The big thing Trump gets wrong about his taxes and the 2016 election

Story highlights

  • It's impossible to say how much Trump's decision not to release his tax returns influenced the election
  • But it's impossible to conclude that his 2016 win is bulletproof evidence that voters didn't care

(CNN)On Easter Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted this:

The Trump logic appears to go like this:
  1. Democrats hit me for not releasing my tax returns during the campaign.
  2. I won.
  3. Ergo, no one cares about my taxes.
This isn't the first time this sort of thinking has been deployed by Trump and his senior staff. Back in January, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted that "we litigated this all through the election. People didn't care."
Conway's point didn't make sense then. And Trump's doesn't now.
It's impossible to say how much -- or how little -- Trump's decision not to release his tax returns during the campaign influenced the election. The reason for that is because the 2016 exit poll didn't include a single question about either tax returns or, more broadly, transparency. (They need to let me write an exit poll question or two in 2020!)
So, you can't claim that on Election Day people cared DEEPLY about Trump's decision to be the first presidential candidate in modern political history not to release his taxes. But, by the same token, it's impossible to conclude -- as Trump does -- that his 2016 win is bulletproof evidence that voters didn't care about his taxes.
Take it totally out of politics for a second. In Sunday's game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies, the score was tied 3-3 in the top of the 9th inning. The Nats brought in their closer, Blake Treinen. Treinen proceeded to give up a run. But, in the bottom of the 9th inning, the Nationals put two men on base for Bryce Harper, who jacked a walk-off three-run homer over the centerfield wall.
Under Trump's logic, the fact that the Nats won 6-4 -- and Treinen got the victory -- would be definitive proof that the Nats closer was terrific. How could he not be? The team won!
The logical fallacy is clear. The Nats won in spite of Treinen, not because of him.
Now, back to Trump.
The reality is that both of these things could be true:
  1. He won.
  2. Voters didn't like that he refused to release his taxes but prioritized other issues when they cast their ballot.
That is, to my mind, the most likely thought process for most voters. They knew that Trump was breaking all sorts of traditions and rules in his campaign -- some that they liked, others that they didn't. And tax returns was one they didn't like. In fact, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken shortly before Trump was inaugurated, 74% of people said they thought Trump should release his taxes -- including 49% of those who voted for him.
But, despite their disagreement with Trump on taxes, they decided that his outsider status, his promise to shake up Washington and/or their dislike of Hillary Clinton were more important factors in the election.
Winning -- a game or an election -- is not an affirmation that everything you did was right. It's only proof that for that bounded period of time, you beat the other guy (or woman).
Trump, still, doesn't seem to get that.