I don’t really care what’s in President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Sure, I think Trump shows real contempt for citizens and good government by refusing to do what all recent presidents have done without a fuss. And yes, his refusal is another neon sign advertising a menu of character and ethical deficits. But we already know Trump is rich, so who cares if he is richer or poorer than we think? We already know the tax tricks real estate developers and the 1 percent use, so who cares about the details?
Trump’s tax returns are a third-tier flap at a moment fraught with urgent, first-tier issues.
Yet it was Trump’s tax returns that brought protestors out all across the country the other day. Activism like that is a great thing. But that energy would be better used if put toward a greater cause — and there are many.
It is Trump’s refusal to release his tax forms that Democrats hold up as the prime reason they cannot and will not participate in negotiations about tax reform. They argue that it would be wrong to proceed without knowing how legislation might further enrich Trump, his family and empire.
Well I have news: There are many worse problems on the docket than Donald Trump getting richer in sleazy ways. That would be a high moral crime indeed but it’s trivial compared to missile strikes, games of nuclear chicken and sabotaging health insurance systems.
Americans know this and polling makes clear that they care more about those matters than Trump’s taxes, Ivanka’s brand and Jared’s real estate holdings. And those Trump voters who have become wobbly in their support certainly don’t care about that stuff — they never have. Trump’s opponents would do better to focus on meatier matters.
Trump now has a record, albeit short, as president of the United States. He has taken important actions and made decisions that could have real consequences. But the citizen opposition, professional party opposition and the press, I fear, are trying to steer too much of our diminishing national attention span on third-tier issues like Trump’s tax returns.
Exhibit A: The missile strikes on a Syrian airfield after Syria allegedly used chemical weapons on civilians. The strikes took place on April 6, just a couple weeks ago, and they are basically out of the news now. But many crucial unanswered questions remain.
Did the strikes significantly diminish Syria’s capacity to use chemical weapons or commit other war crimes? (The answer seems to be no.) Trump said he was moved by videos of stricken children: Do we know how many Syrian children have died from conventional arms recently? Or how many Syrian children died in refugee camps? Or why Trump’s policy is to avenge some children’s killings but not others?
We know that Russia says it is outraged by the strikes. Is it really? We know that in March there were 1,755 alleged civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, many times more than any prior period in Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of our Islamic State-focused military interventions. Will we continue to allow so many civilian casualties?
Exhibit B: A few days after the U.S. missile attack on Syria, the Trump administration sent another message of military might to another dangerous nemesis, North Korea. “We’re sending an armada,” Trump said to Fox News, meaning the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and escort vessels. Fears of war and nuclear weapons erupted in South Korea. Trump followed up with a bellicose tweet, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Now we have learned the armada was actually sailing in the opposite direction, heading to military exercises with the Australian navy 3,500 miles away from Korea in the Indian Ocean.
Was this colossal and dangerous blunder of Trump’s own making, or was it the Navy’s fault? What credibility can the president have when he acts and tweets in such a cavalier manner even when the core issue is nuclear war?
These are questions about high stakes actions taken by President Trump, not about his past, his fortune or his business dealings. They are more important.
There is a vast and dire credibility drought in American politics.
The press, the Democrats and anti-Trump activists squander what little authority they have left when there is too much focus on the lesser issues of the day, even if they’re ones that can generate better theater and tweets.
All the world is not a stage.
Dick Meyer is chief Washington correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC (www.decodedc.com). Readers can email Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org