For a man who played a cartoonish business titan on TV and ran a successful presidential campaign on the promise he'd bring private-sector expertise to DC, Donald Trump has been curiously cagey about how he's made all his money. For decades, Trump lied about the size of his fortune, which he enjoyed chiefly thanks to his father's real estate empire and routine tax dodging. And though his personal brand as a flashy rich guy led him to a career-rescuing gig as the host of The Apprentice, the real-world version of the Trump Organization remained murky to casual observers. Did it mostly build and operate towers? Did it just slap its name on spaces and manage properties? Or did it do something else entirely? And how profitable was it, exactly?
Before and after Trump won the White House, investigative reporting shone a harsh light on the Trump Organization's practices. It allegedly lied to investors and committed fraud on a regular basis while working on projects that often collapsed but still made money for the company. The Trump family may have violated US law by working with corrupt partners in foreign countries, and the business reportedly owes its existence to an infusion of cash from shady Russian figures in the 2000s, after US banks largely stopped doing business with Trump due to his penchant for high-profile bankruptcy. If president is not actually a successful businessman but the world's most famous con man, that seems like relevant information for voters to have going into his reelection campaign—and Democrats could help figure out the answer to that question by finally forcing him to release his tax returns.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Democrats in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee were coming close to formally requesting the past ten years of Trump's tax returns. It's an expected step, and one many liberals wish had been taken as soon as Democrats retook Congress. (The committee can invoke an obscure 1924 law that authorizes it to acquire White House officials' tax returns in the course of an investigation.) But Democratic members of Congress say they are being deliberate because they are preparing for a fight: Trump would resist any effort to force him to give his returns to the committee, which could spark an intense legal battle. "They will take that all the way to the Supreme Court,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, told the Post.
Even if Democrats got the returns, it'd be trickier to release them to the public, which would likely require congressional approval. Democrats have also introduced legislation requiring presidential candidates to release their taxes, but that's almost certainly not going to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Individual blue states have weighed laws requiring candidates disclose their tax returns, but those are potentially unconstitutional and controversial. (In 2017, Jerry Brown, then the Democratic governor of California, vetoed one such bill.) But the mechanism to force disclosure is much less important than the bedrock principle of knowing where a presidential contender's financial interests lie.
Usually, presidential candidates voluntarily release their past tax records as a show of transparency. In Trump's case, it was arguably more important that he give voters some insight into his taxes because he was using his wealth as a qualification for office. But he refused to disclose any of his past tax returns largely on the grounds that the IRS was auditing him—an audit he once bizarrely claimed was due to his Christian faith. (He also tweeted a photo of himself next to a big stack of paper to emphasize the complexity of his taxes.) The IRS itself said an audit wouldn't prevent anyone from releasing their tax documents, but Trump stuck by that excuse during the campaign, and after he won, shrugged off questions about taxes by saying the American people had made clear they don't care about the issue.
Polling actually backs Trump somewhat up on that, with an October survey finding that fewer than half of Americans cared about his refusal to release his returns. But given the allegations of fraud and corruption swirling around Trump, those returns could contain vital information. That includes how much income he continues to draw from businesses that appear to be benefiting from his new gig, how much (if anything) he gives to charity, and how he takes advantage of tax rules that favor the rich, including ones he himself has made law.
It's possible to guess based on his past financial disclosures and leaks what he might be hiding. Trump's 1981 return showed that he took advantage of real estate–friendly tax laws to avoid paying federal income tax entirely, and his 1995 return, obtained by the New York Times, showed how he claimed a nearly $1 billion loss from his business failures. That's a loss he was still benefitting from a decade later, according to tax documents subsequently revealed by investigative journalist David Cay Johnston for the nonprofit outlet DCREPORT*. And a candidate disclosure form from 2016, which provides much less detail than a full return, suggested that Trump massively inflated his personal income.
The most innocent explanation for Trump's refusal to release his tax returns as nearly every other presidential candidate has done since the 70s is that he doesn't want to be embarrassed by evidence he's not actually as rich as he says. (He has tissue-thin skin, as evidenced by his apparent obsession with preventing his grades or SAT scores from going public.) The returns could also reveal more damaging information—perhaps that he barely gave to charity, which would be particularly relevant given his own charitable foundation was forced to close after allegations of baroque misuse of funds. The most Resistance-porn revelations would involve items that connect Trump to Saudi Arabia or Russia, which would contradict his denials about business between him and those countries. It's also possible that the returns wouldn't tell us much about his foreign business ventures or his net worth.
That the tax returns could even potentially put to rest some of these questions is reason enough for Democrats to get their hands on them, something Republicans, in classic Trump-era see-no-evil fashion, refused to do while they controlled Congress. But the returns are valuable even if all they show is exactly how the most powerful rich guy in the country games the system. Last year, an extensive New York Times investigation provided insight into the extreme—and sometimes legally dubious—ways Trump's family avoided taxes. A close reading of the president's tax returns could show how Trump has continued his father's practices, and how the tax cut giveaway to the rich he signed as president benefitted him personally.
That might not connect the Russian collusion narrative, but who cares? The world's oligarchs routinely hide their wealth from governments to deprive them of tax revenue while at the same time flooding the US electoral system with "dark money." Now one of those oligarchs is in the White House. Shouldn't we know more about his money?
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that David Cay Johnson revealed Trump's tax documents on the Rachel Maddow Show when in fact he did so for another outlet, DCREPORT. We regret the error.
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