Don't worry about Donald Trump's 'leaked' tax return – worry about what he's distracting you from

Trump has become a master manipulator of the media, who makes sure these outrageous statements or leaked returns become the only story they cover for days

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In 1986, Geraldo Rivera opened famed Chicago mobster Al Capone’s vault on live television. In the weeks before the special aired, the public and media worked itself up into a fevered pitch. What was in the vault? Would there be a body? The night it aired, the public waited with bated breath as Geraldo opened… an empty vault. Meanwhile the Reagan administration was illegally selling arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

Last night, Rachel Maddow and her guest, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston, opened the empty vault of Trump’s tax returns. Actually, they were two pages of his 2005 return that told us hardly anything new. Yet Twitter worked itself into a tizzy, and this morning, it’s all anyone in America seems able to talk about.

How convenient for Donald Trump, who has a lot of news he’d like to bury. Trumpcare is a political disaster. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is accused of using a fake email address to admit climate change is real (and help Exxon deny it for profit). He’s gutting the federal government in what’s being termed a “reorganisation.”

This has led some – including Johnston, who obtained the copy Maddow presented – to wonder if Trump himself leaked his own tax returns. After all, the copy Maddow brandished clearly said “CLIENT COPY” on them. If he did, you could hardly blame him. After all, all the two pages Maddow showed us prove is that Trump actually did pay taxes. But beyond that, it’s certainly in keeping with Trump’s history of distracting while destroying. 

I’ve previously written that Trump’s tweets matter even if, much like the giant floating head Dorothy finds in Oz, they’re designed to distract us from the man behind the curtain. Trump’s tweets and tax returns can tell us a lot about the man, his psyche, where he’s getting his news, and at least with the full tax returns (should they ever surface), what – if any – conflicts Trump may have. They’re important, and they should be covered.

But Trump has become a master manipulator of the media, who makes sure these outrageous statements or leaked returns become the only story they cover for days. When journalists began zoning in on possible Russian connections, Trump claimed President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. He picked a fight with the cast of Hamilton when he settled a $25m class-action lawsuit for fraud. When unemployment figures ticked slightly up, Trump tweeted about his erstwhile show, Celebrity Apprentice and its new host Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Donald Trump's tax return in numbers

So it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump leaked his own tax returns to distract us from the s**tshow that is his administration. However, we in the media have to stop taking the bait.

While leaked tax returns are of course newsworthy, especially given Trump’s refusal to release any returns at all, the first two pages of a 12 year old 1040 don’t warrant two solid hours of coverage, which is what MSNBC gave them last night (on both The Rachel Maddow Show and Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell). It also doesn’t warrant the fevered pitch those of us in the media (myself included) worked ourselves into in the hour or so before Maddow’s show.

In some ways you can’t blame us. Trump’s tax returns are the holy grail of political journalism right now. Full returns, with all schedules, would be telling. But those are unlikely to surface, and without Schedules C and E showing real estate and business income, they’re going to be largely useless. Maddow and Johnston – who is a Pulitzer Prize winning tax journalist – certainly know this. The rest of us just learned it.

We got very little out of last night, but the President gets another day of us covering everything but the shady dealings of his cabinet of deplorables and congressional conspirators. We can’t allow Trump to control the narrative, nor can we get so distracted that we miss the forest for the trees. The world is depending upon journalists to report and analyse things that matter and put them in a proper context. That didn’t happen last night. Instead, Maddow and Johnston opened another empty vault, choosing sensationalism and ratings over actual journalism.