Washington: Donald Trump concluded a very bad week on the presidential campaign trail Sunday by avoiding denying a news report that he may not have paid income taxes for nearly 20 years.
Instead, Trump called himself an expert on the US tax code, as allies rushed to praise the real estate mogul's business acumen and fitness to be president as America heads toward the 8 November election.
It was another flash of bravado from the Republican candidate, who spent the week defending a debate performance against Hillary Clinton that was widely seen as losing; locked horns with a former beauty queen he called fat and disgusting; mocked Clinton's falling ill at a 9/11 ceremony last month and questioned her loyalty to husband Bill.
The report on Trump's taxes focused renewed attention on his refusal to release his income tax returns.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump surrogate on the campaign trail, called the reports proof of the New York tycoon's "absolute genius."
"You have an obligation when you run a business to maximize the profits and if there is a tax law that says I can deduct this, you deduct it," Giuliani told ABC News.
Bernie Sanders, Clinton's vanquished Democratic presidential primary foe who now supports her, took the opposite view.
"If everybody in this country was a 'genius,'" the Vermont senator told ABC, "we would not have a country."
Trump tweets again
While not admitting to paying little or nothing in taxes, Trump boasted on Twitter that what he called his deftness in fiscal and business dealings is one of his greatest strengths.
"I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them," he wrote after The Times story appeared.
The real estate mogul declared a loss of nearly $1 billion on his 1995 income tax return, enabling him to legally avoid paying taxes for almost two decades, according to documents obtained by the New York Times.
He has repeatedly refused to make his tax filings public, the first major party presidential contender to do so since Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Trump has said he will release his tax returns only after the federal authorities complete an ongoing audit.
However, tax officials — without confirming or denying that Trump's tax filings are under review — have said being under audit does not prevent their release.
During last week's acrimonious first presidential debate, Clinton suggested that Trump is hiding "something terrible" by failing to produce his tax returns. She ventured that he had not paid any federal income tax.
She prompted this Trump retort: "That makes me smart."
Numerous reports have suggested he has used high-pressure tactics to convince officials in New York and elsewhere to give him tax breaks and other hugely favorable conditions in his deals.
He is also reported to have taken massive, albeit legal, tax breaks on failing businesses, earning a fortune while shareholders and investors swallowed large losses and contractors went unpaid.
Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid called Trump a "billion-dollar loser" on Sunday, urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would require candidates to release their tax returns.
'Out of control'
Trump's latest campaign trail bombshell follows an abysmal few days for the bombastic billionaire, Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said on Sunday.
"Trump has had a really bad week: He failed in the debate," he said in an interview with barely suppressed glee.
"He has spun out of control subsequent to that. Insulting (Venezuela-born beauty queen Alicia) Machado. His 3 am tweet storm," he added, recounting other Trump controversies that dominated headlines last week.
"You know, his campaign is spinning out."
In the latest poll showing a boost for a newly energized Clinton this week, an ABC News/Washington Post survey released on Sunday said 53 percent of Americans saw Clinton as the winner, compared to 18 percent for Trump.
Nearly half of respondents said he got facts wrong during the debate and a third that he lied outright, while his unpopularity rating grew to 64 percent in the same poll, compared to 53 percent for Clinton.
Trump spent most of last week embroiled in controversy over his abusive comments about Machado, who won the Miss Universe pageant — owned by Trump at the time — in 1996.
He doubled down this week, including in a predawn Twitter rant Friday with more insults about Machado — a tirade Clinton said proves he is "temperamentally unfit" for the presidency.
Trump went on the attack again on Saturday, mocking the former first lady for a recent bout with pneumonia and raising questions about her loyalty to her husband.
His running mate Mike Pence is set to debate his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine on Tuesday.