WASHINGTON/WILMINGTON (REUTERS) - Democrats seized on a fresh line of attack on the eve of the first US presidential election debate, accusing President Donald Trump of gaming the system after a report showed he paid paltry amounts of federal tax in recent years.
Citing tax-return data, the New York Times reported on Sunday (Sept 27) the self-proclaimed Republican billionaire paid only US$750 (S$1,032) in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, after years of reporting heavy losses from his businesses to offset hundreds of millions of dollars in income.
The report also said Trump paid no federal income tax in 10 of the previous 15 years through 2017, despite receiving US$427.4 million through 2018 from his reality television program and other endorsement and licensing deals.
"It's really no surprise," Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin told MSNBC in an interview on Monday, noting that Trump had bucked a decades-old tradition of presidential nominees releasing their tax returns when seeking office.
"Now we know why: this so-called billionaire business empire is a house of cards. He is facing hundreds of millions of dollars of personal debt that will come due in just a short period of time and he's had a string of business failures that he's propped up" using his tax returns.
Democratic Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the US House of Representatives' powerful Ways and Means Committee, said the Times report underscored the importance of the committee's legal effort to seek Trump's tax returns, saying in a tweet on Sunday that Trump had "gamed the tax code to his advantage."
Trump has dismissed the report as "fake news."
In a post on Twitter on Monday, he said he had paid "many millions of dollars in taxes" but was entitled to depreciation and tax credits and was "extremely under-leveraged" in terms of his debt and assets.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany described the report as a political hit job that was straight out of the Democratic playbook.
"We've seen this play out before ... purported tax information dropping the eve of a debate. They tried this in 2016 - it didn't work," she told Fox Business Network.
Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will square off in their first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday, just five weeks before the Nov 3 general election.
Polls show the former vice president leading Trump nationally and in a number of key battleground states that are likely to determine who wins the White House.
Democrats are trying to turn the tables on Trump, who ran successfully as an economic populist in 2016 and who is regarded by some observers as having an edge over his challenger on the issue of who would best manage the economy.
In recent days, Biden has characterised the race as a clash between Scranton, the working class Pennsylvania town where he spent part of his childhood, and Park Avenue. Trump Tower, which serves as the headquarters for the Trump Organization, is located near that tony boulevard in Manhattan.
Trump has painted his economic record in glowing terms, saying his policies were responsible for boosting growth and reducing US unemployment to near 50-year lows prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
His message, however, has been badly dented by the recession triggered by the pandemic, which has led to the cratering of the economy and put millions of people out of work.
Democrats say Trump has mishandled the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and embraced policies that have favoured corporations and the rich. The re-emergence of his tax history as an election issue could reinforce that theme.
"This is going to piss some voters off," John Anzalone, a pollster who works with Biden, said on Twitter on Monday, adding that the Democratic nominee "will make the rich and big corporations pay their fair share of taxes."
Within hours of the Times report, Biden's campaign released a video listing the thousands of dollars in income tax typically paid by an elementary school teacher, firefighter, construction manager and registered nurse, before contrasting Trump's reported US$750 bill in 2017.
The campaign also started selling a two-pack of stickers that say, "I Paid More In Taxes Than Donald Trump" for US$7.50.
Biden's tax plan includes hiking the corporate income tax and raising taxes on people making more than US$400,000.
Trump, who signed a US$1.5 trillion Republican-sponsored tax cut package in late 2017, and his supporters accuse Biden of pushing a far-left agenda that they say will destroy the US economy just as it emerges from the pandemic.