The morning after Rachel Maddow presented the first interview with David Cay Johnston who had obtained a portion of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return—a scoop accorded front-page treatment by The New York Times and whined about by Trump and the White House, but also panned in certain journalistic circles for alleged overhyping in the cheesy tradition of reality shows—Maddow had no regrets.
“When you’re in the middle of a big story that’s getting national attention, you expect people to throw all sorts of stuff around,” she told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “Honestly, the thing I’m focused on, and the only thing I can be focused on, is getting the story right. I’m really, really, really psyched that we broke this story.”
Maddow added: “This is the first tax return we have from the president, and it’s really important that he hasn’t released his taxes. And there are real concerns—of a small, medium, and large variety—about why he ought to release his taxes. And if this is available, we might expect other tax documents to be made available, too, and this will continue to haunt him through his presidency until he releases more full financial information.”
While Maddow is entitled to take pride in being the first on TV to bring new information to the ongoing discussion of President Trump’s business and financial conduct, she has also been the target of criticism for the manner in which she did it—staging a tantalizing big buildup that her detractors suggested amounted to overpromising and under-delivering.
Perhaps the harshest critique—by Slate.com television critic Willa Paskin, who was not alone in comparing Maddow’s revelation to Geraldo Rivera’s comically ill-fated opening three decades ago of Al Capone’s vault—carried the headline “Rachel Maddow Turned a Scoop on Donald Trump’s Taxes Into a Cynical, Self-Defeating Spectacle.”
Several viewers complained that Maddow waited until nearly her show’s halfway point to get to the meat of the matter. Eric Stangel, a former executive producer and head writer for David Letterman, tweeted: “It takes less time to fill out your taxes than for Rachael Maddow to get to what’s in Trump’s taxes.”
On the other hand, Poynter Institute media critic James Warren chided Maddow’s social media kibitzers for their “mix of impatience and internet-fueled craving for instant gratification. ‘Why didn’t she give it to us sooner and quicker?! How dare she?!’ Were they miffed that she was taking them away from NCIS: New Orleans or This Is Us? Or the American Masters profile of Carole King on PBS?”
Warren added: “Sheesh, it wasn’t that long ago that papers held great stories for days to exploit a larger Sunday audience. She milked what she had, which was interesting if not blockbuster. Big deal.”
Maddow, for her part, told The Daily Beast: “We broke the story correctly, were totally transparent about what we got, making it available in a way that made its importance understandable, and didn’t either understate or overstate the meaning of this new piece of the Donald Trump financial puzzle.”
She added with a dry laugh: “If people like me or don’t like me, I will have a better or worse chance of making friends with them somewhere down the road—at a cocktail party I won’t go to.”
Maddow had teased her news with a sensational, Twitter-detonating tweet at 7:36 p.m. Tuesday night—“BREAKING: We've got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).”—suggesting to some that she was about to rip the cover off the president’s potentially troublesome financial behavior and whether, and just how much, he might be indebted to various Vladimir Putin cronies or reaping riches from other foreign entanglements.
The cable network heightened the melodrama—a thrilling spectacle of radical transparency being forced upon a puffed-up president who has spurned four decades of democratic tradition—by displaying a countdown clock onscreen, breathlessly marking the seconds until the broadcast of Maddow’s highly rated eponymous prime-time program.
At 8:24 p.m., Maddow tweeted again—“What we’ve got is from 2005... the President’s 1040 form... details to come tonight 9PM ET, MSNBC”—a welcome clarification, but still hinting at a deep dive into The Donald’s dark money mysteries.
But by the time Maddow finally brandished the first two pages of Trump’s 1040 form and began discussing them with financial journalist and Daily Beast contributor David Cay Johnston—who’d discovered them in an envelope in his postbox at home, mailed anonymously by someone apparently in Trump’s orbit—it was clear that this would be only an outline, albeit an illuminating one, of the president’s intricate financial portrait.
But the big reveal didn’t happen until 22 minutes into the hour-long show, after Maddow had introduced the topic with a typically detailed disquisition and thrown to a commercial.
By then, The Daily Beast had already published details of Maddow’s exclusive—that Trump, in a joint return with his then-new bride Melania, had in 2005 paid $38 million in taxes on $153 million of income—and the White House had already issued a statement confirming the details, claiming they proved Trump is “one of the most successful businessmen in the world” but condemning Maddow’s report (erroneously, as usual) as “totally illegal.”
“As soon as they realized that we were going with it, they tried to put it out with their own spin and tried to make it their own story,” Maddow remarked about Trump’s minions.
While Maddow was on the air doing her show, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and his team added an insult for good measure: “You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law”—again, no law was violated—“to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago.”
Maddow recounted: “The White House gave us the statement that I read in full on the air, and then after they gave us that statement they added that little snarky line about being ‘desperate for ratings,’ and then they told reporters that ‘NBC omitted this line from the statement when Maddow gave her report.’ They actually didn’t include that line when they gave us the statement, but added it later and said we omitted it. I’m just talking about their process.”
Spicer didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment.
Maddow said that when Johnston alerted her show on Monday to his interesting find, and offered to let her break the news, “we gave it a qualified ‘yes,’ provided we could verify it according to our own standards and were comfortable that we had met the NBC standards.”
Maddow said she and her research staff worked overnight Monday and all day Tuesday to assure themselves that the tax return was genuine, consulting with outside experts before contacting the White House.
“We knew that was the bell we had to ring before we could go with it,” Maddow said. “There were a number of scenarios. They might have no-commented or said outright it was fake.”
If the White House had done either, “We were ready with a whole different show that was not about tax returns,” Maddow said. “We had a whole different A-block ready to go, we’d booked different guests. But at the very last minute we were comfortable that we had the verifications that we needed.”
Maddow slipped into the anchor chair just as her show went on the air. “You saw that I looked sort of flustered,” she said. “I literally sat down four seconds before 9 o’clock. I was still heavy-breathing from running from makeup.”
During the broadcast, Johnston acknowledged he didn’t know where the president’s 11-year-old 1040 had come from, and raised the possibility that it had been provided at the direction of Trump himself.
Maybe it was Trump’s way of certifying his frequently questioned claims of multibillionaire status and deflecting from unwelcome reports concerning allegations about campaign collusion with Russians and his baseless accusation that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
Indeed several observers, notably Donald J. Trump Jr., spun Maddow’s report as a perverse positive.
“Thank you Rachel Maddow for proving to your #Trump hating followers how successful @realDonaldTrump is & that he paid $40mm in taxes!” the president’s elder son tweeted after her show went off the air.
Meanwhile, an op-ed posted by CNBC, MSNBC’s sister network, was headlined “Donald Trump just got a nice victory, thanks to, of all people, Rachel Maddow.”
Could Maddow—by spotlighting a 1040 form showing that Trump was not only rich, but he paid substantial taxes—have been played by a president who, in his former life as a tabloid star, was a cunning and deceptive media manipulator?
“They’re real documents, so we didn’t, by definition, get played,” Maddow said. “We have no idea what the source of the documents is.”