Fact Check

Did Donald Trump Say Not Paying Taxes 'Makes Me Smart'?

Donald Trump proclaimed during the first presidential debate of 2016 that not paying federal taxes made him "smart," then denied having said it.

Published Sep 28, 2016

 (YouTube screen capture)
Image Via YouTube screen capture
Donald Trump proclaimed during the first presidential debate of 2016 that not paying federal taxes made him "smart."

On 26 September 2016, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off for the first of three presidential debates at Hofstra University in New York. In the course of the debate, Clinton accused Trump of refusing to release his tax returns and suggested her opponent's motivation was that he had something to hide:

CLINTON: For 40 years, everyone running for president has released their tax returns. You can go and see nearly, I think, 39, 40 years of our tax returns, but everyone has done it. We know the IRS has made clear there is no prohibition on releasing [returns] when you're under audit.

So you've got to ask yourself, why won't [Trump] release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don't know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks.

Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody's ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax.

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

But when questioned by CNN's Dana Bash immediately after the debate, Trump disclaimed that he said his paying no federal income taxes made him smart, quickly pivoting off the subject onto a complain about government spending:

DANA BASH: My question for you is, first of all, it sounds like you admitted that you hadn't paid federal taxes and that, that was smart. Is that what you meant to say?

TRUMP: No, I didn't say that at all. I mean if they say I didn't, I mean it doesn't matter. I will say this, I hate the way our government spends our taxes because they are wasting our money. They don't know what they're doing. They're running it so poorly. Whether it's spent in Iraq or wherever they're spending it, they are wasting our money. So I do hate the way our government spends our money.

To hold that Trump hadn't actually said what he had just been recorded saying would require a good deal of semantic contorting, such as claiming that Trump was describing his not releasing his tax returns (rather than his not paying tax) as "smart," or that Trump meant he hadn't said that he never paid any federal taxes (even if that was the case in at least some years).

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.