Opinion

Donald Trump's Excuse for Not Releasing Tax Returns Is Bogus

09_16_TrumpTaxes_01
09/16/16
In the Magazine
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump looks out at Lake Michigan during a visit to the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 16. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Let’s talk taxes, specifically, Donald Trump’s taxes, because if he is elected President of the United States, that and his many other financial secrets will be all anyone in Washington will be discussing for years to come.

Unlike every other nominee for the presidency over the past four decades, Trump has refused to release his tax returns. He uses the bogus claim that he can’t because he is being audited, an argument Richard Nixon could have used to block releasing his tax returns in the midst of the Watergate scandal, but didn’t (after a lot of delay). Also, Trump’s returns from 2002 through 2008 can be released without an issue—all audits involving them are over. But he wants to pretend—or should I say lie?that turning over records more than a decade old will somehow affect a current audit.

Let’s not pretend: Trump is hiding something. Is he a tax cheat? Does he give nothing to charity? Does he derive income from investments in Ukraine and Russia? Who knows? He has a labyrinthine collection of partnerships, private corporations, holding companies and other investments. America does not know if he is a joint investor with unsavory characters (he has been before) or what financial incentives drive him. So imagine the day after Trump is elected president. If there is a Democratic majority in the Senate—which appears likely—the first subpoena coming out of a congressional committee will be for his tax returns. Whatever nasty secrets they contain will come spilling out. The next set of subpoenas will be for the Trump Organization, the assorted partnerships and family trusts controlled by Trump and his private company, and every other shred of financial information he is hiding. As Nixon once said, in declaring that he welcomed an examination of his taxes, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”

Normally, those subpoenas might be considered fishing expeditions, but in Trump’s case, it will be essential oversight of the executive branch. No one would be able to know if Trump travels to Russia to continue his game of kissy-face with Vladimir Putin because he is acting in the interest of the United States or because he is in a financial deal with the Russian dictator or some of his oligarch pals.

Republicans—and members of the media who aren’t thinking this through—are yipping about potential conflicts of interest for Hillary Clinton because of contributions to the Clinton Foundation when she was secretary of state. This is a legitimate inquiry, but this “scandal” is about money going to charitable efforts all over the globe, with the names of contributors in the public domain. No one has suggested Clinton or any member of her family personally benefited, unless you count the pleasure they might have received in helping battle neglected tropical diseases that ravage underdeveloped nations or from any of the group’s other worthwhile endeavors.

Compare this with the Trump Organization, which is private and secretive. It puts money directly into his pockets and his kids’ pockets. How much? We don’t know. From where? We don’t know. Is the financial benefit Trump receives from the Trump Organization shaping his foreign policy proposals, as vague as they are? We don’t know.

Now dig into Trump’s lie about why he can’t release his tax returns. Pretend the audit argument is legitimate. Fine. Let him keep them secret.

Instead, release the first two pages of his Form 1040, plus his one-page Schedule A dating back to, say, 2006. A decade should suffice. These documents, nothing more than a summary of his tax returns, could not affect any audit. The only thing these three pages reveal is the bottom line; they are like the back-cover description of a book. Even if Trump insists he must keep the metaphorical book hidden, he can at least tell us what it’s about.

Here’s what we would learn from those three pages: Trump’s gross, adjusted gross and net income by type. His total claimed deductions. His effective federal tax rate and the total amount he paid in taxes. His total charitable contributions (since he brags about that so much, he should be willing to reveal them). The amount he paid in state and local taxes, by type. That information would resolve some of the big questions about Trump and his finances.

Trump could also release two other documents without affecting any audit. As my colleague Matt Cooper has written, Trump has yet to prove he is being audited. He could simply release the letter the IRS sends to notify taxpayers their returns are being examined. If it exists, why won’t he release it?

Trump can also make public a sworn affidavit identifying his investors and business partners, as well as his financial relationships with them. It is all likely going to come out through subpoena when he is president; why not let the American people know the answers now?

As we move closer to the election in November, perhaps those reporters following Trump on the campaign trail are going to start recognizing he can release those three pages from his taxes, the audit letter and the affidavit without causing a ripple at the IRS audit office. If they really want to do their jobs, they will start pressing Trump for those documents, and his excuses will put the lie to this “I’m under audit” nonsense. My colleagues in the press will soon come to realize that the secrets and potential conflicts hidden in Trump’s finances are far more important than whether Clinton met with a Nobel Prize winner who contributed to the Clinton Foundation when she was secretary of state—as the Associated Press recently huffed and puffed in what was easily the worst article of the election year.

If there is something untoward about Trump’s businesses and personal finances, Americans need to know now, rather than waiting to discover later if that now-hidden information will set off the rumblings of another impeachment when the curtain is pulled back. Running for president is not a game. The White House is not some trophy anyone should be allowed to grab without revealing basic information. Reporters, Democrats and even Republicans should insist that Trump release those three pages, the letter and the affidavit.

And if he refuses? Then voters should reject him. Trump may love Putin, but he shouldn’t be allowed to keep his finances secret, as do all the other cronies of the Russian dictator.