Why You Should Care That Trump Hasn't Released His Tax Returns

The real question isn't so much what he's hiding—it's why he feels entitled to conceal something that every presidential candidate since the 1970s has been expected to reveal.

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May 13 2016, 5:16pm

Donald Trump smiling. Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

No one knows how to fake out the media quite like Donald Trump. For months, the political press corps has been speculating on whether the mogul-turned-presumptive-GOP-nominee would release his tax returns to the public, a traditional gesture of transparency that presidential candidates have been making for decades. Back in 2015, Trump said he would follow that tradition. In January, he promised his team was "working on that."

"I have big returns, as you know," Trump told NBC's Chuck Todd."I have everything all approved and very beautiful, and we'll be working on that over in the next period of time."

Apparently things became less beautiful, though, and on Tuesday, Trump told the Associated Press that he doesn't expect to release the returns before the November election, because he is being audited by the IRS. On Wednesday, he tweeted that he would release them after the audit, "not after election." By Friday, he was telling aGood Morning America host that his tax rate was "none of your business." But his basic stance, which hasn't changed during a week of fairly confusing statements, can be summed up in what he told the AP: "There's nothing to learn from them."

According to tax historian Joseph Thorndike, the practice of presidential candidates disclosing their tax returns dates back to Adlai Stevenson's campaign in 1952, but didn't catch on until after Richard Nixon released his returns in 1973. Nixon was under audit at the time—a fact that torpedoes Trump's main excuse for not disclosing his returns—and it turned out that he actually did owe almost $500,000 to the IRS.

Since then, releasing tax information has become a standard part of the presidential process, even though it's not technically required. Candidates are legally required to file financial disclosure forms, but those typically reveal far less information than tax filings.

The returns rarely reveal much that voters and the media don't already know about a candidate—in 2012, for example, the revelation from Mitt Romney's long-awaited return was that his IRA was really big. Thorndike told me that this sort of disclosure is more about measuring a candidate's honesty and transparency than answering actual questions about how he or she earns money. As he explained, it's a way to say, "Hey, I'm an honest guy, and my life's an open book. Take a look."

In Trump's case, however, a closer look at his finances could actually clear up a lot that we still don't know about the likely Republican nominee.

The journalist Timothy O'Brien—who actually saw Trump's tax returns a few years ago, after the real estate tycoon went after him in a deeply silly lawsuit that concerned how wealthy Trump actually was—has spelled out some of the more pertinent information that the filings might reveal.

For example, the returns could shed light on how big the candidate's business interests are, as well as how much money he gives to charity. While his declared taxable income won't definitively prove how much Trump is worth—a number he has said changes based on his own feelings—but it might reveal that he's one of the many wealthy New Yorkers who reports a very small or even negative income, thanks to various accounting tricks.

"Trump has available a lot of tax advantages because he's in the real estate industry," said Roberton Williams, a fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. "He's a smart guy, he has smart people working for him, and he says he doesn't want to pay more taxes than he has to, so I'm sure he's using smart tax lawyers to minimize his tax bill—which is perfectly legitimate."

Some people think there's something sinister and impossible to spin nestled in Trump's returns: Mitt Romney, who's become a particularly vocal Trump critic, has repeatedly said that there is probably a "bombshell" in the real estate mogul's returns; the economist Justin Wolfers wrote in the New York Times that the only reason Trump would conceal his returns if he had something to hide. Naturally, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee have piled on as well.

"There could be a huge bombshell, or there could be absolutely nothing," said Thorndike. "The point here should not be that we're looking for a gotcha moment," he added.

The truth is, even if Trump did release his returns, most voters probably don't care enough to go through them, or to be outraged by whatever methods Trump and his lawyers may have used to cut his tax bill. But concealing his returns shows a certain amount of contempt for the ordinary vetting process of a presidential campaign; since the 1970s, no major party nominee has declined to release his tax returns—what makes Trump so special?

"Trump's refusal to release his tax returns raises serious questions about what he's hiding," Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said in a statement Friday. But the real question isn't so much what he's hiding—it's why he feels entitled to conceal something that everyone else in his position is expected to reveal.

"[Voters] don't have a legal right to see these tax returns," Thorndike said, "but they do have a political right and a moral right to see them."

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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