A chipper Donald Trump, facing some dispiriting new poll numbers and a firestorm of criticism about his behavior over the last week, cheerfully argued Monday that he performs best “when the chips are down.”
“I know how to make a comeback,” the Republican presidential nominee said at an evening rally.
Trump was talking about turning around the financial fortunes of his company, the Trump Organization, but the remark was also an allusion to his belief that he can overcome seven days of self-inflicted errors and negative headlines, including leaked tax documents that revealed massive business losses—problems that some GOP leaders are worried could lead to his political downfall.
“When people make the mistake of underestimating me, that’s when they are in for their biggest surprise,” a defiant Trump said during a day of campaigning in Colorado, where a Monmouth University poll released earlier in the day showed him trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 11 points.
But instead of lashing out with angry insults—like he did in a pre-dawn tweet storm last week when confronted by a Latina ex-beauty queen he’d disparaged, and instead delving into personal attacks like he did Saturday night when he mocked Clinton’s near-collapse due to an illness—Trump cracked jokes on Monday, laughed out loud repeatedly, and had playful exchanges with the crowd at two big arena rallies in Pueblo and Loveland.
Whether he had chosen to ignore the latest survey or was still clinging to a September poll that showed him ahead, Trump told his audience at his second rally of the day that he was “up in Colorado.”
Pushing his message that he thinks he can overcome even the worst odds, Trump spun a tale of his comeback in the 1990s during the real-estate downturn. He said he never felt endangered because he knew himself, knew his business, knew the tax code and “most importantly, I knew how to fight.”
“The only guy that didn’t think I was in trouble was a guy named Donald J. Trump,” he said.
Trump addressed the speculation that he may have sidestepped federal income taxes for more than a decade by claiming that he “brilliantly” used a tax code only he can understand and reform.
He offered that version of events to explain a New York Times story over the weekend that the candidate reported $916 million in business losses on his 1995 income tax returns, a figure so large that he may not have legally been required to pay income taxes for two decades.
In his first public remarks on the tax revelations, Trump didn’t dispute them. Instead, his strategy appeared to be to try and turn the report into a positive.
“I have legally used the tax laws to my benefit,” Trump told an audience of about 2,000 at the rally in Pueblo Monday afternoon. “Honestly, I have brilliantly used those laws.”
Earlier Monday, Clinton used the Times report to hit Trump on one of his central arguments—that he is best suited to be president because of his business record—in a broader speech outlining her proposals aimed at raising corporate accountability and rooting out corporate malfeasance.
“What kind of genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?” she said at a rally in Toledo, Ohio. “Trump was taking from America with both hands and leaving the rest of us with the bill. He’s taken corporate excess and made a business model out of it.”
At his two rallies, Trump repeatedly bashed Clinton, at one point calling her “a ringleader of a criminal enterprise that has corrupted our government.” For the most part, however, he focused on defending himself, arguing that he has exactly the right temperament for withstanding hard times.
A CNN/ORC poll released Monday night found 58 percent of likely voters nationally believe Clinton has the temperament to serve effectively as president, while only 33 percent think Trump does.
Throughout the day, Trump seemed to be trying to exude a more mellow vibe. Instead of chewing out the fire marshal like he has in the past when fans were blocked from over-capacity venues, Trump thanked the fire official in Loveland for allowing people to stand in every doorway at the 7,200-seat arena. “I always say, how can you have a fire? It’s a concrete floor,” he said with a chuckle.
“Honestly,” Trump said with a short laugh Monday afternoon, “my single greatest asset is my temperament because if you didn’t have temperament you could’ve never have escaped that financial jungle, that’s for sure.”
The revelations about Trump's taxes gave Clinton a salient example as she challenged corporate bad actors more broadly on Monday, using the example of a scandal at Wells Fargo & Co. over the creation of 2 million unauthorized accounts and the arbitration clauses in customers' legitimate accounts that kept the fraud under wraps.
“It’s outrageous that eight years after a cowboy culture on Wall Street wrecked our economy, we’re still seeing powerful bankers playing fast and loose with the law,” she said. “We are not going to let corporations like Wells Fargo use these fine-print gotchas to escape corporate responsibility.”
Clinton said she would order agencies to use their existing authority to restrict the use of arbitration clauses and called on Congress to give agencies including the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Labor Department broader and clearer authority on the issue.
Judges have rejected lawsuits filed by Wells Fargo customers affected by bank workers' creation of false accounts because those customers agreed to submit any disputes to an arbitrator when they signed contracts for legitimate accounts with the bank. Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee last month, Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf would not agree to stop enforcing the clause.
Top Senate Democrats including Patrick Leahy, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren wrote to Stumpf, calling for action on the issue and pointing to it as a reason why the creation of false accounts went on for years. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working on finalizing a rule that would allow groups of people to band together to pursue class-action lawsuits when they believe they’ve been wronged. Brown, who represents Ohio, announced plans Monday to introduce legislation that would allow existing Wells Fargo customers to go to court even if they signed contracts that included arbitration clauses for their legitimate accounts.
Clinton also endorsed passage of a federal law requiring major-party nominees to release their tax returns. In May, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, filed a bill he called the “Presidential Tax Transparency Act” that would require each major-party nominee to release his or her three most recent tax returns.
Neither candidates has made specific proposals to change the tax law to prevent the sort of deductions Trump legally used.
Monday was Clinton's first stop in Ohio since early September. With polls showing Trump holding a lead in the state, a crucial electoral battleground, her campaign is attempting to keep it in play. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is also scheduled to make a two-day swing through small Ohio towns.
Clinton has extended her lead over Trump in several other battlegrounds and in national polls conducted since their first debate on Sept. 26. She and Trump are scheduled to face each other again Oct. 9 in St. Louis.
—Terrence Dopp contributed to this report.