But some party strategists say it will be difficult to weaponize against the president amid all his other controversies.
Sen. Cory Booker accused Donald Trump of “criminal behavior.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it’s more evidence of the president’s corruption. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee cracked: “The Emperor did have clothes, but it turns out it was his dad’s.”
A day after The New York Times published a 14,000-word investigation on the Trump family’s financial history — detailing elaborate schemes to avoid taxes that the newspaper said amounted to fraud — potential Democratic 2020 contenders were salivating over how to use it as a line of attack against the president.
Booker told reporters Wednesday that he believes Trump should pay back “millions of dollars in taxes,” and he poked at Republicans for not calling for an investigation.
“It’s stunning. It indicates fraud. It indicates criminal behavior. And a significant tax cheat, ” Booker said. “There’s enough evidence there that would indicate that the president of the United States owes taxpayers who don’t cheat.”
Warren tweeted a link to the New York Times story on Tuesday, writing, “Exhibit #237 of why anyone running for federal office should have to disclose their tax returns. Congress needs to pass my legislation to #EndCorruptionNow, which would force candidates (and @realDonaldTrump) to make their tax returns public.”
Potentially most stinging to Trump personally was the assertion that his father, Fred, gave the president a far greater financial boost than the president has claimed. It undermines the self-made-billionaire narrative that Trump loves to tout on the campaign stump.
“It’s not too surprising that the man who deceives in public every day is deceptive in the privacy of his tax filings. No wonder he’s never revealed his tax returns,” Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and a potential 2020 candidate, said through a spokesman. “Here’s the problem for con men: The con is always up at some point.”
Yet more than a half-dozen Democratic strategists across the country interviewed by Politico on Wednesday were as cautious as would-be Trump challengers were animated. They warned that the findings — exhaustive and meticulously documented as they are — could easily be lost in the morass of controversy facing the president or dismissed by his die-hard supporters as another mainstream media attack.
Democrats need to execute the attack skillfully for it to have any effect, they said.
“This is a way to get under his skin, it calls into question his entire founding story,” said Josh Wolf, a political consultant with AL Media. “If our candidates, regardless of where they are on the ballot, can say [to voters], ‘This is an example of how Donald Trump is not advocating for them and Republicans are not advocating for them,’ that’s where we’re going to draw blood.”
Other strategists were less bullish that the findings would change many minds.
“I don’t think anything’s a game changer short of having a serious health problem or something,” longtime California Democratic operative Darry Sragow said. Voters’ views of Trump “are pretty hardened at this point, and he’s got a solid support base. And that base is going to be unwavering, and they will follow him off a cliff.”
Sachin Chheda, a Wisconsin-based Democratic consultant, said the report is far from a fatal blow. The issue for Trump, he said, is that it adds to the weight of investigations already facing the president, from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe to a still-active emoluments lawsuit.
“I think with Trump it’s not that you have to identify specific lines of attack. I think a huge part of the electorate is just exhausted by the constant chaos of the Trump administration,” Chheda said. “I do think personally, for Trump, it causes the problem that there will be yet another investigation. He’s already fighting battles personally on multiple fronts.”
It remains to be seen whether voters can discriminate between the latest report and financial issues that arose in the 2016 election. Democrats pounded Trump for refusing to release his tax returns, in a break with longstanding tradition. But Trump weathered the criticism, as he has numerous other scandals surrounding his administration.
“This isn’t going to hurt Donald Trump. He has developed a persona where his supporters, if he gets attacked by The New York Times, his approval rating among his supporters will actually go up,” Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Wednesday on CNN. “The truest thing he said in the campaign in 2016 was, ‘If I shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight, I won’t lose any votes.’ I think this is another case where, ironically, an exposé of this kind, even assuming it’s entirely valid, I don’t think significantly will undermine his support. It might actually help him.”
Still, for persuadable voters — including those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, before switching to Trump in 2016 — Sragow said the tax revelations could add incremental weight to the controversies already engulfing the White House.
“There’s no neutron bomb that’s going to take out Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s going to be the cumulative weight of the whole series of events that causes people to go, ‘I just can’t take this anymore. I’m done with him.’ … It’s like, ‘I know my spouse is messing around, but when is it one time too many?’”