By The Washington Post · Toluse Olorunnipa, Sean Sullivan · NATIONAL, POLITICS
With Trump's campaign hoping the first meeting between the two candidates Tuesday night would help him overcome his deficit in both national and key state polls, the New York Times report documenting Trump's tax avoidance strategies became the latest impediment to the president's ongoing effort to revive his flagging reelection bid.
The report gave Biden, his Democratic opponent, a fresh line of attack and left Trump struggling to defend himself on an issue that has dogged him throughout his presidency.
For Trump, who has fought relentlessly to keep his tax records private, a report showing that he had paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again in 2017 immediately posed a threat to his carefully crafted image as a successful businessman and "America First" patriot. The revelations appeared to take his campaign by surprise, jolting the race just days after Trump announced his choice to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
"The Fake News Media, just like Election time 2016, is bringing up my Taxes & all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information & only bad intent," Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday, a day after declaring the report "made up" and false. "I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits."
Campaign aides echoed a similar message - downplaying the report, attacking the media and defending the president's use of various efforts to reduce his tax burden. Some used the focus on Trump's personal finances to revive attacks on the business dealings of Biden's son Hunter - something the president has said he plans to focus on during Tuesday's debate.
Trump and his aides say the president has been had limited preparation for his first faceoff with Biden, relying instead on his daily activities and interactions with an aggressive press corps. But Tuesday's event at Case Western University in Cleveland may be the first time Trump is directly pressed on some of the key questions unearthed by the new documents - including whether it is appropriate for a self-described billionaire to pay less in taxes than families earning less than $50,000.
Biden, who spent Monday out of the public eye preparing for the debate, used his well-capitalized campaign to air digital ads comparing Trump's tax bill to what middle-class Americans pay each year.
The ad showed the typical income tax burden for professions including teachers, firefighters and nurses - comparing those figures, all averaging more than $5,000, to Trump's $750 bill.
"How much more did you pay in taxes than President Trump?" Biden wrote on Twitter, linking to a website with a "Trump Tax Calculator."
How effective such attacks will be on Trump remains to be seen, with political analysts highlighting that many Americans have already made up their minds about the president. Trump has previously defended his tax avoidance strategies, saying in 2016 that they make him "smart."
"On the substance, I don't think it will matter that much," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, adding that the bigger challenge for the president is that the tax story could sap the momentum created by his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Still, Heye said, the debate setting may force Trump to address the clear discrepancy between the tax records showing massive losses and his claims of unparalleled business acumen.
"It does allow Biden to say 'Which Donald Trump is the true Donald Trump? Is he the mastermind businessman who has been lying to the IRS? Or is he the failed businessman who has been lying to the American people?' " said Heye, who did not vote for Trump in 2016.
The Times story included several revelations that Democrats have seized on, leading Trump's allies to defend the president's business dealings and unconventional use of the tax code.
The report found that Trump reduced his income by deducting a number of questionable expenses, including more than $70,000 for hairstyling and hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees paid to family members. Trump's golf courses and hotel businesses have steadily lost money, and the president has more than $400 million in loans and debt that are set to come due in the next few years. Trump is still fighting the IRS over a $72.9 million tax refund that he was granted in 2010, according to the report.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh pushed back against the Times article Monday, calling it "a big nothingburger and a pre-debate attack intended solely to help Joe Biden."
"This is almost exactly the same bogus story about the President's taxes that the New York Times rolled out right before the first debate in 2016 and it didn't work then either," he said in a statement. "When he ran the first time he released more than 100 pages of financial documents and the American people judged for themselves and elected him president."
Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, also sought to dismiss the article, saying in a statement that it was "riddled with gross inaccuracies." Garten and Murtaugh claimed Trump has paid tens of millions of dollars in taxes, claims that could not be verified because Trump has refused to release his tax returns.
Trump tried to defend against the allegations that he faces a precarious debt burden, something several Democrats have cited as a potential national security threat should he win a second term.
In a tweet, Trump called his financial position "very IMPRESSIVE" and denied that he was struggling.
"Also, if you look at the extraordinary assets owned by me, which the Fake News hasn't, I am extremely under leveraged - I have very little debt compared to the value of assets," he wrote.
Trump's willingness to boast about his vast wealth and defend his low tax bill comes as Biden has been intensifying efforts to cast himself as a populist and challenge the president's appeals to White, working-class voters in the Upper Midwestern battleground states.
"I view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue," Biden said at a CNN town hall this month, casting Trump as a defender of Wall Street.
With Trump facing a slew of damaging news reports, lost endorsements and tell-all books by former aides, the president is seeking to reset the race with an aggressive debate performance.
Biden and his top aides expect Trump to make false statements in the debate and lob a fusillade of negative attacks, according to a person with knowledge of their thinking. But they feel strongly that Biden's role is not to fact-check everything his rival says, largely leaving that to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, unless otherwise merited, said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Instead, Biden plans to talk directly to voters about what a Biden presidency would look like, particularly in addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
"Just tell the truth," Biden said Sunday when asked what he has to do to win Tuesday night.
Some Biden allies worry that he will lose his temper in the face of personal attacks on him or his family and dent his pitch as the more composed candidate. At the same time, Biden's authenticity has been one of his chief selling points as a politician.
"I am certain that President Trump will once again lower himself into the gutter and go after Joe Biden in some way personally," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a close Biden ally. "And there are two schools of thought - you don't react and you stay focused on the message you are there to deliver. Or you react with real anger."
"He's going to try to get under the vice president's skin," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a Biden campaign co-chair.
Trump has increasingly referred to Hunter Biden at recent rallies, seizing on a report by Senate Republicans that revived questions about his foreign business dealings and income. Biden has dismissed the attacks on his son, turning the focus back to Trump's widely criticized response to the pandemic.
In recent days, Biden has navigated a new issue that is likely to spark impassioned disagreement in the debate: the Supreme Court.
The death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has quickly thrust the battle to fill her seat into the forefront of the campaign, potentially sharpening the focus on issues such as abortion, guns and health care. Democrats including Biden object to the Republican effort to fill the seat swiftly, arguing that the winner of the election should do it.
Biden, whose campaign is rooted heavily in appealing to suburban moderates energized to vote against Trump and has mostly steered clear of taking controversial stances, has walked a fine line in the court fight. He has repeatedly objected to Trump's move to fill the seat but stopped short of embracing calls from Democratic activists to expand the size of the Supreme Court in the future should Biden win the election.
Biden opposed the move in the Democratic primary, but has repeatedly declined to offer a definitive explanation of his current thinking. He was vague on Sunday under questioning from reporters.
"If I were to say yes or no to that, that becomes a big issue," he said.
Biden has framed the court fight as primarily one over health care, pointing to a Republican challenge against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the court will hear shortly after Election Day. Biden is reprising the 2018 Democratic playbook for winning suburban voters by appealing to them on issues such as protections for preexisting health conditions, and relying on their anger with Trump to solidify their support.
Highlighting the national displeasure with Trump - who polls indicate most Americans dislike and believe has mishandled the pandemic - will be a key goal for Biden during the debate. The former vice president has been doing much of his preparation on video, without his full team present, according to an aide.
The setting of the event will serve as a reminder of how the coronavirus continues to upend American life.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said in an interview Monday that due to health guidelines, about 80 people will be in the audience - a much smaller crowd than the usual 900 or so. Each person will be required to wear masks and will be tested for the coronavirus. Each candidate will be allotted room for 20 guests in the debate hall.
Trump and Biden will not be wearing masks onstage, Fahrenkopf said. They will not shake hands.
Trump will get the first question.