Like Seinfeld, Rachel Maddow's Trump Tax Return Special Was A Show About Nothing

On Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow spent an hour talking about nothing. MSNBC used the time slot leading up to her show hyping the idea Maddow had a "special report" revealing Donald Trump's "tax returns" using that little graphic box in the bottom right hand corner of the screen with a countdown timer. You know the one. Twitter was losing it's collective mind speculating about the revelations that lie beyond the top of the next hour. The top post on the front page of Reddit was titled simply "Rachel Maddow says she has Trump's tax returns" and linked an Axios story with all the details known up to that point. The White House even issued a statement on the leaked return preempting the airing of Maddow's telecast. Said statement was defensive and accused the "dishonest media" who is "desperate for ratings" of "violating the law" by "stealing and publishing these tax returns." (OMG...What does Rachel have???) By 7:57 pm, I was itching to see what Maddow had discovered. I'm a fan of her show (she's wicked smart) and MSNBC, and I figured there was no way there would be this much smoke leading up to the broadcast unless these tax returns were pure fire. Yes, this had all the signs of leading somewhere consequential and it seemed like everyone with an interest in U.S. politics and an internet connection was waiting to see what cards Rachel was holding... And then, nothing. Nuth. Ing. 8:00 CST arrived. The Rachel Maddow Show aired. And 60 minutes of absolutely nothing occurred on my TV. I mean, technically, yeah... Maddow "revealed" two pages of Trump's 2005 tax return (the 1040). They show Trump made a lot of money ($150 million) and paid a lot of taxes ($38 million). His 24% effective tax rate is apparently kinda low largely because of claimed losses totaling over $100 million. But we received zero information on how Trump made that money or where it came from, which is the only reason anyone would have any interest in his tax returns at this juncture. Rachel Maddow, of all people, knows that. Maddow started the show with a fascinating 20-minute monologue (as per usual) on why Trump's tax returns matter. She focused on an extremely lucrative and (perhaps) suspiciously profitable real estate deal with a Russian billionaire (among other transactions she deemed questionable) to demonstrate the importance of understanding Trump's financial ties. She urged the sitting President's tax documents were crucial to illuminating potential conflicts of interest. (OMG what has she got???) At the end of the segment, our host teased the anticipated tax return reveal was coming up next... right after this advertisement from our sponsors! And everyone thought the bombshell was coming!

After the commercial, the tax returns were finally in sight! All... two pages of them. (Two pages??) We got a couple close ups of some large typewriter-ed income figures before we were introduced to our expert. The show's lead guest was David Cay Johnston, an investigative journalist with a Pulitzer Prize and an apparent guru of all things tax related. Johnston is the founder and editor at and claimed he received the two pages of Trump's 2005 return "in the mail over transom" earlier that day.

Surely Mr. Johnston would use his decades of knowledge and insight to deliver a truth bomb!

Instead of using his stated expertise to help explain the significance of the content in the leaked documents (all two of them...), Johnston speculates that Trump himself may have leaked the returns* because (paraphrasing) he's pulled publicity stunts like that in the past and lives in a dream world.

Then Johnston, the tax expert, goes on to tell us (paraphrasing) about a bunch of seedy, criminal types that Trump has spent time around in the past and how richy-rich types like Trump love to use the tax code to their advantage to the detriment of the little guys.

Huh? You're using his tax return and your Pulitzer Prize-level expertise in income taxes to present the same tired, whiny, liberal narrative on how skeezy a dude you believe Trump to be?

I won't recap of the rest of the show because the show didn't contain anything else besides people talking about nothing.


To be clear, it wasn't fake news that occurred here; it was real news that was tremendously over-hyped. And that's unfortunate, since it's likely to add to many people's cynicism regarding the media's role in our democracy. Many will just lump this into the same category as nutzo conspiracies like Pizzagate, mutter things like "Welp, you can't trust anyone nowadays," and further resolve to ignore the "Mainstream Media™" at a time when an informed populace is important.

You already know that old story about the boy who cried wolf, so I won't bore or patronize you with the details. I'll say only that it was a cautionary tale designed to warn against behavior like we saw from Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night.

MSNBC got the attention (i.e. ratings) they were after this time. And maybe this tiny little ice shaving of one year of President Trump's tax returns will be just the tip of big, evidence-filled iceberg to come. But after Tuesday's episode of TRMS, any rational person learned to pay a little less attention to that countdown timer in the bottom right hand corner of the TV screen next time Rachel Maddow claims to have a big story. (Seriously.)

  *I actually think this may be true, though I don't have a Pulitzer.     Images via: Flickr — Twitter — Brent Lee

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