This is one of those things that has just been bugging me, even though it’s kind of moot. Well, okay, work with me, here. Let us, first, rewind.
It was arguably one of the most important moments of this week’s presidential debate. Hillary Clinton was speculating about why Donald Trump would choose to be the first modern American presidential candidate to refuse to release his tax returns. “Maybe,” she said, “he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”
Unprompted, Trump interrupted to say, “That makes me smart.”
A Washington Post reporter, watching the debate with undecided voters in North Carolina, noted there were “gasps” in the room after the exchange. “That’s offensive. I pay taxes,” one said. “Another person would be in jail for that,” another voter added.
Steve Benen’s telling of the tale is not unfamiliar; indeed, his formulation of the moment is not unique, because it reads a little better that way, like a one-two. But it is also inaccurate, as is any telling in which Hillary Clinton sets up Donald Trump by saying, “Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”
Hillary Clinton did say that. And as part of the setup. But this telling gives Donald Trump a bit of wiggle room, which Benen, in turn, aims to debunk:
Perhaps now would be a good time to note that “That makes me smart” and “That would make me smart” are not the same sentences.
Indeed, let’s also not forget that in the same debate, Trump talked about how the government doesn’t have the necessary resources for public needs. “Maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years,” Clinton interjected. Trump fired back, “It would be squandered, too.”
As we discussed the other day, the comment was striking because of its apparent acceptance of the underlying premise. By saying his tax money would have been “squandered,” Trump seemed to be conceding that Clinton’s argument was correct: he hasn’t paid taxes.
That analysis responds to Donald Trump’s appearance on FOX News two days after the debate:
O’REILLY: Okay. And those of us in Manhattan know that’s true. Now, they are going to come after you, they being the Clinton campaign, on the statement that you made that you were as smart for paying as few taxes as you could possibly pay. You know it’s going to be in the next debate, it’s going to be on campaign ads. Do you have any defense for that right now?
TRUMP: No. I didn’t say that. What she said is maybe you paid no taxes. I said, well, that would make me very smart.
Right there, you see Donald Trump lying and Bill O’Reilly helping him: “I didn’t say that”, Donald Trump explained of saying he was smart to not pay taxes. “What she said is maybe you paid no taxes. I said, well, that would make me very smart.” And this is what Benen picked out, and he is exactly correct insofar as the point goes: “Perhaps now would be a good time to note that ‘That makes me smart’ and ‘That would make me smart’ are not the same sentences.”
O’Reilly teed the point up again:
O’REILLY: All right. I’m Hillary Clinton in the next debate. And I say to you what she said yesterday in North Carolina. Hey, if is he not going to pay any taxes and he thinks that’s smart, what does that make us? We pay taxes. Are we stupid? How are you going to answer that?
TRUMP: Well, first of all―first of all, I never said I didn’t pay taxes. She said maybe you didn’t pay taxes and I said well, that would make me smart because tax is a big payment. But I think a lot of people say that’s the kind of thinking that I want running this nation.
Note they are using the same narrative Benen did. So, here’s the thing about stylistics and narrative: Sometimes tailoring for the punch actually weakens the narrative. And this time, the tailoring hands Donald Trump his talking point.
What Hillary Clinton actually said, and how Donald Trump actually responded:
CLINTON: Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart.
The thing is that Hillary Clinton really did say, “maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes”. And then she said, “because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax”. And that is when Donald Trump said, “That makes me smart.”
Telling the story the way Steve Benen and Donald Trump alike tell it overlooks a specific point: Certes, there is a difference ‘twixt, “That makes me smart” and, “That would make me smart”. But what did Donald Trump actually respond to?
CLINTON: … the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart.
In this telling, Donald Trump doesn’t get to rely on “maybe”. He acknowledged Secretary Clinton’s argument. Despite his protestations and Mr. O’Reilly’s agreement, Donald Trump really did say paying no federal income tax makes him smart.
And while the latest absurd chapter illuminated by the New York Times pretty much renders last week’s maybe moot it still seems worth pointing out.
Image note: Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference [CPAC], 6 March 2014, at National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Barstow, David, et al. “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found”. The New York Times. 1 October 2016.
Benen, Steve. “Has Donald Trump paid federal taxes or not?”. msnbc. 29 September 2016.
Blake, Aaron. “The first Trump-Clinton presidential debate transcript, annotated”. The Washington Post. 26 September 2016.
O’Reilly, Bill. “Interview with Donald Trump”. The O’Reilly Factor. Transcript. FOX News. 28 September 2016.