Breaking With A Democratic Norm
Presidents are not legally obligated to release their personal tax returns to the public.
However, it has been the norm for Presidents and presidential nominees to voluntarily do so for decades.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney released 2 years worth of tax returns.
His competitor, the Democratic incumbent, Pres. Obama, released his tax returns annually every year he was in office.
Republican President George W. Bush released tax returns annually during his 8 years in office.
As did Bill Clinton during his two presidential campaigns.
In fact, almost every presidential candidate - Republicans and Democrats- since 1976 released tax returns, though some released less years worth of returns than others.
The only exception was Gerald Ford during the 1976 presidential campaign, which he lost to Jimmy Carter.
What Do The Tax Returns Tell Us
The release of tax returns to the public allows review of any possible conflicts of interest that may exist between the President’s financial interests and the President’s duties as an elected official.
Tax returns also allow us to assess how much money the president makes, information which was particularly important for voters in the 2016 election because the President’s purported business acumen was put forward as one of the things that qualified him for office.
Moreover, tax returns allow us to determine how much money the president gives to charity, which provides us with insight into whether the President genuinely cares about social issues, or only espouses to do so.
And, most important from a corruption monitoring perspective, tax returns allow us to access........
However, to date, President Trump has not released his tax returns.
A Timeline of Excuses
Below is a timeline of Trump’s varied excuses, often within the same interview, for not releasing his tax returns:
(1) Asked by an interviewer, “How many years of tax returns will you release?”, Trump replied,
“Well I’d certainly go over tax returns and I will tell you nobody knows the tax return business or world better than me. And you have to understand I’m a businessman and I work for myself and I have a phenomenal net worth and lot of cash and very little debt and you’d see that. And actually, you know I’m the only candidate in history that actually submitted his financials the last time and I didn’t run. I actually submitted my financials cause to be honest with you I’m very proud of my financials. And my financials now are much better.”
We’ll call this excuse complete obfuscation, because there is no answer in this reply.
(2) The interviewer than asked once more, “But I mean would you actually release tax returns?”, to which Trump replied,
“I would release tax returns,” followed by comments about how much money he would make for the country and comments about Mexico.”
(3) The interviewer than states, “I got it, but I want to stay focused on the tax returns. How many years back?”
To which Trump replies, “So the answer is I would do it.”
Interviewer: “Three years? Five years?”
Trump: “I will tell you upfront, as a private person, and I’m very proud of this, I want to pay as little tax as I can as a private person.”
Interviewer: “But how many years go back would you go on the day you announce? Three? Five?”
Trump: “Oh, I don’t know. I actually have not even thought of that. But I would certainly show tax returns if it was necessary.”
(4) Later in the conversation, Trump states, “I have no objection to certainly showing tax returns.”
(1) Trump was asked, “Are you any closer to releasing your tax returns?”
To which he replied, “Well, I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking maybe when we find out the true story on Hillary’s emails…”
(2) Trump was also asked what his tax rate was, to which he replied:
“I’m not gonna say, but at some point I’ll release it.”
(1) Asked, “Will you release any of your tax returns for the public to scrutinize?”, Trump replies:
“Well, we're working on that now. I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we'll be working that over in the next period of time, Chuck. Absolutely.”
(2) Interviewer: “What's a period of time? Before--”
Trump: “I don't know, I mean, you know, accountants. This is not, like, a normal tax return. This is, and I have to- but I will say this, and I'm very proud to say it, I think the country is run horribly. I hate what they do with our money. And unlike everybody else, I try to pay as little tax as possible, because I hate what they do with my tax money. I hate the way they spend our money, the way they give it to Iraq, the way they give it to Iran, the way they give it to s-- to everything. They give it to everybody--”
We’ll call this complete obfuscation.
(3) Interviewer: “But you are going to release?”
Trump: I hate the way our politicians spend our money, I hate the way they give it away to everybody but us. We have to rebuild our country.
We’ll call this complete obfuscation.
(4) Interviewer: “But you will release it?”
Trump: “I pay, it's a little tax. And I say it. And the reporters said, "That's the most refreshing answer I've ever heard on taxes," because everyone tries to build it up, like Mitt Romney. He built it up, tried to build it up, how much he paid. It just doesn't work that way. But I'll be, we're working on it right now, and at the appropriate time, you'll be very satisfied.”
Interviewer: “When are you going to release your tax returns?”
Trump: “Probably over the next few months, (inaudible) being worked on right now.”
Interviewer: “What’s the hold up?”
Trump: “Well, they’re very big tax returns….I guarantee you this, the biggest ever in the history of what we’re doing.....So it’s very complicated (inaudible), but we’ll be releasing them.”
(1) “I will absolutely give my return, but I’m being audited now for two or three years, so I can’t do it until the audit is finished, obviously.
(2) “You don’t learn anything about somebody’s wealth with a tax return.
(1) “You don’t learn – you don’t learn very much from tax – hey, John, you don’t learn very much from tax returns, let me tell you right now.”
Trump releases a letter from his attorneys which states that his personal tax returns have been under “continuous examination by the Internal Revenue Service since 2002.”
It states that the audits for 2002 through 2008 have been closed but audits for 2009 on are ongoing.
The Washington Post reports Trump said he would not release his tax returns for 2002-2008, despite the fact that his attorneys’ letter states that his audit for 2002-2008 are closed because “they’re all linked.”
(1) “There’s nothing to learn from them.”
(2) “And if [the audit] gets finished soon, I put it out immediately because there’s nothing there. But until you get finished, you won’t.”
May 11, 2016:
(1) Trump tweets, “In interview I told @AP that my taxes are under routine audit and I would release my tax returns when audit is complete, not after election!”
(1) Asked whether voters have a right he see his tax returns before they vote, Trump says, “I don’t think they do.”
(2) You don’t learn anything from tax returns.
(3) “When the audit ends I’m gonna present um.”
(4) Journalists have said no one should release tax returns until audits are over.
(5) What about all of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails or her Goldman Sachs speeches? “When is she gonna give that?”
(6) When the interviewer points out that the nothing precludes an individual who is being audited from releasing his tax returns Trump replies:
“I am under audit now and as soon as the audit ends I’ll release my returns.”
(7) “Almost every lawyer will say the same thing, when you’re under audit, you finish the audit before you release.”
(8) “And by the way, people are gonna learn nothing” from the tax returns.
(9) “Nevertheless, when the audit is complete, I will release.”
(10) Asked why, he was willing to release his tax returns to procure a casino license but is not willing to do so to be elected commander-in-chief, Trump replies,
“At the time, it didn’t make any difference to me. Now it does.”
(11) My tax returns are probably ten feet high when stacked in a pile and very complex.
(12) I want to get through the audit first.
(13) “There have been many Presidents that have not shown their tax returns.”
When it was pointed out by the interviewer that every Presidential nominee since 1976 has released their tax returns, Trump states, “Right, but before 1976 people didn’t do it.”
(14) I want the audit to get finished.
(15) You learn more from financial disclosures.
(1) Interviewer: “If Secretary Clinton were willing to give up the transcripts from her Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street speeches, would you be willing to give up, or surrender, or let the media see your tax returns, at least for the years not currently in audit?”
Trump: “I don’t think the transcripts, they don’t mean very much to me. What really means something are the 33,000 emails that she deleted. That’s what I think she should be giving up. She should find out, there is a way of finding emails, and I’ve always heard that when you’re in, you know, whether its litigation or otherwise, its virtually impossible to get rid of emails, to delete emails, and to make them permanently gone. I would be very interested but not with transcripts. I’m not interested in her transcripts. I’m much more interested in her emails, what would happen. Now with that being said, you’re the one that said recently, and I’ve used your name a couple of times, that if I had a client who was under a routine audit by the IRS, I wouldn’t let him go public until the audit is over. Now you said that on your show, and you were speaking then not as a great and talented anchor but you were speaking as a lawyer.......”
We’ll call this one “because the lawyers say so.”
(2) Interviewer: “I said, as a lawyer, for the years in audit, absolutely........For the years at least not in audit, because they are certainly years that are not in audit......why not release those that are not in audit even if they go back (inaudible) years?”
Trump: “Well I’ll be honest, most people don’t care about it. The only one that cares is certain people in the media. I’ve had very very little pressure.”
(1) People don’t care about the tax returns.
(1) “I don't mind releasing -- I'm under a routine audit. And it'll be released. And -- as soon as the audit's finished, it will be released.”
(2) “But you will learn more about Donald Trump by” looking at my financial disclosures.
(3) When the moderator brought up the fact that the nothing precludes an individual who is being audited from releasing his tax returns Trump replies:
“Well, I told you, I will release them as soon as the audit” is over.
(4) “I will release my tax returns – against my lawyer’s wishes – when [Hillary Clinton] releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release.”
(5) “Almost every lawyer says, you don't release your returns until the audit's complete.”
(6) “When the audit's complete, I'll do it.”
(7) “But I would go against [my lawyer’s wishes] if [Clinton] releases her e-mails.”
(8) “[Y]ou don’t learn that much from tax returns. That I can tell you.”
(9) “You learn a lot from financial disclosure. And you should go down and take a look at that.”
(1) “The only ones that care about my tax returns are the reporters.”
(2) “You learn very little from a tax return.”
In an interview with The Economist, Trump was asked whether he would make a deal with Democrats in which he released his tax returns in exchange for Democratic support for his tax plan. He responded:
(1) “I don’t know. That’s a very interesting question.”
(2) “I doubt it. I doubt it.”
(3) “[N]obody cares about my tax return except for the reporters.”
(4) “Oh, at some point I’ll release them.”
(5) “Maybe I’ll release them after I’m finished….” “I might release them after I’m out of office.”
(6) “By the way, so as you know I’m under routine audit, so they’re not going to be done.”
(7) “But you know, at a certain point, that’s something I will consider. But I would never consider it as part of a deal.”
(8) “[T]he only people that find that important are the reporters.”
(9) “Well, don't forget I got elected without it.”
(10) “Plus my financial disclosure is 104 pages.”
By our count, Trump has used 13 different excuses to justify not releasing his tax returns. The excuse tally is as follows:
-I’m under audit: 14
-There’s nothing/little to learn from them: 7
-I will/would release them: 6
-I’ve released financial disclosures: 4
-Only reporters care: 4
-What about Clinton’s emails: 4
-Complete obfuscation: 3
-My tax returns are big and complex: 3
-Lawyers say so: 3
-People don’t care: 1
-Voters don’t have a right to see them before they vote: 1
-Many Presidents didn’t release their tax returns: 1
-Maybe after I’m out of office: 1
-I got elected without releasing them: 1
-Journalists say so: 1
-It’s something I’ll consider: 1
On, by our count, 6 occasions, Trump has said he will release his tax returns.
However, he has used numerous excuses not to do so. None of these excuses are valid.
Trump has used the “I’m under audit so I can’t” excuse 14 times.
However, there are no legal restrictions on individuals who are under audit releasing their tax returns to the public.
An IRS spokesman has said that nothing “prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information,” not even an audit.
Moreover, President Nixon released his tax returns while he was under audit in 1973 during the investigation of the Watergate Scandal.
So there is precedent for a President releasing his tax returns while under audit.
Thus, the claim that he cannot release his tax returns because he is under audit is invalid.
Note also that the White House has not provided proof that Trump’s past tax returns are actually under audit.
He has used the “you learn little/nothing from them” excuse 7 times.
But tax returns inform us of who an individual owes money to, what his investments are, who his business partners are, and how much money his keeps in foreign accounts.
This information is vital in assessing whether the president may have conflicts of interest between his financial interests and his role as a policy-maker.
Moreover, tax returns inform us of how much money the president has made. This information is particularly prescient in the case of an individual for whom his business acumen was a central argument for why he is qualified to hold public office.
Tax returns would also tell us how much money the President has given to charity, information which would be useful to voters in assessing whether a politician is genuinely committed to advancing the social interest.
And the “I’ve released financial disclosures” excuse doesn’t help him here either because financial disclosures, unlike tax returns, are not legally required to be accurate and The Guardian has reported that there is at least one discrepancy between what is claimed on Trump’s financial disclosure form and what Trump has claimed elsewhere.
Moreover, the “What about Hilary’s emails?” excuse does not hold up either: the misdeeds of one individual do not absolve those of another.
And regardless of who may or may not care about them and how complex they may be, it is undemocratic not to allow voters a chance to fully assess any possible conflicts of interest their elected officials may have or to make determinations about how successful the person has been in their past careers and what social causes they have donated to.
So the “nobody cares,” “only reporters care,” “maybe after I’m out of office,” “they’re big and complex,” and “I got elected without releasing them” arguments do not hold up either.
President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is a deviation from a democratic norm which has existed for decades. It has meant that the public is unable to assess any possible conflicts of interest that may exist, and thus, is unable to assess whether the President is acting in the best interests of voters. It has also meant that voters in the 2016 election did not have the information required to assess candidate Trump’s claims about his business acumen and charitable giving.
To prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future, Congress should pass legislation –with a veto proof majority – which legally mandates that all presidential nominees must release their tax returns for a specified number of years preceding the start of their campaign.
Deviating from the Democratic Norm of Presidential Nominees Releasing their Personal Tax Returns to the Public
The Headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington D.C. Photograph: Corruption Watch.