By Susan Cornwell and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON/WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - Joe Biden's campaign seized on a fresh line of attack on the eve of the Democratic presidential nominee's first debate with President Donald Trump, accusing the Republican incumbent of gaming the system to avoid paying his fair share of taxes.
Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire who is seeking reelection in the Nov. 3 vote, paid only $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, after years of reporting heavy losses from his businesses to offset hundreds of millions of dollars in income, the New York Times reported on Sunday, citing tax-return data.
The Times also reported that Trump paid no federal income tax in 10 of the previous 15 years through 2017, despite receiving $427.4 million through 2018 from his reality television program and other endorsement and licensing deals.
Jared Bernstein, one of Biden's top economic advisers, said the report highlighted the need to simplify the tax code and make people like Trump pay their fair share.
"The vast majority of us pay taxes and get on with life. But the richer you are, the more tax lawyers you employ, the more complex you can make your holdings - all of this can, as the piece shows reduce your tax liability to zero," Bernstein said on Twitter.
Within hours of the report, Biden's campaign had released a video listing the thousands of dollars in income tax typically paid by an elementary school teacher, firefighter, construction manager and registered nurse, before contrasting Trump’s reported $750 bill in 2017. The campaign also started selling stickers that say, "I Paid More In Taxes Than Donald Trump."
Trump has dismissed the report as "fake news." On Monday, he tweeted that he had paid "many millions of dollars in taxes" but was entitled to depreciation and tax credits and was "extremely under-leveraged" in terms of his debt and assets.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany described the report as a hit job that was straight out of the Democratic playbook. "We've seen this play out before ... purported tax information dropping the eve of a debate. They tried this in 2016 - it didn't work," she told Fox Business Network.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told MSNBC the president's reported debts raised questions of national security.
Trump and Biden will square off in their first debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday, five weeks before the election. Polls show Biden leading Trump nationally and in a number of key battleground states.
"I am looking very forward to the debate," Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday.
The 90-minute televised debate is likely to focus in part on Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and his push to fill the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the high court.
The re-emergence of Trump's tax history as an election issue - in 2016 he broke a decades-old tradition of presidential nominees releasing their tax returns when seeking the White House - offers Biden another avenue of attack Tuesday evening.
The former vice president is trying to turn the tables on Trump, who ran successfully as an economic populist four years ago and is regarded by some observers as having an edge among voters on the issue of who would best manage the economy.
In recent days, Biden has characterized the race as a clash between Scranton, the working-class Pennsylvania city where he spent part of his childhood, and Park Avenue. Trump Tower, which serves as headquarters for the Trump Organization, is located near that tony boulevard in Manhattan.
Trump has painted his economic record in glowing terms, saying his policies were responsible for boosting growth and reducing U.S. unemployment to near 50-year lows prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.
His message, however, has been badly dented by the virus-triggered recession, which has put millions of Americans out of work. Democrats say Trump has mishandled the U.S. response and embraced policies that favored corporations and the rich.
Biden is proposing to hike the corporate income tax and raise taxes on people making more than $400,000 if elected.
Trump, who signed a $1.5 trillion Republican-sponsored package of tax cuts in late 2017, accuses his opponent of pushing a far-left agenda that will destroy the economy.
Trump has said since the 2016 campaign that his refusal to release his federal income tax returns is because he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, but the agency has said there is no reason he cannot release his taxes while under audit.
Senator Chuck Grassley told reporters on Capitol Hill that it suggested the tax audits were taking too long. "I want to wait until the IRS gets done, so I know how much he (Trump) owes," said Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Andrea Shalal, Susan Cornwell, Doina Chiacu, Trevor Hunnicutt and David Morgan; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Alistair Bell)