As of Sunday, I was feeling vindicated by the fact that Kellyanne Conway had confirmed what I’ve been saying in every available forum for months: that despite his claim that he would release his tax returns as soon as he was done being audited by the IRS, the truth is that Donald Trump will never — never, ever, ever — release those returns, as every presidential nominee and every president has done for the past four decades.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Conway was asked for a response to a petition on the White House website calling for Trump to release his returns (which had 265,000 signers as of this morning). She replied: “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. They voted for him.” So there you have it.
For the record, people do care — in the most recent Post polling on the question, 74 percent of Americans, and 53 percent of Republicans, said he should release them. But that’s not the point. Even if public opinion was on his side on this question, keeping the returns secret would still be a remarkable display of contempt for the public’s right to know, not to mention highly dangerous given the unique nature of Trump’s finances and the opportunities he has to use the presidency to enrich himself and his family.
But then this morning, Conway went to Twitter to change her story:
On taxes, answers (& repeated questions) are same from campaign: POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed. #nonews
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) January 23, 2017
As always, we must note that this excuse for keeping the returns secret is entirely bogus. The IRS doesn’t prevent anyone from releasing his or her tax returns during an audit. It’s not like releasing them publicly is going to hurt him in his negotiations with the IRS over it (after all, they already have them — they’re the IRS). For that matter, we don’t even know if Trump is in fact being audited. Despite repeated requests, he has never produced an audit letter from the IRS proving that he’s under audit.
There’s virtually no doubt that Trump is hiding something. As I’ve said before, if Trump’s returns showed him to be engaged in various admirable business ventures, a generous donor to charity, and possessed of the wealth he claims, he’d release them in a second.
It’s critical to understand that there has never in American history been a president for whom it was more important that the public see his tax returns. No president has had the kind of complex web of financial interests that Trump does, a network of companies and arrangements and partnerships that provide extraordinary opportunities to essentially sell the presidency. Yet he declined to divest from his company, maintains ongoing business enterprises that allow money to be funneled to him by both domestic and foreign sources, and refuses to tell the public exactly what those enterprises are or how much money he takes in from them.
And we obviously can’t trust anything Trump tells us on this subject unless it’s independently verified. For instance, remember how he said he was going to be stepping away from his business? As this ProPublica report published Friday explains, “To transfer ownership of his biggest companies, Trump has to file a long list of documents in Florida, Delaware and New York. We asked officials in each of those states whether they have received the paperwork. As of 3:15 p.m. today, the officials said they have not.”
Maybe they’ll get around to it. And maybe Trump will keep his promise to never even talk about his businesses with his sons Don and Eric, who are supposed to be running them. But even this arrangement is wholly inadequate, since Donald Trump is still the one cashing the checks, even if his sons are managing the day-to-day operations. That means that there are plenty of ways for people, organizations, companies and foreign governments to line his pockets.
Which is why a lawsuit is being filed Monday accusing Trump of being in violation of the emoluments clause. The plaintiff is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal group, and they’re being aided by an all-star team of law professors and government ethics experts:
The suit, which will not seek any monetary damages, will ask a federal court in New York to order Mr. Trump to stop taking payments from foreign government entities. Such payments, it says, include those from patrons at Trump hotels and golf courses; loans for his office buildings from certain banks controlled by foreign governments; and leases with tenants like the Abu Dhabi tourism office, a government enterprise.
It’s hard to know at this point whether they’ll prevail. But unless it gets thrown out on an issue like whether CREW has standing to sue (a possibility), just the fact that the suit goes forward could be enormously significant. Here’s why:
[Ethics expert Norman] Eisen said the legal team intended to use the lawsuit to try to get a copy of Mr. Trump’s federal tax returns, which are needed to properly assess what income or other payments or loans Mr. Trump has received from foreign governments.
This brings up my final point. We need Trump’s recent returns to know what kinds of business dealings he’s currently enmeshed in. But just as importantly if not more so, we need the future ones, so we can understand how his income changes and grows while he’s president. Past presidents have released their returns as soon as they were filed, often right around April 15 of every year.
If you think Trump would ever do this voluntarily, you haven’t been paying attention. But a court order might be just the thing to pry them from his grip.