At some point this week, the House and the Senate are likely to approve a massive income-tax overhaul that will have a sweeping effect on families nationwide. How the legislation will affect the family living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, though, isn’t entirely clear.
With votes of approval expected on the tax bill Tuesday and President Trump’s signature making it law at some point soon thereafter, it’s worth revisiting the awkward years-long dance that led Trump to break with four decades of tradition and keep his tax returns private. That is the inescapable conflict at the heart of the reform effort. A billionaire president already under fire for blurring the line between his private economic interests and his official duties will sign into law the most sweeping changes to the nation’s tax policy in decades, and we have no idea how it will affect him personally.
Here’s how we got here.
Before the campaign
Trump’s appearance on the national political stage was a function of his willingness to leverage his celebrity to promote the fringe conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
In 2011, Trump used his own tax returns as a bargaining chip in his efforts to criticize Obama. When ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos asked whether he might run for president in 2012, Trump replied that if he did, he would “do a full disclosure of finances” so that Americans could “see what a great job” he’d done with his businesses.
He quickly added an asterisk, though: “Maybe I’m going to do the tax returns when Obama does his birth certificate,” he said. “I may tie my tax returns. I’d love to give my tax returns. I may tie my tax returns into Obama’s birth certificate.”
Stephanopoulos pointed out that past presidents had released their tax returns without qualification. “I don’t think all candidates do,” Trump replied.
After Trump decided not to run in 2012, he criticized the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, for not releasing his tax returns. Speaking to Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren in January 2012, Trump said that “Mitt was hurt really very badly” by having not released his tax returns until just before the election.
“I believe he should have given them April 1,” Trump said, “but I didn’t think going into a little bit of detail without going into a lot of detail was positive thing.”
Later that month, during one of his regular appearances on “Fox and Friends,” Trump said that, despite the scrutiny Romney faced for releasing his returns, “I actually think that it’s a great thing when you can show that you’ve been successful and that you’ve made a lot of money, that you’ve employed a lot of people.”
As 2016 neared, Trump was more adamant about releasing his returns. As noted by National Memo in its timeline of Trump’s comments on his returns, Trump in 2014 told an Irish news program that “if I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely, and I would love to do that.”
The following year, Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he would release his returns if he ran for president.
“How many years back would you go on the day you announce? Three? Five?” Hewitt asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I mean, I actually have not even thought of that, but I would certainly show tax returns if it was necessary.”
During the campaign
Trump did not release any of his tax returns when he announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in June 2015.
Two months later, during an interview on “Face the Nation,” he speculated about tying the release of his tax returns — something every major presidential candidate had done since Gerald R. Ford — to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton producing emails that were deleted from her personal email server when she was secretary of state.
“We’ll see what I’m going to do with tax returns,” Trump said. “I have no major problem with it, but I may tie them to a release of Hillary’s emails.”
Trump also said he “fight[s] like hell to pay as little as possible” in taxes, because, as a businessman, “that’s the way you’re supposed to do it.”
He said it again during an interview on ABC later that year. He told Stephanopoulos, “I’m not going to say” what tax rate he pays, adding, “But at some point I’ll release it. But I pay as little as possible, I’m very proud to tell you.”
Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he would release his returns. “I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful,” Trump said, “and we’ll be working that over in the next period of time.”
“What’s ‘a period of time’?” Todd asked.
“I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I mean, you know, accountants.”
In February 2016, with primaries underway, Trump again claimed several times that he would release his returns in the future.
“They’re very big tax returns,” he said on NBC, when “Today” show host Matt Lauer asked what the hold-up was, “the biggest — I guarantee you this — the biggest ever in the history of what we’re doing. So it’s very complicated stuff. But we’ll be releasing that.” He repeated a line that he’d been using for a while: He pays as little as possible because he “hates the way the government spends my money.”
Romney was skeptical. Later that month, he told Fox News that “I think we have a good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes.”
Asked to respond to Romney on CNN, Trump said: “I’ll make a determination at the right time. I mean no rush to do it. Nobody is bringing it up except to Mitt Romney, and the reason he brings it up is that he lost in the last election and lost very badly.” He said the determination about timing will be made “over the next couple of months.”
That was also the point at which Trump started saying that he couldn’t release his returns because they were under audit, a claim first made during a presidential primary debate.
“I will absolutely give my return,” he said, “but I’m being audited now for two or three [years’ worth] now, so I can’t.” (After the debate, he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he’s audited every year “maybe because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian, and I feel strongly about it and maybe there’s a bias.”)
This becomes his go-to claim: He’s under audit, and until he isn’t, he can’t release his returns. There’s no legal basis for this, as many people quickly noted.
Questions also cropped up about whether he actually was under audit. That April, he released a letter from his tax lawyer saying that his returns from 2008 to 2016 were under audit. Former IRS commissioner Mark Everson told The Washington Post that there was no reason not to release prior years’ returns given that they were out of audit. But Trump had an argument for that, too: “They’re all linked.”
The excuses for not releasing returns piled up. Romney lost, Trump said in July, “because of a couple of really minor items in a tax return.” His tax rate is “none of your business.” He doesn’t think “anybody cares.” There’s “nothing to learn” from the returns that isn’t already in his personal financial disclosure.
“By the way, those give you much more detail than tax returns, okay?” he said that August. “Tax returns give you nothing. Tax returns give you no information.”
He repeated that claim in September during the first presidential debate. There he again said he will eventually release his returns. “I don’t mind releasing,” he said. “I’m under a routine audit, and it’ll be released. And — as soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released.”
Despite that claim, Trump has not released his tax returns.
After the campaign
Once Trump won the election, his team’s arguments against releasing his returns expanded. During his first news conference as president-elect — his first since the previous July, in fact — Trump was asked about releasing his returns.
“The only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, okay?” Trump said. Asked if he didn’t that think the public cared, Trump said: “I don’t think so. I won. I mean, I became president. No, I don’t think they care at all.”
Two days after Trump’s inauguration, adviser Kellyanne Conway repeated the argument that the question of returns was adjudicated in Trump’s favor on Election Day in an interview with ABC News. “The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns,” she said. “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.”
When it came time for Trump to file his taxes in April, the White House was asked if the returns would be released. “The president is under audit,” then-press secretary Sean Spicer replied. He added that “the American people understood [that] when they elected him in November.”
Would the White House ever release Trump’s taxes? “We’ll have to get back to you on that,” Spicer said.
What we know about Trump’s taxes
Over the course of Trump’s life and over the course of the campaign, some details on his taxes have leaked out.
The years for which we have some data are below.
- 1975: $18,714 in federal income taxes paid.
- 1976: $10,843 in federal income taxes paid.
- 1977: $42,386 in federal income taxes paid.
- 1978: No federal income taxes paid.
- 1979: No federal income taxes paid.
- 1984: Probably no federal income taxes paid.
- 1991: Little to no federal income taxes paid.
- 1993: No federal income taxes paid.
- 2005: $38 million in taxes paid, which we know because of a filing leaked to reporter David Cay Johnston. Trump also had a $100 million write-off.
As the debate over the tax overhaul bill has wound on, Trump has repeatedly insisted that he would have higher taxes were it to pass, despite the bill’s focus on relieving taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Because he has not released any of his tax returns, that unlikely claim cannot easily be disproved.
Update: The White House on Tuesday reiterated the claim that Trump would pay more in taxes.