WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump's tax controversy and his self-destructive lack of discipline threaten to drain the Republican nominee of something he can't afford: time.
With 36 days remaining before Election Day, the real estate mogul's campaign is consumed with the fallout from a New York Times story published over the weekend that found Trump reported a $916 million loss in 1995. That loss could mean Trump went 18 years without paying federal income taxes.
Those findings -- which Trump's campaign isn't disputing but haven't been independently confirmed by CNN -- would be daunting for any presidential candidate to overcome. But they're especially challenging for Trump, who is losing control of the campaign's narrative after a strong September in which he narrowed the race with Hillary Clinton.
In just the past week, Trump delivered an underwhelming debate performance, struggled to recover from it, engaged in a counterproductive feud with a Latina beauty queen, posted early morning Twitter tirades and spewed insinuations without any evidence about Clinton's marriage. The tax story -- which could undermine Trump's image as a successful businessman -- will dominate the next few days.
Time is dwindling for Trump to regain his grip on the campaign's message as Clinton supporters seize on the drama to reinforce their point that he isn't suitable for the presidency.
"The reality is that we are in day six of the meltdown," Clinton supporter Neera Tanden said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "He had a terrible debate performance. Everybody sees that. He sees the state polls moving towards Hillary. Eleven state polls were out this week. She's beating him in every single one. He can't take that. And so this is the latest meltdown."
Of course, the tax story might not emerge as the kind of October surprise-style impact that Democrats hope. It is possible that Trump truly is a Teflon candidate who is so appealing to voters that his actions don't really matter. The GOP nominee's closest surrogates launched a fierce defense of Trump Sunday, portraying him as a master of business who expertly used the tax code to his benefit -- and that of his investors.
In a spirited showdown with CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hailed Trump as a "genius."
"He knows how to operate the tax code for the benefit of the people he's serving," Giuliani said.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dismissed the idea that Trump had done anything wrong or that the report would hurt him.
"This is actually a very, very good story for Donald Trump," Christie said.
The impact of the story -- and the swirling controversies that have bubbled up over the past week -- will come into greater focus Monday when Trump returns to the campaign trail in the key swing states of Virginia and Colorado.
The tax issue will almost certainly play a significant role in Tuesday's vice presidential debate. If that's the case, it will be a lost opportunity for Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, to present himself to the country as a moderating force on the GOP nominee and someone who can offer a coherent case against a Clinton presidency.
And ahead of the next presidential debate on Sunday, there's no sign Trump will do something to address the lack of focus, preparation and impulse control that helped contribute to Clinton's win at last week's showdown. Trump is now vowing to be nastier than Clinton at the second debate, bringing up Bill Clinton's marital indiscretions. At a wild rally on Saturday night, he even questioned whether Hillary Clinton had been "loyal" to her husband.
Such rhetoric not only calls into question Trump's strategy, it lets Clinton slide on some of her most significant vulnerabilities, such as her email server and questions of trust and honesty.
Trump's approach, and refusal to ignore a trap laid by Clinton in the first debate over his treatment of former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado, raises doubt over whether he can make inroads with educated women voters who could be vital to claim must-win states like Pennsylvania.
The freewheeling Trump on display in recent days is particularly notable because he had been doing so well and appeared keen to project more discipline under his retooled campaign team. The GOP nominee effectively wiped out Clinton's lead in national polls after an effective spell through August and mid-September. He was beginning to match her in swing states on the electoral map.
Then, after an encouraging first 30 minutes of the debate, it all went downhill. Trump has not allowed himself to get back on message ever since.
"What happened to him was he was doing well," said Van Jones, a Democrat who is supporting Hillary Clinton, on "State of the Union." "I was terrified 10 days ago this guy was going to be able to be disciplined. Hillary Clinton in 15 minutes said two or three things and threw him off his game and he has not been able to recover since the debate."
Trump's Rust Belt route
The GOP nominee's only route to the White House lies in running the table through the Rust Belt from Pennsylvania, through Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. That's why the tax story could prove powerful if struggling blue collar workers disaffected with the Democrats and considering Trump are alienated by the revelation -- even if everything was perfectly legal.
The tax issue also allows Democrats to reclaim the narrative about economic equality and fairness that proved so powerful for President Barack Obama against Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Clinton's primary rival, Bernie Sanders, relished the chance to make that point.
"So, you have got the middle-class people working longer hours for low wages. They pay their taxes. They support their schools. They support their infrastructure. They support the military. But the billionaires, no, they don't have to do that, because they have their friends on Capitol Hill. They pay zero in taxes," Sanders said on "State of the Union." "So, Trump goes around and says, 'hey, I'm worth billions, I'm a successful businessman, but I don't pay any taxes. But, you, you make 15 bucks an hour, you pay the taxes, not me.'"
He added: "That's why people are angry and want real change in this country."
Bernie Sanders brushes off leaked Hillary Clinton criticism
Bernie Sanders says audio from a closed-door Hillary Clinton fundraiser shows the two largely agree -- even though Clinton dismissed some of Sanders' policy positions as "false promises."
"If you listen to the whole discussion that she had, a very important point that she made is that a lot of young people who went into debt, worked very hard to get a good education, can't find a job commensurate to the education that they received," Sanders told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday.
Tapper was pressing Sanders about audio clips obtained from a hack into a Democratic staffer's emails posted late Friday by the conservative Washington Free Beacon.
Speaking to a gathering of campaign supporters in February, Clinton said some of Sanders' followers "are new to politics completely. They're children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents' basement."
She continued: "If you're feeling like you're consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn't pay a lot, and doesn't have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing. I think we all should be really understanding of that."
Asked if those comments bothered him, Sanders said: "Of course it does, but we are in the middle of a campaign ... If you go to some of the statements I made about Hillary Clinton, we have real differences."
Still, he said the two have worked together since the end of the Democratic primary on proposals such as providing affordable public college tuition and expanding access to health care through increased funding for community health centers.
"What Secretary Clinton and I have done since the election, since the primary nominating process, we have worked together in a number of areas," he said.
Asked about those comments in particular, Sanders shook his head "yes" and said he agreed with Clinton.
"They are living in their parents' basement, and that's the point," he said, arguing that many young people have been denied economic opportunity since the recession.
Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, also defended the audio clip on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, criticizing the press coverage of it.
"I really encourage everybody to listen to that full audio," Mook said. "The original piece that came out on it had to have the headline changed because it completely mischaracterized what she was talking about. She was talking about young people that she'd met who were frustrated that they graduated from college and went into an economy where they couldn't find the job they wanted."