WASHINGTON — Politicians like to bet that reporters and their pesky questions will go away. Too often, they’re right. Thus, the drumbeat of demands for Donald Trump’s tax returns faded after he waved it all away with claims that a pending audit prevented the transparency he would otherwise be delighted to provide.
With Trump’s demurral, so, too, subsided requests for a fuller accounting from the other remaining presidential candidates. Aside from Hillary Clinton, they have been unprecedentedly parsimonious with tax information.
A confluence of events presents an opportunity to refocus attention on the missing returns. First, Tax Day is upon us, the traditional time for the incumbent president and vice president to release their tax returns — a voluntary act but one that has been practiced by every president since Harry Truman, with the exception of Gerald Ford.
Second, the leak of the “Panama Papers,” the deluge of documents detailing the offshore accounts of various foreign leaders and their relatives, underscored the value of disclosing financial information, and the wisdom of a norm in which elected officials release their tax filings as a prudent matter of course — not in the midst of a political firestorm.
In Great Britain, where there is no routine practice of politicians making tax returns public, Prime Minister David Cameron scrambled to release six years’ worth after the papers showed that his late father was the director of an offshore trust that paid no British taxes. Other British politicians — including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson — followed suit.
Third, The Washington Post reported that, notwithstanding Trump’s claims to have given more than $102 million to charity over the past five years, the list of gifts from his foundation suggests far less in the way of personal philanthropy — none, actually. Trump’s tax returns would fill in the blanks about his actual charitable giving.
Trump is, by far, the greatest offender here and, in this area at least, Clinton the avatar of full disclosure. Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Bernie Sanders have claimed transparency but actually released only the initial, summary pages of their tax returns.
This dodge, as my Post colleague Catherine Rampell has noted, obscures all sorts of potentially significant information, from amounts and details about charitable giving to precise sources of income to their use of various tax shelters. Voters should not be misled by this phony forthcomingness. Would they accept a president who provided a similarly flimsy summary?
But Trump’s obscurantism remains the most blatant and most troubling. He released a letter last month from his tax lawyers, who described Trump’s returns, since he operates his real estate and other businesses through sole proprietorships, as “inordinately large and complex for an individual.”
Trump’s returns, his lawyers report, “have been under continuous examination by the Internal Revenue Service since 2002, consistent with the IRS’ practice for large and complex businesses.” The audits from 2002 through 2008 “have been closed administratively by agreement with the IRS without assessment or payment, on a net basis, of any deficiency,” while “examinations for returns for the 2009 year and forward are ongoing.”
To Trump, this argues against disclosure. “I can’t do it until the audit is finished, obviously,” he said at a debate in February.
Not obvious, actually. Nothing in IRS rules would prevent Trump from releasing returns during an audit. Nothing would prevent him from releasing earlier returns, despite his lawyers’ argument that “the pending examinations are continuations of prior, closed examinations.” Nothing would prevent him from at least providing a summary of tax information that would indicate his total income, effective tax rate and charitable contributions.
“You don’t learn very much from tax returns,” Trump told CBS News’ John Dickerson, when pressed on summaries. But this is untrue, it’s inconsistent with historical practice and it conflicts with Trump’s assertion that he’d be happy to provide the information once the audit is completed.
Indeed, although an audit for a taxpayer of Trump’s magnitude and complexity is not evidence of tax mischief, if anything, it argues for more transparency, not less. Trump says there was no “net” deficiency. Were there dodges that the IRS disallowed? Aren’t voters entitled to know about those? Richard Nixon, of all people, released his tax returns — in the midst of an IRS audit, while he was president. (He owed nearly half a million dollars in taxes and interest.)
Next Tax Day will see a new president in the White House. Will it be the first in decades in which the president won’t be straight with his fellow taxpayers?
(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group