Though candidates for the U.S. presidency aren’t required by law to show voters their tax returns, they almost always do so as a gesture of personal disclosure. Donald Trump is a rare exception. During his campaign, and in more than two years as president, he has declined to make public his tax documents. Now opposition Democrats, who took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January, want to use their new power to get them.
1. Why hasn’t Trump released his tax returns?
His most consistent explanation has been that, at the advice of his lawyers, he won’t do so while they are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service -- and he says he has been audited constantly since 2004. On other occasions, he’s also said that there’s “nothing to learn from” his returns, that they are “extremely complex” so people “wouldn’t understand them,” and that Americans who aren’t reporters don’t “care at all” about what’s in them. No law prevents him from releasing returns being audited by the IRS.
2. Why is the IRS auditing his tax returns?
For the returns he filed in the years before becoming president, there’s no way to know that -- or even to confirm that his returns really are under active audit. It’s true that an audit, once begun by the IRS, can take several years to complete, particularly for wealthy individuals like Trump with stakes in many business entities. So Trump could easily be under audit for the remainder of his presidency. (All presidents and vice presidents are audited annually during the years they are in office, but those audits are completed relatively quickly.)
3. Is he the only president not to share tax returns?
Over the last four decades, only Gerald Ford -- who became president in 1974, then ran unsuccessfully for a full term in 1976 -- also refused to release at least one of his annual tax returns, choosing instead to offer the public a summary of his tax data. Other presidents and presidential nominees have released one year’s worth (Republican Ronald Reagan) to 33 years’ worth (Republican Jeb Bush) of returns for the public to review.
4. What’s so interesting about Trump’s tax returns?
His unwillingness to release the documents has heightened speculation about what information about loans, business ties or his wealth they could contain. There are questions about what if any financial dealings he’s had with Russia, what conflicts of interest his business and political roles might pose, how philanthropic he is, how much Trump might benefit from the tax-cut plan he signed and, perhaps most directly, how much or how little he’s paid in taxes. (Glimpses into leaked tax information obtained by the New York Times showed Trump claimed operating losses of $916 million in 1995, which would have protected him for up to 18 years’ worth of taxes.) It’s by no means certain that Trump’s personal returns would answer any of those questions.
5. How might Trump be forced to release his returns?
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, used a 1924 law that allows the chairmen of the three tax committees in Congress to ask the U.S. Treasury secretary for the returns of any taxpayer -- even the president’s. (The Republicans who controlled Congress for most of the Trump presidency had this same power but showed no interest in using it.) Since April 3, when Neal officially requested six years’ worth of Trump’s returns from the IRS, the Trump administration has pushed back on the legality of the request. Should it get the returns, Neal’s committee could vote to release them (or a summary of their findings) to all 435 members of the House. That would effectively make the information contained in the returns, if not the returns themselves, public.
6. How long will the fight go on?
Months or possibly years. Republicans say Neal’s request is a violation of Trump’s privacy and not part of legitimate government oversight. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he has concerns that the request is weaponizing the tax code and would ask the Justice Department to weigh in on if it’s legal. Democrats are likely to issue a subpoena or sue if there is a delay, raising the prospect of a protracted legal battle that could potentially drag on to or even beyond the 2020 presidential election.
7. What does Trump say?
After Democrats won enough House seats to take control, Trump reiterated that he might consider releasing his tax returns -- but only after the audit is concluded. “Nobody turns over a return when it’s under audit,” he said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Davison in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Andrew Harris in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joe Schneider, Laurence Arnold
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