- Democratic insiders say $750 — the amount President Donald Trump paid in federal taxes for two straight years — will give Joe Biden an edge in Tuesday night’s presidential debate.
- Voters tuning in to the debate can expect Biden to repeatedly compare that figure with the amount working-class Americans, including millions of Trump supporters, pay in taxes.
- “It fits perfectly in their Scranton versus Park Avenue frame,” said Sean Savett, a Democratic strategist, referring to Biden’s hometown in Pennsylvania and Trump’s property on the expensive New York City street.
- The Biden campaign has already started using Sunday’s New York Times revelations about Trump’s meager tax payments in its outreach, including an online calculator that computes how much more everyday Americans paid compared with the billionaire president.
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Say $750. Again. And again.
That’s what Democratic strategists say Joe Biden should do to attack President Donald Trump during Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Cleveland, as he tries to question his opponent’s character and billionaire status.
That amount, $750, is what Trump twice paid in federal income taxes, in 2016 and 2017, according to an explosive report on Sunday by The New York Times, which obtained copies of the president’s records.
The two presidential candidates — the oldest in US history — will meet for what is expected to be a fiery first debate in the Ohio city just two days after the revelations about Trump’s tax maneuverings that helped the self-proclaimed billionaire pay less than some of the poorest people in the country.
Democratic insiders say Biden can use the revelations to strengthen a key campaign narrative: casting himself as the working-class candidate running against an out-of-touch billionaire.
“It fits perfectly in their Scranton versus Park Avenue frame,” said Sean Savett, a Democratic strategist, contrasting Biden’s humble hometown in Pennsylvania with Trump’s ritzy property on the expensive New York City street.
“People get angry when they find out that some rich guy is paying far less in taxes. I think it’s a great opportunity to contrast Trump as an elitist against Joe Biden as a populist, and that undermines Trump’s claims of populism,” said Savett, who worked on Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.
Biden’s team is already seizing the opportunity, and his deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, on CNN evoked the narrative that the race was “between Park Avenue and Scranton. “
The campaign on Monday released a calculator at Joebiden.com meant to contrast voters’ tax payments with Trump’s.
“Do you pay more or less in federal income taxes than our ‘billionaire’ President? Use this calculator to find out,” the page instructs. Entering $1,000 as one’s income delivers this calculation: “You paid $250 more in taxes than Donald Trump, a ‘billionaire.'”
The campaign also is selling stickers and T-shirts that declare: “I Paid More In Taxes than Donald Trump.”
A Biden campaign spokesman also noted that Biden had released his tax returns for more than 20 years. His most recent returns — back to 2016 — are online. Biden’s tax returns showed he earned about $400,000 in 2016 and paid $92,198 in federal taxes that year.
There’s no doubt Democrats will hammer at Trump’s tax returns during the remaining five weeks before Election Day. Attack ads — from either the Biden campaign or supportive super PACs — are certain to hit the airwaves, social media, and the web in the remaining weeks before November 3.
A spokesman for the Trump Organization told The New York Times that “most if not all of the facts” in its report “appear to be inaccurate.”
The Times has not published Trump’s documents, a move it says is meant to protect its sources. The newspaper has teased that there are more revelations about Trump’s taxes to come.
Trump still hasn’t released his tax records, despite promising during the 2016 campaign that he’d do so. He’s instead spent much of his first term in office fighting several lawsuits, including by House Democrats trying to get ahold of those documents. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how he’s preparing to counter Biden’s attacks on the issue during the debate.
‘You will see his disgust’
The amount Trump paid in 2016 and 2017 — two of the 18 years examined by The Times — was smaller than the average tax payment for a household earning $20,000 a year. Forbes on Monday estimated that Trump had a net worth of $2.5 billion.
“I’d probably stand up there and say, ‘Claire, a nurse from Ohio, paid $8,000 in taxes last year. Joe, a firefighter in Florida, paid $10,000 in taxes. But Donald Trump paid $750. How is that fair?” a veteran of Democratic campaigns said. “It’s a story that Americans can understand very easily.”
That’s an attack line Democratic strategists say Biden can use to interrupt Trump at any time during Tuesday night’s debate.
The Democratic nominee won’t be able to hide his “disgust,” said Moe Vela, a Democratic consultant who previously advised Biden.
“What is probably the most offensive, bothersome, and violative to Joe Biden about Donald Trump paying $750 in federal income taxes two years in a row is the fact that that is far less than the working-class American,” Vela said.
It will be hard for Biden, he added, to hide his feelings about Trump’s minuscule tax payments.
“And because of his roots in Scranton and in Delaware and because he has spent over four decades fighting for the middle class, the working-class American, I anticipate that you will see his disgust with this avoidance to pay taxes,” Vela said. “I anticipate you’ll hear him address it as a slap in the face of the working-class Americans that it is.”
Before Sunday, Biden was expected to focus on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic malaise that’s gripped the country for most of the year. The taxes just add a new item to Biden’s toolbox that another Democratic strategist said he could use to cast Trump as out of touch with essential workers struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic and economic downturn.
“The fact that teachers, the fact that emergency workers, the people who are keeping this country running … are paying more money in taxes than the president is horrific,” Michael Starr Hopkins said. “I think $750, that is something that he should just repeat over and over and over again because it’s one thing for people to game the tax system, but Donald Trump has made his entire name off of being a successful businessman who can turn the country around.”
‘At the core of Biden’s case against Trump’
Trump’s tax revelations offer Biden another key line of attack: “popping the bubble” of his opponent’s wealthy-man image.
In addition to the $750 tax payments in 2016 and 2017, the Times story revealed Trump used loopholes to avoid paying any taxes for 10 years from 2000 to 2015 by writing off millions of dollars in losses. The disclosures also showed Trump made $434.9 million in 2018 but reported a $47.4 million loss.
“He can hit him for not being as rich as he claims he is,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Democratic strategist. “This guy is full of bluster and is actually kind of a loser.”
Ganapathy said the tax returns also played into Biden’s long-standing attacks on Trump’s character.
“This isn’t just about tax policy. This isn’t just about taxes. It connects to everything, and it’s sort of at the core of Biden’s case against Trump,” Ganapathy said. “This person is fundamentally without character and is in the presidency to enrich himself and the very rich.”