Critic's Notebook: Rachel Maddow Tortures Audience, Then Reveals Donald Trump, Gasp, Paid Some Taxes

Revealing two less-than-revelatory leaked pages from Trump's 2005 1040 form, the MSNBC host admits, "It's a start."

On her MSNBC show Tuesday night, a flustered Rachel Maddow revealed that she was about to finally disclose Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Oh, and by the way, Geraldo Rivera found nothing in Al Capone’s secret vault.

Trump’s tax returns have been the Holy Grail for investigative journalists, so it’s not surprising that Maddow tweeted in advance about her broadcast that promised to blow the lid wide open on the president’s financial dealings. The nation breathlessly waited to see if the documents would prove that Trump was an agent of the Russians. Or the Chinese. Or possibly SPECTRE.

Well, we’ll have to keep on waiting. Maddow teased her audience unmercifully for the show’s seemingly interminable first portion, delivering an impassioned lecture about how Trump is the first president in decades not to reveal his tax returns and how vitally important the information would be for the country. Archival footage of a sinister-looking Richard Nixon accompanied her lengthy preamble to her scoop, which included detailed accounts of how a “Russian oligarch” bought a real-estate property from Trump, paying several times what it was worth, and that short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn failed to disclose that he was serving as a lobbyist for the Turkish government. It all seemed like overkill, since it’s a safe bet that anyone watching MSNBC is pretty much on the bandwagon regarding Trump releasing his tax returns.

Maddow noted that the White House had decried the “illegal” publishing of the returns by the “dishonest media.” Making fun of one of Trump’s oft-repeated attacks, she declared that she was “not fake.”

“Pinch me, I’m real,” she cooed, pinching the skin of her toned forearm.

The broadcast’s big news was that two pages from Trump’s 2005 1040 form were delivered to investigative journalist David Cay Johnston. Or, as he put it, they “came in the mail over the transom.” The avuncular-looking Johnston hinted that the leak may have actually come from Trump himself, whom he repeatedly called “Donald.”

“With Donald, you never know,” Johnston pointed out, as if he was referring to that scamp Dennis the Menace.

It was a plausible theory, considering that the leaked documents revealed little more than that Trump paid roughly $38 million in taxes on income of $150 million, or, as Johnston observed, more like $36.5 million. But at this point, what’s a million and a half dollars, more or less? It was hardly a scandalous amount, with Johnston pointing out that the form revealed only the types of income, not the sources, again hinting at those mysterious “Russian oligarchs.”  The door was thus left wide open for conspiracy theories aplenty.

“The story here is that we have obtained this, and that this stuff is obtainable,” Maddow declared. It was a nice piece of spin, but hardly commensurate with the advance hype seeming to promise that impeachment hearings were about to commence. The paucity of actual information revealed was made evident by Maddow feeling the need to pad out the hour with commentary by historian Michael Beschloss about such past presidents as Warren Harding, while much of her audience took a bathroom break.

Yes, it was satisfying to see even a tiny portion of Trump’s tax returns made public, especially for those desperate to see his comeuppance. But journalists will have to be careful not to overinflate expectations, lest they be accused of crying wolf. The White House strongly condemned the release of the truncated documents, which proved that Trump had once actually paid a significant amount of taxes. But it was hard to avoid the nagging feeling that the president and his cronies were putting one over on a media desperately searching for crumbs.