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Why Are We So Obsessed With Donald Trump’s Money?

A recent New York Times report uncovered the president’s disastrous history of debt. But does that really matter to the future of the country?

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In October, The New York Times published an extensive report about President Donald Trump’s personal history with money. The report revealed that Trump largely inherited his wealth from his father and preserved it through tax evasion and fraud. The story informed a larger skepticism about Trump’s business and his “success” narrative, designed to obscure crime, scandals, and failure. “The Times’s findings raise new questions about Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his income tax returns, breaking with decades of practice by past presidents,” the story’s three reporters wrote. Their story was long and their reporting was deep, but the revelations passed quickly into obscurity, overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and the Jamal Khashoggi assassination. “The piece stirred both New York City and state regulators to commence investigations of their own that could ensnare the Trump family in years of consuming legal battles and force them to choke up hundreds of millions in fines and penalties,” Jack Shafer wrote for Politico. “But even though the Times aggregated this piece for slow readers, produced clever video takes on the material and reprinted the original as a special section of the Sunday paper, the story has all but melted from sight.”

The newspaper persists. On Wednesday, The New York Times—having obtained data in Trump’s tax returns dated 1985 through 1994—published a report about Trump’s financial losses so staggering as to undermine the president’s profit mythology. “The numbers show that in 1985, Mr. Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses—largely casinos, hotels, and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade,” according to the report. “Over all, Mr. Trump lost so much money that he was able to avoid paying income taxes for eight of the 10 years.” The reporters frame these latest revelations about Trump’s wealth as devastating contradictions to his political credibility. “Mr. Trump was propelled to the presidency, in part, by a self-spun narrative of business success and of setbacks triumphantly overcome. ... In fact, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.”

There are three major reasons for the average citizen to care about Trump’s wealth. The first, sensible reason: Trump is a crook whose closest associates have landed in prison, and so Trump’s wealth seems to be the central theme in criminal activity surrounding the president. It is good, if disheartening, to know whether the president is a deadbeat. The average citizen might read these stories about Trump’s wealth with an eye toward fairness: Trump has hoarded hundreds of millions of dollars in inherited wealth while declining to pay taxes for long stretches of his commercial “success.” What do Trump’s pratfalls and windfalls say about capitalism? How might voters entering a quasi-socialist moment interpret these stories about wealth, inheritance, deception, and the ruling class? Trump’s significance is larger than any one news cycle, and The New York Times stories about Trump’s wealth are more interesting than the simple odds of Trump’s removal from office.

Frequently, his critics seem to believe that the revelations about Trump’s bad business will undermine his presidency or at least embarrass him personally. The stories are proof that Trump is a “loser,” a term that Trump frequently applies to his opponents in politics, business, and media. But Trump’s political success has less to do with his commercial “success” than his critics would prefer to admit. Trump has lived with the knowledge of his failures longer than New York Times readers have. Trump is, presumably, aware of his own deceptions. But he’s the president now. His success is no longer ambiguous or overstated. Trump and his supporters cannot be shamed into regarding the president’s trajectory as some long, demoralizing shortcoming: Look where it got him!

In fact, the misapprehension lies with Trump’s critics, who routinely mistake Donald Trump for Senator Mitt Romney or the late George H.W. Bush—classic Republican businessmen with little entertainment value to their qualifications. Trump’s supporters do not, by and large, mistake Trump for some corporate mastermind. Trump didn’t launch his presidential campaign with a rant about federal budget deficits and a furious defense of “the free-market economy.” Trump launched his presidential campaign with a rant about Mexicans, drugs, and violent crime. He launched his political career only a few years earlier with conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s nationality and religious faith. Trump’s earliest supporters didn’t recognize Trump as a businessman so much as a celebrity who just so happened to play a successful businessman with an exaggerative flair on a popular reality TV show. There’s no disproving this much about Trump before politics: He was famous, and The Apprentice was fun.

Trump’s accountability may never come to pass. History may regard him as a “successful” businessman despite decades of evidence to the contrary. History, if written by conservatives, may regard Trump’s presidency as a “success,” too. Trump’s critics dispute his wealth as vigorously as they dispute his political accomplishments; but there’s no disproving Trump’s success story. There are only opportunities to end it. There’s the next presidential election. There’s Elijah Cummings. There’s impeachment. But there’s no shame. And Trump spares no expense.