NYT editor: “We do not know the identity of the source" of the Trump tax returns

I want to flag this because yesterday the actual reporter on the story, Susanne Craig, gave a pointed no-comment to CNN when asked if the paper knows who sent them Trump’s returns. Interestingly, one of the paper’s executive editors wasn’t as coy:

That doesn’t appear to be the case in the Times’ story, which carried the bylines of four reporters, including Craig and David Barstow, an investigative reporter who has won three Pulitzer Prizes.

While Craig declined to discuss her understanding of who sent the Trump documents, Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy was definitive: “We do not know the identity of the source.”

I don’t know why they’d be on different pages on revealing whether they know the identity of the source or not. It could be that Purdy, as an editor, is thinking harder about litigation possibilities than Craig is. If the Times plays coy about the source, it might encourage Trump to file a lawsuit with an eye to forcing the paper, on pain of contempt, to give up the source for illegally disclosing confidential tax information. Purdy’s telling Trump here not to bother trying to squeeze them because they legitimately don’t know who it is.

Which raises the question: Whodunnit? The media’s pet theory is that it’s Trump’s ex-wife, Marla Maples, taking high-stakes revenge nearly 20 years after their marriage dissolved. The press craves a twist like that because it would bring Trump’s tabloid roots full circle. But there’s no hard evidence against Maples apart from the fact that the return comes from a year (1995) during which she and Trump were married and bears her signature. Any lawyer or accountant who worked on Trump’s finances during that period might have the same documents. It is true that, during their divorce in 1999, Maples allegedly said that she’d reveal what she knows about him and sink his presidential ambitions if he ended up running as the Reform Party nominee (Trump allegedly withheld alimony in retaliation), but when asked about the quote recently, Maples denied ever saying it. On the contrary, she went to Cleveland this summer with Tiffany, her daughter with Trump, when Tiffany spoke at the GOP convention and told the Daily Beast later, “My daughter is back here wanting to get to know her dad and spend more time with him, and I have to really respect that and I do respect that in every way.” Blowing up dad’s presidential chances by leaking documents, knowing she’d be a prime suspect, isn’t going to heal the rift between father and daughter. As it is, reporters have been left trying to decode Maples’s tweets for clues that she’s behind the big story this weekend. That’s how thin the evidence is.

The best case for Maples as the leaker is this post by Yashar Ali, but that’s not to say it’s necessarily a good case. Ali notes that the Times’s copy of Trump’s return includes the image of a little “sign here” sticker pointing to Maples’s signature, suggesting that it might be her own personal copy. Eh — all it might mean is that Maples signed after Trump did and that the photocopies distributed to lawyers, accountants, etc, were made with the sticker still attached to the signature page. Ali also points out that Maples is uniquely positioned to leak these returns because they’re her returns too. She’s legally entitled to publish them; Trump’s lawyers and accountants are not. In that case, though, why did Maples surreptitiously mail the returns to the Times instead of phoning an editor and saying, “Come get what I’ve got, but keep my name out of it”? The only reason to keep her identity unknown even to the Times is if she has a nondisclosure agreement with Trump that extends to their tax filings, in which case she could be in legal trouble for violating the agreement. But Ali talked to legal experts who say they’ve never heard of an NDA extending to taxes. I wouldn’t underestimate the famously secretive Trump on that, but if Ali’s right then there’s no reason for Maples to hide her provenance from the Times, only from the public. (Although the Times itself might be glad not to know the provenance due to the contempt implications I described up top.)

Ali does make one good point, though:

Despite the fact that the Trump campaign said that the Times is “an extension of the Clinton campaign”, they’re not (after all they broke the email server story in March of 2015). The Times had these returns for ten days and took their reporting on these returns seriously — even going so far as hiring tax experts to analyze the returns. They sought a comment from the Trump campaign, they spoke to the accountant who prepared and signed the returns.

So it would be highly unusual for them to not contact Ms. Maples about the tax returns given that her name is on all of the returns and her signature is on the New Jersey return. Yet the Times, in their story, does not indicate that they contacted Ms. Maples. Even if she didn’t return their calls or emails, they would still indicate that they reached out to her and had not heard back.

That is odd. Why wouldn’t you contact the other person on a joint return if you’re trying to confirm its authenticity? They went to Florida to interview Trump’s elderly retired accountant but they wouldn’t dial up his ex-wife to ask if the numbers on the document they have are right? There’s no obvious reason to avoid asking Maples for a comment unless she’s the source and the Times knows it. If, on the other hand, the editor is telling the truth when he says they don’t know who the source is then there really is no obvious reason for the paper to have avoided contacting Maples.

As for whether Trump might sue the Times, as some of his advisors are suggesting, Erick Erickson notes that there’s probably a reason why only pages from state returns were sent to the Times. That’s the leaker’s attempt to sidestep federal law prohibiting the release of federal documents. There’s a better reason why Trump will think twice about suing, though — namely, discovery. What happens when the Times is dragged into court and starts demanding copies of his financial documents, including but not limited to tax returns, to defend the suit? Suing could turn into an epic own-goal, which is probably why the paper felt comfortable going forward with the story. Even if there’s a chance they could be sued, they may get more out of it than they lose.

By the way, while Maples doesn’t tweet regularly, she did tweet yesterday and said nothing about the Times story despite all the speculation about her role in it. If and when she publicly denies being the source, I’ll update. Exit question: How is the big scoop about Trump’s $900 million loss a scoop when Trump himself broke the story years ago?


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