Presidential candidates are under no legal obligation to release their tax returns, but every major-party nominee for more than 40 years has done so. The lone exception, so far, is Donald Trump. Is there something he doesn’t want voters to see?
Trump’s position on disclosing his tax filings, like his positions on other issues, has been all over the map.
In 2012, the New York developer faulted then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney for not releasing his returns soon enough. If he were running, Trump told an interviewer, he would gladly make his tax returns public: “I actually think that it’s a great thing.” On “Meet the Press” last January, Trump indicated that his taxes were “all approved and very beautiful” and that he was “absolutely” getting ready to release them. But during a debate in February he backpedaled, saying he wouldn’t release his taxes until an IRS audit was finished. Then he claimed in May that “there’s nothing to learn” from his tax returns anyway.
In reality, there is plenty that voters can learn when candidates make their tax records public.
For example, Barack Obama’s returns showed only a pittance given to charity — until 2005, when he began being spoken of as a presidential contender and his donation rate dramatically soared. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s returns revealed that he paid $1.9 million in taxes on $13.7 million in income, for an effective tax rate of only 14.1 percent. Richard Nixon’s IRS returns contained the revelation that he had managed to shave his tax liability in 1970 to just a few hundred dollars by (legally) donating his vice-presidential papers to the National Archives and taking a whopping deduction.
Trump’s claim that he can’t release his tax returns while he is being audited has no basis in fact. Nixon, the first president to make his tax returns public, was being audited when he did so. In any case, Trump’s tax returns through 2008 have all been cleared by the IRS, according to his lawyers, but he hasn’t agreed to release those either.
Romney, who calls it “disqualifying” for any modern candidate to withhold tax returns from the voters, has suggested that Trump is sitting on his records to hide “a bombshell of unusual size.” Fortune magazine editor Shawn Tully thinks it likely that Trump’s returns would prove that he is far less wealthy than he claims to be. Billionaire Warren Buffett, meanwhile, has offered to release his own tax returns — “any place, any time between now and election” — if Trump will do the same.
To be sure, Buffett isn’t running for president; Hillary Clinton is. No one would call the Democratic nominee a paragon of transparency and disclosure, as the controversies over her e-mail and Wall Street speeches have made quite clear. But when it comes to letting the public see her tax returns, Clinton is as transparent as they come: Links to eight years of complete tax returns are currently posted on her campaign website, and those are only the most recent of the more than 30 years’ worth of returns that she and her husband have released.
To repeat, Trump is not legally bound to make his tax filings public. But he gave his promise months ago that he “absolutely” would. If he has nothing to hide, he absolutely should.