On Sunday, The New York Times’ dropped a bombshell report about President Donald Trump’s taxes that showed in 10 of the previous 15 years, the president did not pay any federal income tax. But the Times’ coverage is up against the near-unstoppable force that is Sean Hannity and the Fox News propaganda machine, which have consistently defended Trump against all such criticism -- even though they also spent years taking the opposite position against Democratic politicians and regular Americans. It is now incumbent upon legitimate media outlets to see through the inconsistency and hypocrisy coming from the impenetrable Fox News infobubble.
The Times report, which is based around tax documents dating back more than two decades, portrays Trump as a chronic tax dodger and shows that he paid just $750 in taxes during the first year of his presidency. This report is the latest volley in the battle over Trump’s financial transparency, serving the important purpose of obliterating the bad-faith defenses Trump’s protective media phalanx had trotted out in response to two other stories revealing the president’s finances the paper had done before. In May 2019, the Times published a report showing that Trump’s businesses lost over $1 billion over the course of a decade, and in October 2018, the paper uncovered Trump’s legally dubious use of the tax code to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire.
Any of the Times’ Trump tax stories could have been the death knell for his brand, built on an image of business success. So far, they haven’t -- and he can thank Fox News in part for that.
Take a quick glance at how Fox News has spun these stories in Trump’s favor and you’ll understand how impenetrable Fox’s protective dome is to politically inconvenient facts, especially those about Trump’s personal wealth.
In 2019, when the Times published reporting that Trump had lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy brushed the news off as being “from 20 and 30 years ago,” suggesting it would be irrelevant to voters. During the same segment, co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked whether it really even matters what his tax returns say, adding, “If anything you read this and you're like, wow, it's pretty impressive all the things that he's done in his life. It's beyond what most of us could ever achieve.”
When House Democrats requested Trump’s tax returns from the IRS in April 2019, a month before the Times released its report, Fox News played defense, doing everything from accusing Democrats of playing politics with the IRS to conducting a fishing expedition to change the public narrative away from the Mueller report.
Following the publication of the Times’ 2018 investigative report about Trump receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire through shady use of tax code, Fox “news”-side anchor Neil Cavuto characterized the story as the Times “accusing the president of engaging in a little bit of creative accounting” and added, “I don’t know if there’s a there there.” Cavuto would later say that the report showed that while Trump and his father “might have played fast and loose to acquire the wealth they did,” they didn’t break any laws and “were just pretty clever and out dodged” the IRS.
The Fox News response to this latest piece by the Times has been equally predictable. Fox White House correspondent John Roberts asserted that “there is no indication of any wrongdoing” in Trump’s taxes and spun the story as evidence of the president’s honesty, claiming that “the reporting does back up the president's assertions he first made four years ago that his taxes are indeed under audit.” Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway spread a ludicrous conspiracy theory about the Times coordinating with Joe Biden’s presidential campaign on publishing its report. And on Fox & Friends, when contributor Mike Huckabee was asked about Trump’s history of tax dodges, he replied, “Frankly, I don’t care.”
Fox News doesn’t have a principled stance on taxes and who should pay them. Trump sycophant Sean Hannity is a prime example of Fox’s rank hypocrisy.
For years, Hannity regularly raged against those who, in his narrative, didn’t pay enough taxes and he frequently made the false claim that almost half of Americans don’t pay any taxes. In 2012, for example, Hannity denounced the “entitlement mentality [that] has set in in the minds and the hearts of a lot of people in this country.”
“We saw stories this week,” he said in 2010, “50% of American households no longer pay taxes. What does that mean for America if you have a voting electorate that's not paying any taxes?”
In 2013, Hannity slammed President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for paying just $112,214 in taxes on $608,611 in income, an effective tax rate of 18.4%. “Now for all of President Obama’s talk about paying your fair share, and all of crazy Uncle Joe’s yammering about paying taxes being your patriotic duty, it’s obvious that neither of them are heeding their own advice,” he said.
Before Obama, Hannity attacked 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as “hypocrites” for using loopholes that allow the rich to avoid paying some taxes, even though Kerry didn’t support those loopholes existing in the first place and had proposed a tax plan that would close them.
But when it came to Trump, Hannity shamelessly reversed his position. He responded to the 2018 Times investigation by lashing out at Democrats as the “party of slander and bludgeoning.” His response to the 2019 story was to go on a hysterical rant in which he called Democrats “a political cabal filled with sore losers that are now bordering on rage psychosis, that couldn’t accept the results of the 2016 election, now refusing to accept the results of Mueller’s investigation, and now more unhinged than ever.” As for Trump’s $1 billion in losses, that didn’t seem to bother Hannity all that much. “Businesses fail every day,” he said.
Naturally, Hannity’s response to the latest Times piece consisted of a challenge to the Times to release “their taxes,” without specifying whether he meant the story’s reporters or the organization itself.
While Hannity is the lumbering id of Fox News, impulsively embracing whatever rhetoric helps advance his partisan ends, this is what the network is.
Just as Hannity was fond of making the claim that roughly half of Americans didn’t pay taxes, so too was then-CNN host Lou Dobbs in 2008, now one of Fox’s most obsequious pro-Trump sycophants, as well as Fox Business anchor David Asman and other network figures in 2012. Just as Hannity had no qualms with going after Obama for paying what he viewed as too low of a tax rate, neither did Fox’s “straight news” program Special Report with Bret Baier. Just as Hannity lambasted tax cuts for low and middle class Americans as “welfare,” so too did a bevy of other Fox News hosts and commentators early in Obama’s presidency. We haven’t yet witnessed the full extent of Fox’s attempts to grapple with the latest Times story, but on taxes, it’s easy to predict where the Hannity and Fox narrative will lead.
Whether coming from Fox’s so-called “straight news” anchors or from the cheery propagandists on Fox & Friends’ curvy couch, the network’s varied messages all work to achieve the same goal: Fox News exists as an extraordinarily effective partisan shield to protect Trump from criticism. It is enough for Fox that Trump was less of a successful businessman and more of an actor who could play that role on TV. Audiences could be conditioned to ignore the network’s past criticisms of Obama or Kerry, or to forget that Fox spent years railing against “takers” who supposedly got more out of the government than they paid in taxes while promoting the “makers” as the true backbone to the country.
There may be no amount of evidence that The New York Times or anyone else could produce to convince Fox’s loyal viewership that Trump isn’t actually the successful business demigod he fashions himself as -- or that he's essentially playing a shell game with his money to avoid paying the taxes he owes -- but that doesn’t mean legitimate news outlets should give up on the truth. As Trump’s supporters at Fox roll their eyes at what they frame as just the latest attempt to attack him, mainstream media outlets may feel pressured to dial back coverage on this story. But as my colleague Matt Gertz wrote this week, the question of whether this story matters in the long run -- if it becomes something that Trump, his followers, and even Fox News have to grapple with -- lies entirely with mainstream outlets that still see truth-telling as part of their core missions.