Donald Trump still won’t release his tax return, breaking a precedent followed by every presidential nominee since 1976.
Behind the various excuses — he’s under audit, Hillary Clinton won’t share her deleted e-mails — Trump seems to be making a straightforward political calculation: Whatever the cost of concealing his tax returns, releasing them would presumably be far worse.
He may well be right. Tax filings can be profoundly, even dangerously, revealing. Mitt Romney’s returns showed him paying less in federal taxes than many middle-class families. Hillary Clinton’s 1978-1979 returns provoked charges of insider trading.
Trump’s returns would similarly expose some well-guarded secrets and possibly generate speculation: how much he really earns, what loopholes he exploits to reduce his taxes, whether he’s as charitable as he claims, how much money he owes, and to whom he owes it. All these details paint a picture of Trump’s financial life more detailed than anything he’s filed with the Federal Election Committee.
Trump’s resistance to releasing his returns suggest these details would be more than just embarrassing; possibly, they’d be damning for Trump’s image. Here are a few of the big questions that his tax returns would answer.
How much does Trump actually pay in taxes? During Monday’s debate, Trump seemed to take pride in having avoided taxes. “That makes me smart,” was his response to Clinton’s charge that he sometimes paid no federal income tax at all — though he has since tried to walk back those comments.
Not only would tax returns settle the issue, they’d show whether Trump uses any complex or controversial financial maneuvering to keep his tax rate down.
When Mitt Romney reluctantly released his returns in 2012, the public learned that a huge chunk of his earnings passed through the now-infamous “carried-interest loophole,” dramatically lowering his tax rate. That information opened him to criticism that he wasn’t paying his fair share.
Trump’s returns could have a similar effect, exposing the tax-avoiding power of some arcane loophole that helps the candidate lower his tax bill.
How much does Trump give to charity? This has become one of the most bizarre stories of the campaign, thanks in large part to the relentless investigation of Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. Fahrenthold has spent months calling charitable organizations to see whether they’ve received money from Donald Trump. Time and again, the answer has been no.
Over the last 25 years, it looks like Trump has donated about $5 million of his own money to charitable causes. That’s hardly nothing, but it’s a very small share of his total worth.
Trump’s campaign continues to insist on the candidate’s generosity, but it won’t provide the names of the organizations who’ve benefited.
Trump’s personal giving is only half the scandal, though. The Republican nominee also has his own foundation, which doesn’t seem to operate like a traditional family foundation. Among other things: Trump hasn’t contributed any of his own money since 2008, and he’s used foundation money to settle legal problems and purchase personal items.
A look through Trump’s tax returns would help clarify whether these accusations are true.
To whom does Trump owe money? On one level, this is merely a question about the state of Trump’s business empire: are his debts reasonable compared to his assets?
But it’s also possible that Trump’s debts could produce some awkward political entanglements.
Back in 2008, Trump’s son and business partner, Donald Jr., said that Russian investors made up a disproportionate share of their assets, adding, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Owing money to Russian investors — and also Chinese banks — could have real foreign policy implications, should Trump become president. Particularly if he decides to hold on to his business empire — which he is actually allowed to do.
How much is he worth, really? This is a sensitive issue for Trump. Years ago, when he agreed to participate in a roast on Comedy Central, he had but one rule: Comedians could make fun of his family, his hair, his failed products, but they could not question the extent of his wealth.
Truth be told, the tax returns wouldn’t necessarily reveal his true worth. They tell a much narrower story, following the thread of year-to-year income rather than the broad value of his buildings and brand.
Still, if the income numbers look low, that might imply a lower overall level of wealth than Trump has publicly portrayed.
What does it all add up to?
In the end, it’s very hard to know exactly what we’d find in Trump’s tax returns, so a lot of this must count as speculation. But one thing we do know is that tax returns can be extremely revealing.
When Bill Clinton ran for president, he released tax records going back to 1980, which prompted people to ask: “What happened in 1979 and 1978.” Outside pressure eventually compelled the Clintons to release those earlier documents, which did in fact contain a remarkable revelation: Hillary Clinton turned $1,000 into $100,000 with bets in the cattle futures market, despite having no experience in that arena. No wrongdoing was ever proved, but a pair of academics pegged the odds of that good fortune at 1 in 31 trillion.
Perhaps the most telling example, however, comes from the last president who refused to release his tax returns: Richard Nixon.
When Nixon declared “I am not a crook,” he wasn’t talking about Watergate. He was talking about his taxes.
Sources were suggesting that Nixon had exploited a lapsed tax loophole to significantly reduce his payments. Washington was outraged, and the IRS was about to audit the president of the United States.
The fuller version of Nixon’s response is especially telling: “I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”
Words of wisdom from Richard Nixon. The American people do need to know whether their president is a crook. Presumably the same applies to candidates.Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.