Remember back in early 2016 when Donald Trump, who was still regarded as something of a long shot for the presidency, promised he would disclose his tax returns publicly – just like every other candidate had done voluntarily since 1973?
“I have big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we'll be working that over in the next period of time,” Trump said on “Meet the Press.”
The “next period of time” turned out to mean “never.”
Once Trump became skittish about releasing his returns he landed on one recurring reason for why he couldn’t put them out there, as forever memorialized when he was asked about his taxes during a presidential debate.
“As far as my return, I want to file it, except for many years, I've been audited every year,” he said in Houston on Feb. 25, 2016. “Twelve years or something like that. Every year, they audit me, audit me, audit me.”
An audit doesn’t prevent anyone from releasing their tax returns. If they really want to, they can go right ahead. Richard Nixon – RICHARD NIXON – released his tax returns when he was being audited. And it is extremely rare, also bordering on never, for someone to be audited several years in a row, much less 12. So maybe Trump hasn’t been entirely forthright about his audits. But who knows? When asked during one interview why he thought he had been targeted, he gave a faith-based response. “Well, maybe because of the fact that I'm a strong Christian, and I feel strongly about it, maybe there’s a bias,” he once offered.
In the end, Trump, who regards disclosure of his tax returns as a financial form of open-heart surgery, decided that people should just stop bothering him. “I'm worth more than $10 billion by any stretch of the imagination. Has tremendous cash. Tremendous cash flow. You don’t learn much from tax returns,” he told “Meet the Press” several months before Election Day in 2016. “But I would love to give the tax returns. But I can't do it until I'm finished with the audit.”
All that talk of an audit may have put Trump in a corner. On Wednesday night, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee asked the Internal Revenue Service to release six years of the president’s personal and business tax returns, attributing their request to Congress’s oversight role. Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the committee, said he was making the request precisely because he wanted to make sure that the IRS was properly auditing Trump.
Trump has already said he isn’t inclined to release his tax returns in accordance with Neal’s request, so this is certain to ignite a legal battle. In the interests of good government and the avoidance of financial conflicts of interest in the Oval Office, I hope Congress wins this one. And I know, for a fact, that it’s not true that you don’t learn much from a tax return. As I noted back in early 2016, I have seen Trump’s tax returns, and I think you should too.
Trump unsuccessfully sued me in 2006 for libel over a biography I wrote called “TrumpNation,” citing unflattering sections of the book that examined his business record and wealth. He lost the suit in 2011, and during the litigation he was forced to turn over his tax returns to my lawyers.
As I noted in 2016, I think there are five broad categories of disclosure related to his returns that should matter to voters, politicians, and anyone else interested in making sure the White House is conflicts-of-interest free.
1) Income: The returns would offer a gauge of how financially robust the president’s businesses actually are and how much of that money flows to him.
2) Business Activities: Trump has always said that the Trump Organization employs thousands and that U.S. companies shouldn’t relocate overseas and take jobs away from U.S. workers. Tax returns would offer a view of Trump’s global footprint and provide a clearer sense of the size and scope of his company.
3) Charitable Giving: Trump has often bragged about being a dedicated philanthropist. If that’s true, his returns would prove it.
4) Tax Planning: The president uses a lot of shell companies, or LLCs, as part of his business and personal dealings. Some wealthy people have also used shell companies overseas to mask their fortunes and hide the money from authorities. Trump’s returns would show how actively he has used tax havens, if at all.
5) Transparency and Accountability: This may be the most important category of all. Trump is now, arguably, the most powerful and influential man in the world. His tax returns would provide a much clearer picture of potential financial conflicts or pressures that would come to bear on him in the White House. They would also provide a way of monitoring whether the president is more interested in his financial self-interest and deal-making than policy-making.
Neal has only requested six years of Trump’s returns, which is, I think, regrettable. Some of the transactions that may interest investigators the most took place around 15 years ago, when Trump, suddenly flush with cash, went on a shopping spree. He bought and developed golf courses, launched a new hotel and condominium in Chicago, and deepened his involvement with the Trump SoHo Hotel in lower Manhattan.
It is still curious to me how Trump, who always used to finance his transactions with debt, raised the funds to do all that in the mid-2000s and pay cash. To find out, Neal will have to dig deeper than six years ago.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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