About 90 minutes before her show aired on Tuesday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” sent out a message over Twitter: She had Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The post quickly caused widespread excitement ― a predictable response considering multiple polls have found the vast majority of Americans want President Trump to release his tax returns, just like every other president for decades has done.
People wondered whether this was the moment that Trump’s business ties to foreign entities, including those in Russia, would finally be exposed. But less than an hour later, Maddow tempered expectations by explaining more precisely that she had President Trump’s 1040 form from 2005 ― something, but not everything.
A few minutes after that, the White House responded to MSNBC’s request for comment by publicly stating that Trump had paid $38 million in taxes on $150 million in income for the year in question.
Maddow’s second tweet, combined with the Trump administration’s statement, reduced the excitement level before the show somewhat, but not entirely. The viral train had been set in motion, and viewers tuned in to see whether Maddow had something more.
She didn’t. What she had were two pages of federal tax returns, obtained by Pulitzer Prize-winning tax expert David Cay Johnston. But before she showed them to the world, she opened the show with her typical 20-minute monologue, causing frustration on social media from people who wanted to see the documents.
Then, following a commercial break, Maddow brought on Johnston to discuss the returns, which were essentially what the Trump administration said they were.
No, the returns did not blow the lid off of the Trump administration. But if Johnston had brought the returns to The New York Times, or the Washington Post, or even The Huffington Post, it’s hard to believe that any one of the outlets would have decided against publishing them.
So, Maddow and her team did what a responsible journalist should do: She reported on the information with necessary skepticism, even discussing Johnston’s theory that Trump might behind the leak himself in an attempt to quiet the conversation come tax day.
Some have argued that Maddow’s initial tweet drummed up intense interest that justified the fallout, but she attempted to clarify exactly what she had half an hour before her show aired ― to the potential detriment of her own ratings. Viewers chose to ignore that clarification and hope for more. That’s not her fault. It’s ours.
Maddow said as much during an interview published in The Associated Press on Wednesday.
“Because I have information about the president doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a scandal,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s damning information. If other people leapt to that conclusion without me indicating that it was, that hype is external to what we did.”
In the Washington Post, columnist Margaret Sullivan accused Maddow of giving a “master class” in “burying the lede.” That’s one way to look at it, and a large number of journalists agreed.
But unlike a blog post, which can run 100 words or 1,000, Maddow has an hour to fill every show, and she used her hour to make a broader point: These two pages of tax returns are just one small piece of a bigger story, and journalists and Americans alike should continue to push Trump on the issue if he will not fall in line with the presidential precedent set before him.
Perhaps she waited too long to reveal the numbers. But had she had pulled them out in minute one, many people would have switched the channel soon after and missed her message. That prolonged opening segment, in fact, was very much in line with the typical Maddow episode ― a thoughtful, if winding, monologue that delves into a topic in a way Twitter conversations cannot.
“My priority is to get the story right and put it into proper context, and explain the weight of it and why it is important,” Maddow told the AP.
At the beginning of her lede-burying segment, Maddow said she hoped that the two pages of the return would lead to a conversation about where the reporting could head from here. She then discussed why it is so important that the U.S. find out if its president had foreign bank accounts and sources of income. Near the end, she explained that only more tax information can reveal that.
“We can’t know any of that without getting his tax returns,” she said. “That’s why presidents release their tax returns. That’s why there will continue to be unrelenting pressure to find Donald Trump’s tax returns, to expose Donald Trump’s tax returns.”
She added, “And that pressure will remain every single day that he remains as president ― unless and until he releases them, the pressure will never let up.”
It was the best point of the episode, and the best point she could have made with the documents she had. Unfortunately, by the time she made it, people had stopped listening.
This post has been updated with Maddow’s quotes to the AP.