October didn’t wait 24 hours before delivering a surprise. It came in an envelope delivered to the New York Times containing portions of Donald Trump tax returns, which he has been refusing to release.
Political attacks are only really damaging when they confirm an already existing narrative. Mike Dukakis was seen as too weak to be commander-in-chief when he rode in a tank with an oversized helmet, Dan Quayle was thought to be slow-witted when he misspelled “potato,” and Mitt Romney was painted as a cartoon Monopoly Man before the “47 percent” tape dropped.
In what must rank among the worst weeks of any recent presidential campaign, Donald Trump managed to play into almost every one of Democrats’ talking points about him.
The New York Times story alone, which both reported that Trump declared he had lost a staggering $916 million in 1995 tax forms, and that experts believe that loss could have allowed him to pay no federal income taxes for up to 18 years, fed into three lines of attack that Hillary Clinton had used to needle him in Monday’s debate.
One: That his refusal to release his taxes suggested he was concealing something important. Two: That his returns might show his business acumen was overstated. Three: That he paid little or no taxes despite his vast wealth.
And it lent credence to her larger argument that Trump is a heartless scrooge who left a trail of financial destruction on his path to wealth, and who according to the Times even refused to check off a box on his tax form to donate to a veterans’ memorial fund.
As if that wasn’t enough, Trump has a long history of both bragging about his efforts to avoid paying taxes while shaming others for paying too little.
Related: Trump’s Long History of Tweet-Shaming on Taxes
But Trump didn’t need an outside story to damage his campaign. He was busy having a live meltdown onstage in Pennsylvania at the very moment the news dropped Saturday night. Already behaving erratically since his debate on Monday, Trump imitated Clinton’s pneumonia-induced collapse from last month and fired off the most grotesque, personal, and fact-free attack at the nominee yet.
“Hillary Clinton’s only loyalty is to her financial contributors and to herself,” Trump said of the first female major party nominee. “I don’t even think she’s loyal to Bill, you wanna know the truth. And really folks really, why should she be, right? Why should she be?”
The combination of a multiple damaging stories, all made dramatically worse by the candidate’s impulsive response, may be without precedent. It’s as if Dukakis were photographed riding in the tank, saw the mocking news coverage, then climbed back into the tank and drove cross-country with Willie Horton riding shotgun as his own staff begged him to pull over.
One week ago, Trump’s campaign was at its high point. He had surged to a tie or even a lead in national polls as well as key battleground states, prompting a round of panic in Democratic circles. Clinton supporters feared he would beat low expectations in Monday’s debate before a record-setting audience simply by avoiding any obvious errors, giving him further momentum.
On the eve of the debate, Trump for the first time surpassed the 50% threshold on Nate Silver’s prediction model. Democrats anxiously refreshed the FiveThirtyEight.com website as many began to take seriously for the first time the possibility Trump could win.
Related: Trump Questions Hillary Clinton’s ‘Loyalty’ to Bill
Clinton’s post-convention high started to look more like an anomaly caused by Trump’s last self-sabotage — his prolonged fight with a Gold Star family — rather than the race’s natural equilibrium. With Trump appearing more disciplined, the two looked set for a tight race through Election Day.
But the debate ended up being a rout with Clinton the clear winner after Trump managed to tunnel underneath the rock-bottom expectations set for him.
With under six weeks to go before Election Day, polls had yet to fully digest the impact of the debate before Trump was buried by basket after basket of deplorable headlines.
Almost every day, Trump did something that would send a typical presidential campaign into a tailspin.
The most dramatic self-inflicted wounds concerned his response to Clinton’s accusation in the debate that he humiliated a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, for gaining weight.
On Tuesday, Trump called into Fox News to essentially repeat the behavior Clinton had raised: He said Machado “gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.”
On Wednesday, Trump went back on Fox to tell Bill O’Reilly that Machado should thank him for demanding she lose a few pounds: “I saved her job,” he said.
On Thursday, Trump’s own campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told “The View” that she had personally reprimanded him for his language regarding women, even as she defended him over the Machado story. Even some of Trump’s surrogates seemed unwilling to defend his comments last week and the campaign asked them to pivot to attacks on Bill Clinton’s sex scandals instead.
“You know it’s going to be so much better when he begins to focus on the real issues,” Ben Carson, who has been of Trump’s most loyal defenders, told MSNBC.
Then came Friday, where Trump issued a series of rage-filled tweets against Machado in the wee hours of the morning, in which he calls on his 12 million followers to “check out [a] sex tape” of the former Miss Universe winner.
The sex tape of Machado did not appear to exist. But Buzzfeed that day found a pornographic video by Playboy featuring a brief cameo by Trump in which he poured champagne on a limo with a gaggle of models.
But even setting aside the vulgarity of the tweets, Trump’s vengeful responseaffirmed — almost to the point of parody — Clinton’s core charge that he was temperamentally unfit to manage the world’s most powerful military.
“You can’t tweet at 3 o’clock in the morning. Period. There’s no excuse. Ever. Not if you’re going to be president of the United States,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich, another of Trump’s most prominent supporters, said on Fox News.
The Machado story has been so dominant that it overshadowed any number of stories that would be potential extinction-level events for virtually every other major party nominee in history.
There was a Newsweek expose that alleged Trump’s businesses had illegal dealings in Cuba — some details of which Trump’s campaign manager appeared to confirm on television. There was Trump’s rambling debate answer on nuclear weapons, where he seemed to announce what would be a historic shift towards a “no first use” policy only to contradict himself in the next sentence, alarmingnational security experts days later.
The Washington Post continued its investigation into Trump’s charitable foundation. The Post has already found compelling evidence Trump previously violated the law by using the foundation to settle lawsuits against his private businesses.
All the while, an array of old comments by Trump about women over the years, from ogling and hiring a teenage waitress to promising his then-17 year old daughter he wouldn’t date anyone younger than her, resurfaced in various outlets. As did a lawsuit alleging he demanded unattractive women working at one of his golf resorts be fired and replaced with prettier women.
USA Today, the country’s widest circulation newspaper, broke with its 34-year policy of neutrality in the presidential race to declare Trump “unfit for the presidency.” Several historically Republican newspapers endorsed Clinton outright, along with an editorial board member at the arch-conservative Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz.
Meanwhile, Forbes downgraded Trump’s net worth by $800 million dollars.
In short, Trump was arguably having the worst week in campaign history already. Then Saturday happened.
The good news for Trump is that there may be too many distinct negative stories surrounding his campaign for the average voter to fully process or a nightly news show to recap in depth. The expectations for his second debate, already minimal, are now on the ocean floor. But that’s little consolation. At the exact moment Trump needed to be his best, with the most people watching and the stakes at their highest, he choked like never before.
If he loses in November, it’s hard to imagine this week won’t be seen as a turning point.