With Tax Day approaching and a potentially Swiss-cheesed Mueller report due out soon, a friendly reminder: Yes, we still need to see President Trump’s tax returns.
Because we still need to know whether Trump has been running the executive branch in America’s interest or his own.
Jimmy Carter famously placed his peanut farm in a blind trust during his presidency to avoid any conflicts of interest. Trump, by contrast, has a sprawling, multibillion-dollar, multinational firm from which he has not divested, and says his sons are running the day-to-day operations. Not only has he defied norms about divestment, he has also defied norms about disclosure — including by refusing to release his tax returns despite a four-decades-long expectation for presidents to do so.
As a result, we know precious little about Trump’s financial relationships, including his business partners, sources of income, or who holds callable loans. What Trump does tell us about his company — including whether it was still negotiating Trump Tower Moscow late into the 2016 presidential campaign — often turns out to be false.
True, there is no legal requirement for presidents to release their tax documents. Congress, however, has the power and duty to demand them as part of its oversight responsibilities. In fact, under a century-old law, the House Ways and Means chairman need only send a request to the treasury secretary, who “shall furnish” them. As my colleague Harry Litman has explained, “shall” means “shall,” not “may” or “might.”
Congress gave itself this power in the wake of two scandals, one of which related to whether a treasury secretary had held on to too many business interests while serving in government. A Republican Congress invoked this power in a high-profile 2014 case, and no tax or legal scholar I’ve interviewed is aware of the treasury secretary ever denying such a request.
Nonetheless, the Democratic-controlled House has been slow-walking its own request for Trump’s tax documents. Perhaps Democratic leaders fear a protracted legal battle with the administration, or political blowback now that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has completed his investigation. But from Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, it’s not clear whether the special counsel believed it was within his remit to investigate all the possible financial transgressions and conflicts of interest that reporters have uncovered over the past several years.
Based on that reportage, what might we learn from seeing Trump’s tax returns?
We would probably learn that he’s been paying very little in taxes. If he actually has been paying a lot, we might discover that the Republican tax cut he championed benefited him enormously, despite his claims to the contrary. We’d learn how much he has really given to charity, and whether he has been inflating his income and net worth over the years.
That would all be interesting, sure. But the most pressing reason for seeing Trump’s tax returns isn’t to satisfy morbid curiosity. It’s to answer much more pressing questions about whether he has committed financial crimes or has major conflicts of interest.
Documents obtained by journalists raise serious questions about tax and financial practices that Trump and his family members have employed for decades, as do other hard-to-explain public comments and behaviors.
Remember, this is a guy to whom banks largely stopped lending money. He’s been paying hundreds of millions of dollars in cash for major real estate purchases, including money-losing golf courses. This makes little business sense — debt is highly tax-advantaged in real estate finance — and in other cases has been a sign of money-laundering.
Which is why the main questions we still need answers to are: From whom has Trump been getting money? To whom does Trump still owe funds, and under what circumstances might they be able to demand immediate repayment? And how much has his income gone up since he became president?
To be clear: Trump’s personal, business and gift tax returns alone may not yield all these answers. But if the Trump Organization has truly been under “continuous” audit for more than a decade, as Trump claims, the Internal Revenue Service will have other work papers that might fill in the blanks.
Those work papers are available to Congress, too, under the same authority that allows the request of the main return. And, at the very least, they would provide a road map for better understanding Trump’s financial entanglements — something a true public servant would have voluntarily turned over to the voters years ago.