The Impact of President Trump’s Tax Returns on the 2020 Presidential Election


Amanda Ruzumna, Contributor

On Sunday, Sept. 27, The New York Times released an article exposing President Trump’s tax records from over two decades. This exposé revealed years of tax avoidance by Trump and millions of dollars in business losses. The information presented in these records appeared to directly contradict what Trump had been telling the American people. The records were released with less than two months until the election, turning the exposé inevitably into a topic of conversation. With the presidential election rapidly approaching, one question that Americans have is how this new information will impact voters and the trajectory of the election.

After almost four years of Trump in the presidency, prosecutors, journalists, politicians, and other individuals had attempted to gain more information on Trump’s financial records, but none had been successful in actually obtaining his tax records. Trump often questioned why viewing his records was necessary and stated that the public would not learn much from them. Instead of releasing these documents, he directed people to his annual financial disclosures required of him as president, which he presented as evidence of his success in the business world. However, much of the information in his annual financial disclosures solely communicated revenue, not profit.

Trump’s released tax returns showed write-offs, hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, an audit battle, and struggling properties. It was revealed that Trump had only paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and likewise only $750 during his first year in office. In fact, Trump did not pay any federal taxes in ten of the past fifteen years in the U.S., which reportedly is due to him losing more money than he made in these years. However, despite only paying $750 in the U.S., the records determined that Trump, or his companies, paid tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to Panama ($15,598), India ($145,400), and the Philippines ($156,824) during 2017. The records also revealed that Trump made a total of $73 million from foreign countries during his first two years in office.

While Trump claimed to have made $434.9 million in 2018, his tax returns proved that he had actually lost $47.4 million. Trump’s image as a businessman was one of the factors that attracted attention and support for him in the 2016 presidential election. In fact, according to a February 2016 Gallup survey, 16 percent of Republicans cited Trump being a “good businessman” as their main reason for supporting him and 22 percent of Republicans stated that their main reason for supporting him was because of his “political outsider” status. With these two fundamental components of Trump’s campaign seemingly weakened in the 2020 election due to Trump’s exposed tax returns, the key question is if this exposé will impact voters in the 2020 election, specifically Trump’s supporters.

Previous polling and research indicate that small percentages of Trump’s supporters’ views on him are often altered after negative financial or career information is disclosed about him. For instance, after the NYT published a report in May 2019 that revealed that Trump had lost around $1.2 billion between 1985 and 1994, public polling displayed a drop in the public’s confidence in him as a businessman. A Politico/Morning Consult survey displayed how 54 percent of voters had initially considered Trump “very successful” or “somewhat successful,” but after the NYT report, this number dropped to 43 percent. Additionally, a Fox News poll from May 2019 found that 20 percent of voters said that there was a “strong” or “some” chance that new revelations about Trump could impact how they view him. Although these percentages do not represent a majority of voters, these numbers can be large enough to impact an election.

As the 2020 presidential election rapidly approaches, Trump appears to be losing in the polls by a substantial amount, the CNN Poll of Polls as of 10/30 indicating that Biden has a polling average of 52 percent and Trump has a polling average of 42 percent. Considering his underdog status, Trump’s fraudulent tax records solely create an obstacle for him to gain more support. The general lack of change within polling data from before the release of Trump’s tax returns to now suggests that efforts Trump has made to gain more support have been relatively unsuccessful; however, it is hard to conclude if this is as a result of the exposure of his tax returns or if this is due to other factors. Furthermore, this consistency in polling demonstrates that the exposure may not have had as negative of an impact as historians suspected after the initial exposé was released. 

Vanderbilt College Republicans declined to comment on this subject; however, an anonymous Vanderbilt student, who is supporting Trump, commented that he does not believe Trump’s tax returns are pivotal for the election. He stated, “No matter your politics, Trump’s tax returns aren’t nearly as decisive an issue as others which cut more closely to the moral and cultural conflict which define our polarization.” He furthered his opinion on the matter, asserting that Trump’s tax records will not substantially alter his supporters’ views: “Most Trump supporters accept him as a necessarily flawed and sometimes evil candidate for ideological representation in the Oval Office. He was never supposed to have a clean and successful past or be a moral guide for the nation. Any problems revealed from Trump’s tax returns will reaffirm far left-wingers in their religious zeal, who never give him a fair shake anyway, but probably not undecided voters and certainly not Trump’s base.”

Devon Shewell, President of Vanderbilt College Democrats, had a different viewpoint. He stated, “I think that the President’s tax records reveal President Trump’s dishonest nature and his administration’s corruption at large. I would hope the release of 45’s taxes will lead voters to consider who their government is truly working for. I think electorally, the President’s taxes could certainly come into play, adding fuel to the already raging fire that is motivating so many Americans to vote for change.”

The variety of opinions on campus about the exposé and inconclusive polling data make it difficult to determine whether or not the release of Trump’s tax returns will ultimately impact the outcome of the election.