming “nothing to see here?” Predictable.

    At this point in this circus, the two important headlines are “Trump Declares Martial Law–Arrests Allies Drew and Florak On Sedition Charges 😉 ” and “Trump to be Tried for Tax Evasion.” “Trump Lies Again” just can’t cut it, sorry.

  40. Tyrell says:

    @CSK: I seem to recall that they did look at some of Trump’s returns on one of the tv network “news” channels. It turned out that his tax rate was higher than Senator Sanders and Obama’s. After that little revelation, they dropped it like a hot potato. “Well, I guess that’s it”: Their “Al Capone vault” moment.
    I am not that excited or obsessed about looking at some politician’s tax returns. As long as what they have down is legal, why should I judge that? I don’t want someone looking at mine. Is there no private life at all for people in politics? No wonder no one wants to go into that.
    Now I would not mind seeing the tax returns of Lee Harvey Oswald. No telling what would clues could be discovered there.

  41. MarkedMan says:

    Just for the record, no network has done a story on Trumps actual tax returns, because no one has them. We do have Obama’s going back quite a way. We have Sander’s 2016 (?) returns, but nothing else, despite his many promises that he would release them. It’s a triviality that Trump is in the same tax bracket as they are, or pretty much anyone with a six figure income. The whole point about tax evasion is that you don’t pay at the rate of the bracket you are in.

  42. al Ameda says:

    Tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is not.