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The New York Times' coverage of Trump's taxes is an emperor-has-no-clothes moment

(CNN Business) A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The New York Times just published one of the most important stories of the past five years.

The story is about President Trump's taxes. This is an "emperor has no clothes" moment for the president and the beginning of a long, drawn-out news cycle about his finances.

As CNN's John Harwood said during Sunday evening's breaking news coverage, the story is "a devastating picture of a president who is bleeding financially and is depending on his presidency to prop him up financially."

The Times' front page on Monday has a six-column, two-line headline — which is just about as big as it gets in print. The headline says "PRESIDENT'S TAXES CHART CHRONIC LOSSES, AUDIT BATTLE AND INCOME TAX AVOIDANCE."

New York Times cover story.

The three bylines belong to Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire. Times staffers David Kirkpatrick, Kitty Bennett and Jesse Drucker contributed reporting.

A public service

Now, when I say the story is "important," I'm not saying it is going to change many minds. That was the go-to defense by some Trump supporters on Sunday: That no one in their world will care about the revelations.

As Oliver Darcy said in a text message to me, "Trump's supporters who are locked in the Fox bubble where this will be handled with kid gloves. And they have been conditioned to believe that NYT is an arm of the Democratic machine."

Perhaps he's right. Most minds are made up and some votes are already being cast. But the dollar figures in the story are still astonishing. I think the tax avoidance story is singularly important because it fills in a big part of Trump's portrait. Voters and reporters and historians should have the fullest possible portrait of both Trump and Joe Biden. So the NYT has performed a real public service.

Trump's predictable smears

Mere minutes after the Times story was published, Trump began a pre-planned press conference by rambling about the Bidens and other subjects.

When reporters like CNN's Jeremy Diamond asked about the tax reporting, Trump derided it as "fake news" and proceeded to lie about The Times. Then he reached for his friendly right-wing lifelines, the same way game show contestants try to phone-a-friend for help. It's difficult to ascertain who asked what, but the softball players included John Gizzi of Newsmax, Christina Bobb of One America News, and a to-be-determined member of the foreign press.

After the press conference, CNN anchor Ana Cabrera pointed out that Trump resorted to right-wing questioners and said that he "could solve all this by releasing his tax returns, by making them public..."

Behind the scenes

This scoop was very, very closely held within the NYT — just like the paper's 2018 Trump tax expose was. I'm told that the reporters on the story have been working "around the clock" ever since they obtained the trove of tax-return data. Sunday's article was described as an "overview" with this note: "Additional articles will be published in the coming weeks." That's what Times reporters are saying in private as well: There's more to come...

The NYT says it won't publish the actual tax return documents

Quoting from executive editor Dean Baquet's letter to readers: "We will continue our reporting and publish additional articles about our findings in the weeks ahead. We are not making the records themselves public because we do not want to jeopardize our sources, who have taken enormous personal risks to help inform the public."

Baquet's letter doubled as a defense of The Times against inevitable Trumpworld attacks: "Some will raise questions about publishing the president's personal tax information. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment allows the press to publish newsworthy information that was legally obtained by reporters even when those in power fight to keep it hidden. That powerful principle of the First Amendment applies here."

Expect Fox's coverage to look like this

Oliver Darcy emails: "Anytime there is a big story in the news that Fox News has to cover on its supposed 'straight news' programs, the network does so by leading with Trump's denial. Sunday evening was no different. The headline on Fox's website focused solely on Trump's denial and bashing of NYT. Elsewhere in right-wing media, some homed in on the line from NYT's story that said the documents it obtained do not 'reveal any previously unreported connections to Russia.' Expect these to be the angles the pro-Trump media takes in the next 24 hours..."

>> Meanwhile, the Drudge Report continues to zing Trump. The banner headline on Sunday evening read, "THE FAKE BILLIONAIRE?"

>> Trump flacks like Mark Levin are already claiming that the leak is the real scandal. Expect to hear lots more of that...

Notes and quotes

-- One of the reasons why it matters: "The tax allegations go to the very heart of Trump's appeal," Jill Colvin noted... (AP)

-- Another reason why it matters: If Trump "loses the election," former prosecutor Michael Bromwich wrote, "he faces federal and state prosecution for bank fraud, tax fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud, as does his entire family..." (Twitter)

-- The NYT story says Trump has "more than $300 million in loans" coming due in the next four years. One of Monday's biggest unanswered questions is, as Jim Sciutto put it, "to whom exactly does the Commander in Chief owe this money to?" (Twitter)

-- Former NYTer Michael Luo, now at The New Yorker, tweeted: "Arguably, no other news org in the world could invest as much time/resources into Trump tax investigations as NYT has. Maybe Washington Post and ProPublica too? Three reporters; unlimited time. Support investigative journalism as a bulwark of democracy."

-- WaPo media reporter Paul Farhi: "The subtext of the NYT report is the crucial importance of 'The Apprentice' to Trump's finances and ultimately his political career. No 'Apprentice,' no cash flow to prop up many loss-making businesses. No 'Apprentice,' no myth of Trump as a financial whiz to run on." (Twitter)

-- Michael Cohen is taking a victory lap... (Twitter)

-- The Biden campaign is selling "I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump" stickers... (Twitter)

-- Public opinion researcher Gary Langer, summarizing his latest poll for ABC/WaPo, found a "net total of 5% of likely voters who can be considered movable — a thin slice, albeit potentially enough to matter in some states..." (ABC)

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