Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns. He was the only candidate who refused to do so, and in fact was the first nominee in over 40 years not to do so. When asked, the Trump camp’s response was always the same: he’s under audit. When the audit is done, he will release. This claim does not pass muster, as the I.R.S. has said anyone can feel free to release their tax returns at any time, regardless of whether an audit is occurring.
The Trump camp tried to drop the pretense after the election, saying they weren’t releasing the returns because they were irrelevant. Shortly before inauguration, Trump said, “The only one who cares about my tax returns are the reporters.” Kellyanne Conway repeated the claim weeks later, saying, “The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.” Officially, the White House position is still that Trump will release his tax returns when the (possibly fictional) I.R.S. audit is over. A day after the above remarks, Conway walked back her statement, tweeting, “On taxes, answers (& repeated questions) are same from campaign: POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is done.” Weeks ago, Sean Spicer repeated the official White House line, claiming, “He’s still under audit.”
It’s abundantly clear that Trump has no intention of releasing his tax returns, and it’s clear that he never did. The business about the audit was a ridiculous lie from the beginning. He didn’t release them, because he didn’t want to, and because he believed he could get away with not doing it.
Trump may be right that people don’t care. Polls indicate otherwise, but it clearly occupies a low place on the list of priorities for most people. No Republican in Congress has publicly called for Trump to release his tax returns, and even most opponents of Trump have given up asking. It isn’t going to happen.
The fact that he hasn’t released them, though, should give people pause, especially people who supported him. I would really press Trump supporters to think about why he hasn’t released them. His audit claim was an obvious lie, and while not releasing his tax returns did not cause Trump to lose the election, the decision probably hurt him. Throughout the campaign, it was an easy hit on Trump. Since the election, the fact that he won’t release them only fuels speculation about whether he’s hiding financial ties to Russia, or to other nations.
Trump has gotten away with not releasing his tax returns, but releasing them – assuming they are clean – would clearly be good for him. It would take away one of his opponents’ largest and most persistent targets.
Trump made a decision, though, to hide what’s in his tax returns from the public. He decided that getting hit for being secretive was better than being transparent. This is a decision that only makes sense if whatever Trump is hiding is worse than the political heat he has taken for hiding it. There are, to my mind, four reasons he might have opted for secrecy:
1. He pays little in taxes. If the returns showed, as the 1995 returns obtained by the New York Times showed, that Trump pays little or nothing in taxes, it would hurt him, but the damage would be limited. Trump and his surrogates have made the case, which most of his supporters seem to buy, that Trump paying little in taxes is evidence of his intelligence.
2. He’s not as rich as he says he is. I actually think this is the most likely reason Trump won’t release his returns. He cares immensely about how he is perceived, and if his tax returns indicate he isn’t worth the $10 billion he claims he is, that could be embarrassing for him. Still, while it would be embarrassing, it wouldn’t be scandalous. The revelation would provide fodder for some jokes at his expense, but wouldn’t be grounds for an investigation or impeachment. It would be slightly embarrassing, nothing more.
3. They shed light on shady business dealings. The Trump Organization is not a publicly traded company, and so we really have very little idea where Trump’s money is held. His tax returns would give us access to that information. They could show that he is being paid by unseemly people, or that he owes money to foreign governments. They could show if his name is being licenced to projects that are connected to criminal organizations, authoritarian governments, or corrupt oligarchs. They could show payments from domestic figures connected to policy (lobbyists, for instance). Trump dealings that we know about indicate that his organization does not carefully vet who he goes into business with. As long as the other party can pay, it does not seem to matter to the Trump’s what they have done. We know about some of these dealings, and there are likely more that his tax returns would reveal. If he released the returns and they showed he was
4. They could give investigative journalists the dots they need to uncover a scandal. The returns could conceivably reveal the names of Trump-connected shell companies he uses to launder money or evade paying taxes. The returns would simply give people who are interested in bringing down the Trump presidency more leads to follow than they currently have.
The possibilities range from embarrassing to criminal. There is almost no chance that there’s an innocent explanation for why Trump decided to break 40 years of norms. He’s hiding something, and if he can help it, he will keep it that way.
Those who supported Trump should take the time to think about this. Why would he hide his tax returns from them? Why does he think they don’t care? He said he would “drain the swamp,” but he won’t take a proactive step to show he isn’t corrupt. Why would he tell a blatant lie for over a year to keep from being transparent? I think Trump supporters should ask themselves, above all, if there is anything the returns could show that would make them abandon him. If the answer is yes, then Trump is wrong. People do care, and he has an obligation to show them that he’s not a crook.