The Washington Post

Mitt Romney’s tax returns: Why what’s ‘legally required’ might not be enough

In an interview to air Thursday, Ann Romney said she and husband Mitt Romney have done “what’s legally required” in terms of releasing their tax returns. (Steve Helber/AP)

In the “Rock Center” interview with Ann Romney scheduled to air Thursday night, the GOP candidate’s wife will apparently speak about her family’s background, her battle with multiple sclerosis and her children.

But the exchange that’s making headlines is the one in which she says the couple will refuse to release any more of their tax returns.

“We have been very transparent to what’s legally required of us,” Romney said during the interview, adding later “we have done what’s legally required and there’s going to be no more tax releases given.”

This is not really news, of course. By now it seems the Romneys have made up their mind not to release any more returns, no matter how much pressure they get from Democrats or how many controversial accusations Harry Reid makes.

But what is notable about her statement, as The Fix’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake point out, is her repeated reference to the couple doing what’s “legally required.” As The Fix writes, Romney “seems to miss the point that the debate over their tax returns isn’t playing out in a court of law, it’s playing out in a political campaign. And the rules of engagement and the burden of proof in political fights are far different than in legal brouhahas.”

The rules are also far different when it comes to what we expect our leaders to say. What if, for instance, a CEO chose to lay off a few dozen people but did so (in a situation where it’s not mandated by law) without giving any severance pay? If his excuse to these employees was “it’s not legally required,” how would people respond? Or what if a CEO with an illness that prevented him from doing his job simply stated “it’s not legally required” to disclose more about his health condition? Even if people understood his right to privacy, might that caginess not raise more questions than it answered?

I’m not saying Romney is violating any ethical wrongs in not sharing more about what he’s paid in taxes. And he may be right that doing so would do little to quiet the issue and would only serve his competitors’ best interest.

But what I agree is a problem is the “legally required” explanation. (Sure, it was Ann who said it, but she has been an active enough part of the campaign that one has to think it is an accepted position.) As a rule, most people expect more from their leaders than just doing what’s mandated from them by a court of law. They expect leaders to maximize transparency, be candid and forthright, and share as much information as possible. When they’re asked to share more than makes them comfortable, or disclose more than they think necessary, they give straightforward answers about why they won’t and don’t offer reasons that raise more questions than they answer.

Romney’s returns do not appear to be an issue that will go away anytime soon. The taxes that wealthy Americans pay are a central issue in the campaign, and a very wealthy American is running for president. Saying that releasing more returns will only bring on more attacks is unlikely to end the questions about Romney’s taxes. And saying it’s not “legally required” could very well raise more of them.

More from On Leadership:

The kind of leader Paul Ryan would be

On religion, leadership and gender

U-Va. and Penn State crises do not point to a broken system

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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