Some Tax Day traditions have developed over the years, like grumbling about the complexity of the system and complaining about wasteful government spending. Here’s another thing that deserves to become a widely shared tradition.
We have the right to know why the president of the United States continues to hide his tax returns from us. While we should have seen them years ago, this is not an old, irrelevant story. In fact, seeing them is more important now than it’s ever been.
President Trump has been lying about this question from the beginning. In 2014, he told an interviewer, “If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns. Absolutely.” When he ran, he said “I will absolutely give my returns but I’m being audited now for two or three years, so I can’t do it until the audit is finished.” This was completely false: The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t prevent anyone from publicly releasing their tax returns while they’re being audited. Then when Trump took office, he and and his aides switched gears to argue that this was all settled by the election.
In the past, a president’s tax returns (or those of candidates) tended not to be very interesting. Politicians might have a salary, royalties from books, mutual funds, speaking fees and so on. But Trump was different. In fact, there has never been a president for whom it was more important that we see his returns. Trump owns a large private company that is set up as an intricate network of hundreds of subsidiary organizations. In places all over the world, it makes deals with local developers, who are often engaged in questionable relationships with corrupt governments.
Every time journalists take a hard look at one of Trump’s projects, they seem to uncover a web of shady dealings, often involving oligarchs from the former Soviet Union. Unless you’re pathologically obsessed with following Trump news, you probably haven’t heard much about the Kazakhstan connection to the failed Trump Soho, the failed Trump project in the former Soviet republic of Georgia or the failed Trump Tower in Toronto, to name just a few. All were complicated stories that raised troubling questions about the way Trump and his cronies do business, and with whom.
But there’s a missing piece in every one of those stories, a black hole at their center. How much is Trump making? Where is his money coming from? To whom does he owe money? Whose interest might he be pursuing, and who has influence over him? We can’t seriously answer those questions unless we see his tax returns.
And just as no sane person believed him when he said he’d be releasing his returns once his audit was over (by the way, isn’t it over by now?), no one really believed him when he said he was separating from his business as president. You’ll recall that dramatic press conference featuring stacks of blank folders containing what were most likely blank papers, which Trump claimed were documents he had signed turning over control of the business to his sons. Do you really think Trump isn’t closely monitoring what goes on with his business? Do you think Eric says to him, “We’re thinking about this deal,” and the president says, “Stop right there, Eric — you know I can’t hear anything about this. I’m focused on the country”?
In everything Trump has done since the election — the way he doubled the membership fee at Mar-a-Lago, the way he continues to promote his hotels and resorts, the way he charges the Secret Service for using golf carts when they’re protecting him at his properties — Trump has made clear to the world that he’s open for business, and he’d appreciate it if you sent some money his way. Foreign governments know that, as does everyone else who might want to exert some influence with the administration.
I’m certain that when this question first came up, Trump made a calculation. Refusing to do what every president and major party nominee since Richard Nixon half a century ago had done would mean a good deal of controversy and criticism, he knew. But he plainly believed that revealing his tax returns would be even worse. Trump isn’t keeping them secret because he’s so modest that he doesn’t want all the kudos he’d receive once the returns are public and everyone realizes what a savvy businessman he is and how generous is his charitable giving.
It’s more than obvious that he has kept them secret for a simple reason: He has something to hide. And that very fact makes it all the more urgent that the public see what’s in his returns, so we can understand just how bad it is.
At this point, no one can deny that Trump is never, ever going to release his returns voluntarily. So the only answer is to compel him to do so. If Democrats take back the House, they’ll be able to: According to an obscure provision in the law, the congressional tax-writing committees have the power to demand anyone’s tax returns from the IRS, and then make them public if they choose. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee tried to invoke this law and get the returns last September, but Republicans voted down the move. If Democrats have the majority come next year, this should be one of their first orders of business.
Then maybe we’ll learn just what Trump has worked so hard to keep secret from all of us.