At the first presidential debate earlier this week, Republican nominee Donald Trump seemed to admit that he doesn’t pay anything in federal income taxes. But he’s spent the days since lying about what he said.
Speculating about why Trump has refused to release his tax returns during the debate, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton said, “Maybe he doesn’t want the american people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” She noted that when Trump was made to hand over tax returns over the years, “they showed he didn’t pay any income tax.”
Trump broke in to say, “That makes me smart.”
But since then, he’s tried to pretend that that’s not what he said. When CNN’s Dana Bash quoted his own statement back to him hours after the debate, he told her, “No, I didn’t say that at all.”
He went even further on Wednesday night, rewriting the debate exchange in an appearance on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.
O’Reilly brought up “the statement that you made that you were smart for paying as few taxes you could possibly pay.”
Trump responded, “No I didn’t say that. What she said is, ‘Maybe you paid no taxes,’ and I said, ‘Well that would make me very smart.’”
He repeated it later in the interview, saying, “I never said I didn’t pay taxes. She said, ‘Maybe you didn’t pay taxes,’ and I said, ‘You know, that would make me smart.’”
It’s only inserting a few words, but what Trump claimed to say on O’Reilly’s show is entirely different than what he actually said. Trump’s debate statement was that he is smart because he doesn’t pay income taxes, not that it “would” make him smart if that were true.
It also runs counter to what we do know about some of his tax returns. At least five times in the past 40 years, when forced to hand over documents, it was clear that he paid nothing or virtually nothing in income taxes. In some of those years it was due to massive business losses at his casinos, but in others it seems he may have erroneously reported no income on his returns.
Trump went on to tell O’Reilly just why it would make him smart not to pay taxes. “Tax is a big expense,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes a lot less if our politicians knew how to spend the money, but they don’t. They waste the money. I mean, they don’t know what they’re doing with the money.”
He also thinks refusing to pay taxes in full makes him an attractive leader to voters. “A lot of people say, ‘That’s the kind of thinking that I want running this nation,’” he went on. “The fact is that I think people are looking at it like, ‘Maybe that’s the kind of person we need.’”
One example of waste he pointed to was money spent in “the Middle East.” But taxes help fund much more than wars — although Trump himself has called for big increases in military spending overall, which would require new revenue from somewhere. He’s promised to make up for it with cuts to other parts of government, but those cuts would have to be more like enormous gashes to make up for the extra spending. And the programs that would take the hit might have more support than Trump thinks: scientific and medical research, education, infrastructure like harbors and airports, and even some of Trump’s own priorities like veteran health care or border enforcement.
Taxes also help fund other big programs that Americans generally love, like Social Security and Medicare.
Trump is not the only wealthy person to exploit any available loopholes to lower his tax bill — the 400 Americans with the highest incomes paid a tax rate of 17 percent on their incomes, even though they should be subject to the top 39.6 percent rate. Trump has proposed giving the rich an even bigger break, as the wealthiest would see the largest benefit from his tax plan by far. Yet a recent analysis found that he would actually raise taxes for many families who make much less.