People have found many reasons to protest Donald Trump since his election: his anti-feminist rhetoric, his attempted travel ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, his administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But on Saturday, thousands will march to demand something simpler: the release of Trump's tax returns.
During the presidential campaign Trump broke with tradition by refusing to make his tax returns public. These documents could shed light on how Trump makes his money, what write-offs he claims, and how much he donates to charity, all of which were things his opponents and the press questioned. Trump's failure to release the returns also points to his administration's anti-transparency attitudes. For months Trump claimed he couldn't release the returns because he was under audit, but shortly after his inauguration his adviser Kellyanne Conway said that the real reason for the secrecy is that people didn't care about the returns.
Frank Lesser, a comedy writer who worked on The Colbert Report for eight years, gave voice to what a lot of people were thinking in a tweet immediately after Conway's statement. Lesser's sentiment—let's show Trump just how many people care about his return—was shared by a few people, including Vermont law professor Jen Taub and New Yorkers Wes Shockley and Liz Tura, who also took to social media with similar calls to action. That gave rise to a protest movement that is becoming a reality on Saturday, when protesters will gather in DC, New York, and elsewhere for rallies sparked by Lesser and Taub. (Lesser is quick to point out that he is one of many who had this idea.)
In advance of the march, I spoke to Lesser about his role in all this, what he wants to come out of the protests, and how the whole thing started as a joke.
VICE: How did your famous tweet come about?
Frank Lesser: The world falling apart instigated it. I was actually in the coffee shop, trying to revise a screenplay I've been working on for awhile. A big part of the writing process is the procrastinating process, so I went online and saw that Kellyanne Conway went on all the morning shows saying, "Oh, he's never gonna release his tax returns, people didn't care." It angered me and I jotted down a quick angry tweet that in my defense was kind of a joke. People have been asking if I was really calling for [this protest]. Absolutely not—it just felt better to get that off my chest, but it instantly started getting a lot more retweets and likes than anything else that I've ever tweeted. Within about 15 minutes Dan Savage was saying, "This is not a bad idea." The next day Michael Moore, Sarah Silverman, and Elizabeth Banks—a ton of different people were retweeting it and I started thinking, Oh maybe this will actually become a real thing, which is sort of terrifying. I did not really mean to do this.
That's how the most viral things happen, huh? It's not premeditated.
Yeah. As a comedy writer I was thinking, Why couldn't this be an actual joke? I would just be so much happier. It actually goes to your head, though. For a moment I was like, Yeah, maybe I should be the leader of this movement. Then I was like, Oh my God, I'm Donald Trump, I get it: Every single tweet of his goes as viral as this.
I somehow accidentally help start this, but there were other people who were thinking about it and it's good it all caught on. It resonated with a lot of people, but I'd like to say the person who truly inspired the Tax March is Kellyanne Conway.
Have you ever helped organize anything like this before?
Well, when I was writing on the Colbert Report that was when we did the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear with Jon Stewart, but that was a full-on parody of this sort of thing. Actually I think there were some people in the audience who wanted to be more of a real thing. But absolutely not, I've never done it and I'm not sure I'll ever do it again.
How involved have you been with the rally?
I'm working primarily with the New York group, but I've also been sort of giving some advice to the national/DC group, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, trying to help out where I can.
So you're pretty involved?
Yeah. I initially wanted to be the quiet, secret advisor in the shadows of the back room. I was saying I want to be the Tax March's Rasputin—or, to reference a more contemporary man who also looks like he's been poisoned and drowned, Steve Bannon.
What do you hope comes from the Tax March?
I think it's important that we hold Trump to the same standards that we've held every other modern president to. It's not a ridiculous demand—we're not asking for his birth certificate, his returns are something that actually gives a window into what his business dealings. A the same time, I don't think we'll actually get any of this. My favorite thing is that Richard Nixon's big famous quote, "the American people have to know whether their president is a crook, well, I'm not a crook" was in relation to his tax returns. He was forced while under audit by Congress to release his tax returns.
How do you suggest people resist Trump in general?
I think a really big part of it is using humor, not even as a political tool but as a coping mechanism. You really do need to sort of laugh because it's a littler harder to be scared when you're laughing. With this march we have these giant inflatable chicken Trump balloons. Its an easy way to get more people into it—politics and political activism isn't always the sexiest and most exciting thing. It can be a little scary, so if you make it a little entertaining or amusing you rope people in with that a little bit. One of the things I really liked at the Women's March was seeing all of the really funny signs. Yes, they were angry, but many were using humor.
What's the next step after this march?
I think one of the next steps is to support some of the legislation that's in both the Senate and the House to force at least future presidential candidates to release their tax returns. But in general I think its just about continuing questioning what is he hiding that's so damaging. We'll figure out the final tally of how many people show up and how many cities it was in and we'll see if he'd rather face this many people in a massive country-wide demonstration rise up against him instead of just releasing some simple forms.