CASE STUDY: Can we believe the things we're told...

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2022 our blue tribe's tribunes? Yesterday,  we began to offer you an award-winning case report.  Our case report is tied to a very basic question.

Our very basic question is directed to members of our own blue tribe. The question goes like this:

Can we believe the things we're told by our blue tribe's tribunes?

Can we believe the things we're told by the people we're told we can trust? At this crazy time of partisan warfare, sadly, the answer is no.

The case report we have started concerns a commonly stated claim about the offensive beliefs of a group of "white medical students." That commonly stated claim derives from a 2016 UVa study. It seems to us that the basic claims of that widely cited study are, in a word, simply false.

Yesterday, we gave you three examples of the commonly stated claim derived from that UVa study. Tomorrow, we'll continue with our case report.

For today, we make a detour, in service to that underlying question:  Can you believe the things you're told? Actually, no—you cannot!

We refer to a thrilling claim we've been seeing all over blue tribe "cable news" programs. Eventually, we'll show you the way Mika Brzezinski stated the claim on today's Morning Joe. But in its essence, the thrilling claim goes like this:

Trump was lying all along when he said he was being audited!

Mika exulted in that claim as Morning Joe started this morning. (Joe himself was absent.)  Unless we're mistaken, even a sane, sober figure like David Ignatius joined her in making that claim.

The claim is thrilling for blue tribe members, but as far as we know, it's just wrong. We're prepared to learn otherwise as the tribal warfare resumes and continues—but in this age of partisan warfare, the facts rarely come into view.

Why do we say that, as far as we know, that thrilling claim is wrong? Didn't we learn, just last night, that the IRS failed to perform its routine, annual audit of Trump during his years in the White House?

We did learn a version of that claim—and you'll be hearing a great deal about it as the warfare rolls on. Here's the way the New York Times reports that fact on today's front page, dual headline included:


The Internal Revenue Service failed to audit former President Donald J. Trump’s tax filings during his first two years in office despite a program that makes the auditing of sitting presidents mandatory, a House committee revealed on Tuesday after an extraordinary vote to make public six years of his tax returns.

Mr. Trump filed returns in 2017 for the two previous tax years, but the I.R.S. began auditing those filings only in 2019—the first on the same day in April the Ways and Means Committee requested access to his taxes and any associated audits, a report by the panel said. The I.R.S. has yet to complete those audits, it said, and the agency started auditing his filings covering his income while president only after he left office.

On its face, that report would seem to suggest inappropriate conduct by the IRS. But that report involves the question of whether Trump's tax returns were audited for the years he was in office. 

It doesn't mean that he wasn't being audited when he first ran for the White House. It doesn't mean that Trump was lying about being audited all along.

Mika was exulting this morning as she made her embellished claim. Warning! In our appraisal, almost everything you currently hear on blue cable is being embellished or manipulated in some tribally pleasing way.

The same is true on Fox, of course—but it's also true Over Here. 

As the week continues, we'll offer you a detailed case report concerning the offensive beliefs of those now famous "white medical students." For today, let's get clear on the basic question concerned Trump's claims about audits.

Was Donald J. Trump under audit when he ran for the White House in 2016? Persistently, he said that he was—but was his statement accurate?

As far as we know, it was! Here's the AP's current report regarding that repeated claim by Trump:

BOAK ET AL (12/21/22): The reports released Tuesday [yesterday] renewed scrutiny on one of the biggest questions that has surrounded Trump since he shifted from a reality television star to an unlikely presidential candidate: Why did he abandon the post-Watergate tradition of White House hopefuls releasing their tax returns? Trump and those around him have consistently said that IRS audits prevented him from doing so.

“I would love to give them, but I’m not going to do it while I’m under audit,” Trump said on April 10, 2019, before boarding the presidential helicopter.

There are no laws that would have barred Trump from voluntarily releasing his returns even if they were being audited. But when Trump spoke of being audited, it’s unclear whether he was referring to the mandatory process specifically aimed at presidents or prior reviews that are more typical for wealthy individuals.

The New York Times found that before he entered the White House, Trump was facing an IRS audit potentially tied to a $72.9 million tax refund arising from $700 million in losses he claimed in 2009. The documents released Tuesday indicate that Trump continued to collect tax benefits from those losses through 2018.

In that passage, the AP repeats what has long been noted—Candidate Trump could have released his tax returns back in 2016, even if he was under audit. 

That said, the AP report also says this:

It says the New York Times has reported that Trump actually was under audit at that point in time. The Times reported that in the behemoth front-page report it released in September 2020, a report which produced major interest when it appeared.

Was Candidate Trump under audit in 2016? Here's what the New York Times said:

BUETTNER AT AL (9/27/20): As the president wages a re-election campaign that polls say he is in danger of losing, his finances are under stress, beset by losses and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due that he has personally guaranteed. Also hanging over him is a decade-long audit battle with the Internal Revenue Service over the legitimacy of a $72.9 million tax refund that he claimed, and received, after declaring huge losses. An adverse ruling could cost him more than $100 million. 


In fact, confidential records show that starting in 2010 he claimed, and received, an income tax refund totaling $72.9 million—all the federal income tax he had paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest.

The legitimacy of that refund is at the center of the audit battle that he has long been waging, out of public view, with the I.R.S.

The records that The Times reviewed square with the way Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited, without explanation, an ongoing audit as grounds for refusing to release his tax returns. He alluded to it as recently as July on Fox News, when he told Sean Hannity, “They treat me horribly, the I.R.S., horribly.”

And while the records do not lay out all the details of the audit, they match his lawyers’ statement during the 2016 campaign that audits of his returns for 2009 and subsequent years remained open, and involved “transactions or activities that were also reported on returns for 2008 and earlier.”


An agreement was reached in late 2014, the documents indicate, but the audit resumed and grew to include Mr. Trump’s returns for 2010 through 2013. In the spring of 2016, with Mr. Trump closing in on the Republican nomination, the case was sent back to the committee. It has remained there, unresolved, with the statute of limitations repeatedly pushed forward.

Precisely why the case has stalled is not clear. But experts say it suggests that the gap between the sides remains wide. If negotiations were to deadlock, the case would move to federal court, where it could become a matter of public record.


The unresolved audit of his $72.9 million tax refund hangs over his head.

According to that high-profile report, Candidate Trump actually was under audit when he first sought the White House. According to that report, that audit was still being conducted—was still "hanging over his head"—when he sought re-election.

According to that Times report, Candidate Trump wasn't lying, in 2016, when he said he was under audit. We mention this because you're going to hear a lot of people—people you think you can trust—triumphantly telling you something pleasingly different.

We can't yet show you what Mika said; we'll be able to do so later. For now, here's what Lawrence said on The Last Word last night:

O'DONNELL (12/20/22): You will recall that Donald Trump began telling the lie during his first presidential campaign that he could not release his tax returns because they were being audited. As I said at the time, Donald Trump offered absolutely no proof that his tax returns were being audited...As of tonight, there is no evidence of Donald Trump's tax returns ever having been audited.

That's what Lawrence said at the start of last night's program. We refer you to the current AP report, and to the gigantic report by the New York Times. 

Did Donald J. Trump cheat on his taxes during all those long years? We have no idea! That said, our report today doesn't concern the conduct of Donald J. Trump, who we regard as a vastly disordered figure.

Our report today concerns the disordered conduct of the multimillionaire corporate stars you've been conditioned to think of as journalists, and as people you can trust. At the unfortunate point we've reached, almost nothing these people say hasn't been embellished or distorted in some way or other, and we think that you and yours are entitled to know that.

Meanwhile, what did those white medical students believe? We hear about their alleged beliefs on a rather frequent basis, but what did they actually believe?

What did those white medical students believe? We'll return to our case report in tomorrow's edition.

Tomorrow: A peculiar research design?


  1. tl;dr "Can we believe the things we're told...
    WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2022 our blue tribe's tribunes?"

    Once again, dear Bob, you can be certain -- 100% certain -- that, whatever your tribal priests tell you, the opposite is true. Okay?

    ...yes, it's that simple...

    1. A more accurate observation is that whatever you say, the opposite is true

  2. So the IRS, under Trump, failed to do its job and audit the President's tax returns. This explains the claim that under Obama, the IRS was corrupt.

    Once more for the slower-minded folks:
    Every Right-wing accusation is really a confession.

  3. There is no reason why tax returns cannot be released while under audit. As I recall, the left was not claiming that Trump's returns were not under audit, as Somerby implies, but were claiming that was no excuse not to release them.

  4. "Can we believe the things we're told by our blue tribe's tribunes?"

    First of all, various news sources are not "blue tribe tribunes". They are mainstream news. Second, you can believe those sources much more confidantly than those on the right, which have repeatedly proven to lie. Third, the right wing sources have been infected by Russian disinformation. Fourth, some right wing sources considered to be news by right wing viewers, are actually entertainment and disinformation sources, chiefly Tucker Carlson but others as well.

    As seen yesterday with AC/MA's comments, he wishes to follow Somerby's advice and distrust the news, but he doesn't understand how to do that. The result is vacuous nihilism and know-nothingism. That is a far worse replacement for credulous belief in occasionally flawed reporting. Total distrust requires the brains and education to assess what one is reading. Most people do not have that ability, including and especially Somerby, who makes statistical and other sorts of mistakes here nearly every day, under the guise of being critical. Further, walking around disbelieving everything (right and "left" sources) leaves a person unprepared to engage in democracy as a citizen, without the knowledge to cast a ballot.

    Somerby does not know how to assess the credibility of sources and he is not teaching anyone how to use news to guide thinking. He is reflexively attacking anything that does not accord with his own preferred beliefs and advancing right wing talking points and memes, under the guise of media criticism.

    Foolish people, like AC/MA and Cecelia, take Somerby at face value. If they were to actually follow Somerby's advice, they would not believe him either.

    1. anon 11:54 - your post is somewhat disjointed and not supported by any specific evidence. You mischaracterize my views. I'd call myself a skeptic, not a "nihilist." I don't disbelieve "everything." I simply look at things with a critical eye. I've been a trial lawyer for decades. In law school, we learn to think like a lawyer, which I think has its superior qualities. You are an advocate for your client, but you have to be objective in recognizes the weaknesses of your client's case. that's the way I look at politics - I've given up defending my tribe no matter how questionable the tribe's narrative. Or defending it, but being aware many times that there are pros and cons with the narrated position. Doing this, I come out on the side of the dems and vote that way, notwithstanding what I posted yesterday. I'm not sure that you take an objective critical thinking approach, whichever 'anon' you happen to be.

    2. You said negative things about a study you hadn’t read on a topic you know nothing about. Lawyers know law. That’s all.

  5. "In our appraisal, almost everything you currently hear on blue cable is being embellished or manipulated in some tribally pleasing way."

    This is the way things must sound to someone who has immersed himself in Fox Cable. Somerby is recognizing the contrast between what he hears on the right and the mainstream news, but the mainstream news is not the left. It is at most Center Left (see the Media Bias Chart here: Somerby calls this "blue cable" but that is a misnomer. There is no hyperpartisan cable on the left that balances Fox News, Newsmax and OAN on the right. Anything that is not the right is by definition the left, in Somerby's mind, but there is still a large media that attempts to be non-partisan and strives to be as objective as is humanly possible. Somerby does not acknowledge that and simply labels everything left of Carlson, blue cable.

    It is understandable that anything non-Carlson is going to be tribally unpleasing to the right. That doesn't make it leftist or tribally pleasing to the left. Much of the left considers the centrists to be majorly unpleasing. To the extent that cable reflects a more centrist view, it is NOT tribally pleasing to progressives or even old-style liberals, no matter how unpleasing it is to Somerby and his right wing comrades.

    Somerby shoves his dichotomy down our throats daily. It is incorrect, but he doesn't care and he doesn't read his comments, so he doesn't have to address criticisms either. Who evades criticism like that? Only Somerby and Donald Trump -- who also doesn't care what is said on the left where it is all lies, fake news. Somerby is expressing his own view that the left (anything not Carlson) is peddling tribally pleasing fake news, and it is no surprise that it is the same view as Republicans everywhere indulge in. Anything not pleasing to them must be fake.

  6. It isn't exactly fair to rebut something O'Donnell said on 12/19 (Monday) using a report from this morning's NY Times and AP 12/21 (Wednesday) that is based on documents released on 12/20 (Tuesday). Was O'Donnell's statement true to the best of his knowledge on Monday when he said it?

    Or is it too difficult for Somerby to understand that things said in the past (even the near past) may have been based on different knowledge states? We know things now that O'Donnell did not know then because the info was not then available.

  7. "As I said at the time, Donald Trump offered absolutely no proof that his tax returns were being audited...As of tonight, there is no evidence of Donald Trump's tax returns ever having been audited."

    It can be true that Donald Trump was under audit in 2016, but also true that Donald Trump offered no proof of that. Why must O'Donnell accept at face value Trump's statement that he was under audit, without any documentation to support it? Trump does not and did not then have the credibility to expect his statements to be accepted without support or evidence.

    Somerby thinks this current report disproves O'Donnell's statement, but where is the evidence that was supplied by Trump to show that he was truly under audit in 2016? Has that ever been provided? The 9/27/2020 report cited by Somerby, based on other sources than Trump, shows that he was being audited in 2009. It is hard to see how that is relevant to Trump's 2016 claim that he could not release his recent taxes due to being under audit.

    If Somerby is going to split hairs over this stuff, he must allow those he criticizes to do the same. Hair for the goose is hair for the gander.

    And why is Somerby so gleeful at supposedly proving O'Donnell wrong (he has not actually done so)? Somerby seems to believe that he has refuted Morning Joe, without ever saying what he objects to on that show, by nitpicking O'Donnell. Thus he slanders Morning Joe without ever discussing what he said that was wrong. Evidence that O'Donnell said something wrong has nothing to do with Morning Joe or Mika. Tarring one media source (on one occasion) doesn't convict all of them (on every occasion).

  8. Trump's taxes and audits are a distraction from the main question: what do white medical students believe about the pain tolerance of black people?

    1. Years ago on the TV show ER, there was an episode in which a black man with sickle cell anemia sought pain medication and was treated as medication seeking by an overly suspicious intern. This is a painful, chronic, genetic disorder that white people don't have and thus may not understand. That episode stayed with me because it showed how easily the usual indicators may not apply to an individual case, and the man was made to suffer because of that ignorance.

      Maybe Somerby might empathize more with this issue if he had seen that show? This was back in the 1990s, before he was being so defensive about being called racist. For myself, I cannot see why there is any controversy about treating people appropriately for their medical conditions. If a survey about medical students' misconceptions helps achieve that, what is the harm?

  9. "Can we believe the things we're told by our blue tribe's tribunes?"

    Sadly, I missed this year's blue tribune election because I was mistakenly registered in Florida.

    Seriously, O'Donnell is not a tribune.

    tribune definition: "a popular leader; a champion of the people" (he is obviously not an official of Ancient Rome chosen by the plebians to represent their interests)

    Wikipedia says: "Lawrence Francis O'Donnell Jr. is an American television anchor, actor, liberal political commentator, and host of The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell"

    Anchor, actor and commentator. Not tribune. Members of the House might be considered tribunes, but not TV news anchors. They are not even chosen by the people.

    Somerby may be confused about this because some newspapers use Tribune in their names. This is because, like Roman tribunes, they initially considered themselves the voice of the people -- before becoming big businesses. The service ethos persists but isn't evident in cable news.

    Personally, I consider only the progressive politicians such as Elizabeth Warren to be actual tribunes in any sense of caring about and crusading for the everyday people, although all elected officials should do that, at least by looking after their constituents.

    But it is a mistake for Somerby to confuse hired commentators like O'Donnell (who are more often expressing opinions than reporting news) with elected officials or popular leaders who claim to speak for the people. Today, it would be odd to hear them spoken of as tribunes, just as it is odd for Somerby to be using the word as he does.

  10. Does it really matter whether we believe Trump was being audited or not?

    Are we supposed to believe the "things we are told"? As if the news reports were some sort of big brother information service, always to be believed? That's how an authoritarian person behaves -- seeking to be able to believe authority figures.

    Is it substantially correct that Trump is a tax grifter and the IRS was trying to how him accountable with limited success? That is probably as much truth as we need, without worrying about O'Donnell nitpicks over who said what on which date, about whether Trump lied about his audits (of course he did!).

    Somerby inhabits the gray areas, the nitpicks on the fringes of meaning. He suggests that if a news report is not true in every tiniest detail, it must be entirely unreliable and we should all watch Fox instead. Tucker is damaged but sincere, Somerby hints. Or does he want us to believe nothing on any news source, and only listen to our own damaged uncle Joe at family gatherings. Or shall we all join the Taliban. It is hard to tell what alternative to the mainstream news Somerby thinks any of us have.

  11. From Digby's blog:

    "The committee released a report on its findings Tuesday night, as did the Joint Committee on Taxation, which delved into some of the details of the returns themselves. The first big takeaway is that the IRS, which is supposed to audit all presidential tax returns under the Mandatory Presidential Audit Program, never even got around to looking at Trump’s. It was only after the committee began its inquiries in 2019 that the IRS finally opened an investigation of Trump’s 2016 returns, even though it had been tasked by that time with auditing him from 2015 through 2018.

    That’s very strange, to put it mildly, and it certainly validates the committee’s stated premise for opening the case. Its members are now recommending that the Mandatory Audit Program, which has been in place since the Carter administration, be codified into law.

    John Koskinen, who was IRS commissioner during Trump’s first year as president, told the New York Times that he knew nothing about all this. The committee’s report obliquely suggests that it might be a good idea to vet individual agents more carefully, mentioning the “substantial discretion an I.R.S. revenue agent possesses in conducting the audit of presidential returns and the absence of guardrails to ensure that such employee is not subject to undue influence by a president or his representatives.” After all, such an agent might turn out to be a Trump loyalist, like Beverly Hills tax attorney Charles P. Rettig, who defended Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns in a 2016 op-ed — after which Trump appointed him IRS commissioner."

    1. Digby cont.

      "So what we now know is that the IRS did not even begin its mandatory audits of Trump’s taxes until 2019 and has completed none of them. So the returns the committee finally has in its possession are missing the backup information that would routinely have been requested of any return under audit to prove the legitimacy of its claims. So there are many unanswered questions about the validity of Trump’s numbers, although we already about his sleazy tax avoidance schemes through the myriad lawsuits and criminal proceedings he has faced, as well as voluminous reporting by the New York Times and others.

      Back in 2018, the Times reported on a trove of Trump family financial documents, including tax returns of Fred Trump, the ex-president’s father. Fred had evidently gone to huge lengths to pass large sums to his children through dubious or outright illegal methods, mostly to evade paying taxes over many years. His son has apparently followed that tradition for many years. That issue has come up both in the investigation of these tax returns and in the recent criminal case against the Trump Organization, in which the family business was found guilty of nine criminal counts including tax fraud. It also features prominently in the New York attorney general’s civil case against Trump and three of his adult children.

      In 2020, the Times came into possession of more Trump tax returns, including some of those the committee will be release this week. The story they told was pretty stunning:

      Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.

      Perhaps the most intriguing detail in that story was that Trump was in fact still embroiled in an audit from 2009, with the IRS questioning the validity of a $72.9 million tax refund he received after declaring huge losses. If the IRS eventually ruled against him, the Times reported, he could end up owing more than $100 million. So here’s one thing we can say for Trump: When he said that his taxes were still under audit throughout his presidency, he was telling the truth, That audit long predated his presidential campaign, however, and he never had any legal reason or legitimate excuse for not releasing his returns to the public. "


      Look how clearly Digby explains this, compared to Somerby. You would think Somerby's goal was to confuse the issue, not to clarify what has been going on with Trump's taxes and audits.

  12. You can watch O’Donnell’s presentation here:

    O’Donnell is referring to Trump’s taxes while he was in office. This occurs during the passage Somerby omits with his three dots. Trump was again refusing in 2020 to release his taxes, claiming they were under audit. We now know that for at least two of those years, they were not under audit. According to the Ways and Means committee, an audit was begun of Trump’s 2019 taxes, but never completed. No audit was started for his 2020 taxes.

    1. Audits have now been started for Trump’s taxes, after he left office.

  13. Bob is now essentially Trump, playing
    the “enemy of tbe people” game.
    Can you believe ANYTHING
    Bob says?

  14. Which of Trump's many, many bankruptcies do you think is Bob's favorite, and why?