[WASHINGTON] Donald Trump's campaign remained defiant Monday as the Republican presidential candidate dodged questions that he may have paid no income tax for nearly 20 years.
Without admitting fault, Mr Trump's top allies praised their candidate's business acumen following a bombshell report in The New York Times focusing the real estate mogul's massive 1995 losses and his clever use of the US tax code.
The report comes as Mr Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, have just five more weeks of campaigning ahead of the Nov 8 presidential election.
If true, the report is proof of the tycoon's "absolute genius," said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump surrogate.
"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," Mr Giuliani told ABC News Sunday.
Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton's vanquished Democratic presidential primary foe who now supports her, had a different view.
"If everybody in this country was a 'genius,'" he told ABC, "we would not have a country".
According to documents obtained by The New York Times, Mr Trump declared a loss of nearly US$1 billion on his 1995 income tax return, enabling him to legally avoid paying taxes for almost two decades.
Mr Trump has refused to release his income tax returns, something US presidential candidates have done for four decades.
He has said the returns will be released after an ongoing federal tax authority audit is complete. Tax officials however say he is free to release the documents at any time.
While not admitting to paying little or nothing in taxes, Mr Trump boasted on Twitter that he was an expert on tax law.
"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 New York Times story appeared.
In the first presidential debate on Sept 26 Mrs Clinton suggested that Mr Trump is hiding "something terrible" by failing to produce his tax returns, and suggested that he had not paid any federal income tax.
Mr Trump's answer: "That makes me smart."
Mr Trump used high-pressure tactics to convince officials in New York and elsewhere to give him tax breaks and special favorable conditions in his deals, according to numerous reports.
He also reportedly took massive - but legal - tax breaks on failing businesses, earning millions while shareholders and investors swallowed the losses and contractors went unpaid.
Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid called Mr Trump a "billion-dollar loser," and urged lawmakers to pass a bill mandating candidates to release their tax returns.
The tax scandal follows a terrible week for the bombastic billionaire, Mrs Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.
"Trump has had a really bad week: He failed in the debate," Mr Mook said, barely suppressing his glee.
"He has spun out of control subsequent to that," he added, highlighting Mr Trump's pre-dawn Friday Twitter tirade against 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Mrs Clinton mentioned during the debate that Mr Trump - who owned the beauty pageant at the time - derided Ms Machado as "Miss Piggy" when she gained weight, and "Miss Housekeeping" because of her Venezuelan heritage.
Mrs Clinton pointed to Mr Trump's anti-Machado tweets as proof that he is "temperamentally unfit" for the presidency.
In a boost for Mrs Clinton, an ABC News/Washington Post poll out Sunday said 53 per cent of Americans saw Mrs Clinton as the debate winner, compared to 18 per cent for Mr Trump.
Nearly half of respondents said that Mr Trump got facts wrong, and a third that he lied outright, while his unpopularity rating grew to 64 per cent against 53 percent for Mrs Clinton.
The ex-secretary of state on Sunday also received an endorsement from NBA basketball superstar LeBron James, who is a native of Ohio, a pivotal state in the upcoming election.
True to his form Mr Trump stayed on the attack, mocking the former first lady for a recent bout with pneumonia and questioning her loyalty to her husband.
Mr Trump's running mate Mike Pence is set to debate his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine on Tuesday.