Slate's television critic, Willa Paskin, was not impressed with what clearly was hype (admittedly, itself a hyped term) coming from Rachel Maddow's Twitter feed and MSNBC before Maddow revealed two pages of one of Donald Trump's income tax return on Tuesday evening. Paskin observed
As the show went on, it became clear that Maddow knew she didn't quite have the scoop that had been promised. “What would we have to see, what would we hope to get in mail,” she asked Johnston, “if we were going to get to the real meat of Donald Trump’s foreign ties?”—i.e., what would be more meaningful than the tax form that we have? Speaking to Chris Hayes and Johnston, she said, “The story here to me is, a) we have obtained this [tax form], b) that this stuff is obtainable.” “BREAKING: Trump’s tax returns theoretically obtainable. Tonight, 9 p.m. ET. MSNBC. (Seriously)” does make for a less rousing tweet.
Acknowledging that "whatever information they happen to contain," the tax returns "constitute a major scoop," Paskin nonetheless adds
Maddow’s social media team ensured the highest possible ratings for that scoop. But if ever a story should have been delivered in a stentorian, fuddy-duddy, nonpartisan manner, this was it. In positioning it as a grand revelation, a vital step in comprehending Trump’s corruption, MSNBC created an exceedingly cynical spectacle. By playing into the network’s loyal liberal audience’s fantasy that there exists a Trump silver bullet, it instead delivered Trump a positive news cycle—the guy pays taxes! Who knew!—amidst the debacle of the American Health Care Act, along with more evidence that the media is aligned against him.
Also maintaining the tax returns constituted a feint, Joe Scarborough tweeted "the Trump camp released one positive tax retun to distract from Russia hearings and the Trumpcare meltdown. That's painfully obvious." He followed a few minutes later with "this one tax return is not bad for him because he cherry picked one return from over a decade ago and had it leaked to the press."
While at first glance the Paskin and the Scarborough analyses closely track with one another, there is a significant- albeit not glaring- difference. Scarborough cites "one tax return (which) is not bad for him," which dates to more than a decade ago. However Paskin, perhaps fantasizing about sheep, argues Maddow was "playing into the network's loyal liberal audience's fantasy that there exists a Trump silver bullet."
There are two problems with this. There is no consensus among those reality-based liberals that there is a "silver bullet" because we recognize the possibility of several bullets. Additionally, without the tax returns, no one knows whether there is any bullet at all, and it is unclear whether Trump's returns are being audited. We do know, however, that every President and every GOP nominee since Richard M. Nixon had released his income tax returns. (The sole exception, Gerald Ford released summary data about his returns from 1966 through 1974.)
But not this President. Certainly, Donald Trump is hiding one thing and/or another, whether something as minor as giving little to charity or something criminal and endangering national security.
Charlie Pierce, recounting the events that preceded and followed edited transcripts released by President Nixon as a distraction, explains
If the Trump administration did arrange the leak of these documents, what they're doing can be seen as the equivalent of Nixon's release of the edited transcripts—the revelation of something bad to prevent to revelation of something worse.
It is up to the country to decide whether that ploy will work. If you're "distracted" by this, it's not because the White House wants you to be, it's because you decided to be.