Donald Trump is a lying liar. His fabrications and confabulations are too numerous to tally. At the same time, his falsehoods do not halt his progress. The press dutifully records them. The public dutifully reads about them and absorbs them. And Trump and his loyal followers march forward to the Republican presidential nomination and possibly the White House.
It need not be this way. Take one of the more important matters in the presidential vetting process: personal tax returns.
In January, just before the Iowa caucuses, Trump suggested to NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the release of his returns was imminent: “We’re working on that now. I have big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we’ll be working that over in the next period of time.”
Subsequently, Trump told CNN that he couldn’t release his returns because he is being audited, suggesting that perhaps he’d been singled out by the IRS because he is “a strong Christian.”
On yet another occasion, Trump has promised that “I will absolutely give my return, but I’m being audited now for two or three years, so I can’t do it until the audit is finished, obviously.”
On another occasion, he has explained that he can’t release his returns because “four or five years” of them are under audit.
And on yet another occasion, he has said that he’s been audited for far longer: “For many years, I’ve been audited every year. Twelve years or something like that.”
Clearly, in and around these variations, a barn full of smelly prevarications has been accumulating. And just as clearly, Trump is getting away with it. Weary of hearing the same non-answer spit out at them, the press has stopped asking about his taxes. The media have moved on to bigger — and smaller — subjects, like the size of Donald’s hands.
It does not have to be this way. The press and the public do have a way to push the matter forward. If Trump won’t release his tax returns, he must be asked to produce the IRS letters, and the attestations from a reliable accounting firm (not the fly-by-night type used by Bernie Madoff), showing which year or years are still under audit.
If he fails to produce even those documents after repeatedly promising a tax-return release was imminent, a radical, unprecedented measure can be taken.
Rather than allowing Trump to continue to string them along, the press itself, or at least the most influential media outlets, can go on a quasi-strike. Major news organizations can tell Trump that they plan to focus singularly on the subject of his tax returns and offer him no other coverage — not of his rallies, not of his press conferences, not of his circus tricks — until he sets the record straight.
Precedents exist aplenty for closing down coverage in the public interest. On numerous occasions, media outlets have declined to publish government secrets when persuaded that national security would be seriously impaired. In 2008, the New York Times successfully prevailed on more than three dozen competing news outlets to not report the fact that its reporter, David Rohde, had been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That agreement was undertaken to protect the life of a reporter.
In the case of Trump, at issue is nothing less than the future of our basic freedoms. If newspapers and television stations were to use their leverage to ferret out the truth from Trump’s forest of lies, they would be performing an enormous public service.
Doggedness of that sort would be a match for the past doggedness of Trump himself in ferreting out documents as he sought to vet a President. Trump, of course, was a prime mover among the quack conspiracy theorists who contended that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
To Donald Trump, the birther cause became an obsession, and he went so far as to offer $5 million to the charity of Obama’s choice if he would release his passport applications.
Now the shoe is on the other foot, and Trump is stonewalling. At his rallies, Trump complains vociferously that the press deliberately fails to show the size of the crowds. That, of course, is just another lie. Yet if those rallies were not covered at all, he would have every incentive to comply with the media’s legitimate demands.
Trump is a candidate who incessantly berates the press for dishonesty, who has been stirring up his supporters to the brink of violence against journalists. At the same time, he’s threatening, as President, to use libel laws to shut down “negative” reporting.
In its quest for ratings, the press has played a major role in propelling Trump upward. In its quest for the truth, the press can play a major role in exposing Trump for the fraud he is. It’s time for mainstream journalism to stand up for itself, and to stand up for the First Amendment, by using the enormous value of the megaphone it provides as leverage to force the lying liar’s hand.
Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was a senior adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign in the 2012 race and is the author of “A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account.”