The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is why every president must disclose his tax returns

A courtroom sketch depicts Rick Gates, right, answering questions from prosecutor Greg Andres as he testifies in the trial of Paul Manafort, seated second from left, at the Alexandria Federal Courthouse in Alexandria on Monday. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III presides as Manafort’s attorneys, including Kevin Downing, left, and Thomas Zehnle, third from left, listen. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

“Do any of these guys pay their taxes?” It’s not an unreasonable question to ask of the sort of characters in President Trump’s orbit. At the ongoing trial of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, we got a peek at the extent of the alleged theft — yes, theft — from taxpayers. The Post reports:

Jurors have already heard Paul Manafort’s accountant testify about how Manafort recorded what she believed were fictitious loans on his taxes to reduce the amount he’d have to pay the IRS. She said Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates, was intimately involved in that effort. … Prosecutors showed jurors a familiar, 2015 email in which one of Manafort’s accountants told Gates that in order to reduce a tax bill Manafort was facing, they would have to claim Manafort had an outstanding loan. Gates told jurors that he had been “tasked” by Manafort with initiating the exchange, because Manafort was upset about the taxes he would have to pay. …
He said too that he and Manafort had discussions over the years about whether Manafort’s overseas accounts needed to be disclosed. This is a key point to the prosecutors’ case because it is illegal to knowingly fail to disclose such accounts to the IRS.

Overseas accounts. Misrepresented income. The shenanigans sound like something out of “Law & Order.” There’s more:

Gates said they set up various accounts to accept payments from the Ukrainian businessmen for whom they worked. Those businessmen routed the payments through companies that similarly disguised their involvement. At one point, Gates said, when Manafort learned that his name was connected to an account, he grew concerned. Gates, too, said he asked for his own name to be removed from an account to which it was connected.

And Gates confessed that he cheated on his taxes as well. Speaking of which, now we hear Trump attorney Michael Cohen may be under investigation for, you guessed it, tax fraud. Cohen has not been charged with anything and enjoys the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal reports:

In previously unreported developments, federal prosecutors in New York are examining whether Mr. Cohen committed tax fraud, people familiar with the investigation said.
Federal authorities are assessing whether Mr. Cohen’s income from his taxi-medallion business was underreported in federal tax returns, one of the people said. That income included hundreds of thousands of dollars received in cash and other payments over the last five years, the person said.
Prosecutors also are looking into whether any bank employees improperly allowed Mr. Cohen to obtain loans for which he didn’t provide adequate documentation, people familiar with the matter said. In particular, federal investigators are looking closely at Mr. Cohen’s relationship with Sterling National Bank — which provided financing for Mr. Cohen’s taxi-medallion business — including whether Mr. Cohen inflated the value of any of his assets as collateral for loans, according to people familiar with the matter.

There are two takeaways. First, very few presidents have ever had even one tax cheat in their inner circles. Trump may have had a bunch. It’s not fair to assume that if Trump cronies cheated on their taxes, then he must have as well. It is, however, fair to observe that Trump had an affinity with people who had a huge sense of entitlement, a high-flying lifestyle and a belief that the laws apply only to little people.

More importantly, we can never ever again elect a president who has not disclosed his taxes for a reasonable number of years. And that includes 2020. Democrats need to put on their to-do list — if they win the House — a bill to require disclosure of a president’s tax returns. Federal election law already requires candidates for federal office to make all sorts of financial disclosures; tax returns now must be added to the list. Political parties should require it as well before allowing candidates to participate in their nominating process — although the corrupted GOP will not do so. Regardless of the party, we are now getting another look at how individuals may conceal vast sums of money, misrepresent their wealth for the purpose of obtaining bank loans and end up at the mercy of others to keep their secrets.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Trump demonstrated that ethical and political norms are not sufficient to insulate our democracy from corruption. Disclosure of tax returns, severing of ties to ongoing business operations, a complete ban on receipt of foreign moneys and strict enforcement of conflict-of-interest laws for the president and vice president are essential. Trump and his associates, if nothing else, have made this abundantly clear.

Donald Trump defended his decision not to release his tax returns, saying the American people "don’t care at all." (Video: The Washington Post)