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Rachel Maddow’s Hollow Scoop

Trump’s tax returns were newsworthy, but the anchor’s preamble was self-defeating

(MSNBC)
(MSNBC)

At 7:36 p.m., Rachel Maddow tweeted that her show was in possession of “Trump tax returns.” At 8:24 p.m., she clarified the show had a Form 1040 from 2005. At 9 p.m., she started a preamble to the reveal that went on for 19 minutes.

And at 9:09 p.m., Rachel Maddow got scooped by The Daily Beast.

Anyone who happened to have Twitter open during the broadcast — and many probably did — could have opened the post right then. In its first two paragraphs, the Beast succinctly disclosed what Maddow wouldn’t until more than a third of the way through Tuesday night’s show: According to two pages published on David Cay Johnston’s DCReport.org, Donald and Melania Trump paid $5.3 million in regular federal income tax and $31 million in alternative minimum tax on a reported income of $153 million. That sentence would prove to be almost the entire substance of Maddow’s episode, though viewers didn’t know it at the time.

Meanwhile, Maddow was still speculating about Trump’s dealings with Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, a name she paused the broadcast to demonstrate she knew how to pronounce by repeating it a half dozen times.

Maddow’s opening monologue is a nightly ritual of articulate umbrage that’s come to characterize and popularize her show in the Trump era. This time, though, the segment’s duration and intensity were a miscalculation. The mismatch between windup and payoff turned catharsis into sensationalism — a TV host’s natural instinct to play up drama colliding with a journalist’s obligation to inform quickly and succinctly. The ostensible act of public service came off like a ratings ploy, whether it was intended to or not. You could almost see the backlash start in real time.

The speech began soundly enough, with Maddow announcing its purpose: explaining the history and importance of presidential tax returns, from why disclosure became a tradition (it goes back to Nixon) to what Trump could be concealing by refusing said disclosure (it goes back to Russia). But that purpose was derailed by long tangents that detailed various kinds of smoke without ever locating a fire. We know where Rybolovlev parks his yacht, though we don’t know his precise relationship with our president. And all the questions Maddow posed about what might be lurking in Trump’s undisclosed returns served only to highlight how few answers were in that Form 1040.

Maddow made us wait until after the break to learn those answers; she returned by rattling off the most important numbers. She spoke for 10 minutes with Johnston before the Pulitzer-winning reporter stated the obvious: We know the amount of money Trump made 12 years ago and the amount he paid the government, but we don’t know where any of that money came from, which is the mystery behind the tax-return angst in the first place. The evening wasn’t much ado about nothing so much as much ado about a small, boring, and achingly insufficient something. Johnston even floated the depressing possibility that Trump engineered the whole spectacle himself, leaking the form the way he is alleged to have done so many past tabloid tips.

The whole affair was a flashback to the last tax-related Trump revelation: the 1995 records that indicated he may not have paid taxes for years afterward, and that failed to materially change the campaign. This time, the cycle of raised expectations and disappointment was compressed into hours, reflecting poorly on Maddow, her medium, and those of us who took the bait or knew it was bait and tuned in anyway. We still don’t know anything of substance about Trump’s taxes or the conflicts of interest they might reveal. We do know that the next person who says they do will have a much harder time getting our attention — or convincing us they’re not the News Outlet Who Cried 1040.