TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, January 20, 2017

Should President Trump Release His Tax Returns?

TrumpNew York Times op-ed:   Why Americans Care About Trump’s Tax Returns, by Ron Wyden (D-OR):

In his news conference on Wednesday, President-elect Donald J. Trump claimed that the American public did not care that he had not released his tax returns, as has been routine for every presidential nominee since Watergate. He could not be more wrong. ...

The reason is simple. Without these returns, Americans cannot know whether he is using the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Americans won’t know whether a policy he proposes primarily benefits steelworkers in Pennsylvania or lines his own pocket. ...

That’s why I and dozens of congressional colleagues have introduced legislation to force future presidential nominees and presidents to release their tax returns. As representatives of the people, if we can’t trust the executive branch to act ethically, we must force it to do so. ...

Without transparency about the extent and nature of his business dealings, it will not be possible for the American public to track whether Mr. Trump is abusing his power, other than through leaks and unverified reports that will simply tear this government down cut by cut.

Breitbart op-ed: President-Elect Trump Should Never Release His Tax Returns, by James Mann:

[R]eleasing tax returns somehow promotes rational discourse in election campaigns or confirmation hearings is nonsense.
To begin with, the oft-repeated claim that presidential candidates have released their tax returns since Watergate is absolutely untrue. ...

The sad fact is most journalists are clueless about taxes or finance. They are incapable of reading tax returns in any way that would yield information. They have little or no grasp of the relative importance or common usage of various tax strategies employed by those with money and good advisors. All they have are pre-ordained “narratives.”

In the case of a real estate fortune this ignorance is more problematic than usual. Real estate investors and builders tend to pay minimal taxes because real estate is highly tax advantaged and depreciation and interest expense typically shelters income from taxes. Were President-elect Trump to release his returns, there is no chance that they would be properly understood or fairly interpreted.

The practice of releasing presidential nominee tax returns has been inconsistent. When complex returns were made available partisans, abetted by a complicit press, willfully misconstrued them. And when disclosure actually worked, it was ignored. President-elect Trump has no reason to disclose his tax. In the alternative, perhaps we should start with requiring federal tax return disclosure for Senators and Congressmen and see how that experiment works.

CBS News, Poll: Most Americans Still Think Trump Should Release His Tax Returns:

Most Americans believe Donald Trump should release his tax returns, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Seventy-four percent say he should release his tax records, according to the poll, and further, among Republicans, 49 percent also say the president-elect should release he tax records.

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2017/01/should-president-trump-release-his-tax-returns.html

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Comments

There is a simple way to solve this problem going forward. Congress should amend the IRS nondisclosure rules to require disclosure by the IRS of the tax returns of any declared candidate for President or Vice President. This would not require disclosure by Mr. Trump unless he should choose to run for a second term.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Jan 20, 2017 12:59:46 PM

What is the argument for him not to release his taxes, other than that he should be able to hide whatever he wants from the people.

Posted by: Jpd | Jan 20, 2017 3:02:34 PM

He should, but since someone committed a felony by leaking some from the 1990s, I don't see any incentive for him to do so.

Regarding compelling someone to release something that the IRC declares personal and private, why stop with tax returns? How about medical records, drug prescriptions, psychiatric files, private email, etc.? If the public is best served by turning every candidate into an open book, I don't see why you'd stop with tax returns, which don't even give you an idea of somone's net worth...

Posted by: MM | Jan 20, 2017 7:40:18 PM

The Breitbart editorial writer misses the point -- we would not rely on journalists to read and analyze the candidate's return -- we would count on tax experts to do that

Posted by: eli bortman | Jan 21, 2017 6:43:00 AM

MM - Tax returns will tell you if someone has paid their fair share if taxes as required by law. That is in the public interest, as the President asks others to do the same.

Posted by: Jpd | Jan 21, 2017 9:32:22 AM

"Tax returns will tell you if someone has paid their fair share if taxes as required by law."

Define fair share. I don't recall seeing that anywhere in the IRC. The only relevant fact regarding someone's tax return is whether they filed it or not, as required by law. The IRS can take it from there, and audit someone appropriately. Beyond that, the law clearly states that an individual's return is confidential and private.

The tax return issue is only about Trump, because he didn't release them. My point, which obviously went over your head, is if the law is going to compel someone to release private information about himself or herself while running for public office, the law should be very broad about what private information that includes. I imagine we'd have learned a lot more about Secretary Clinton had she been compelled to disclose all private information regarding her foundation and the State Department, her medical history, etc.

Posted by: MM | Jan 21, 2017 11:47:23 AM

Mr. MM: "The only relevant fact regarding someone's tax return is whether they filed it or not, as required by law. . . . Beyond that, the law clearly states that an individual's return is confidential and private." Not exactly. The fact of filing or non-filing is equally confidential under the law.
"The tax return issue is only about Trump, because he didn't release them." Well, yes. Buy low, sell high. Trump is the first president in four decades not to release his returns. Why, except for the fact that the media has allowed him to get away with it?

Posted by: Publius Novus | Jan 21, 2017 3:28:04 PM

"Why, except for the fact that the media has allowed him to get away with it?"

Evidently, they were too busy actively colluding with the Cllinton campaign, and misleading the public, to bother...

Posted by: MM | Jan 21, 2017 9:48:57 PM

There is a potentially more viable way to force disclosure beginning in 2020. Each state has ballot access requirements. If just a few states amended them to require POTUS nominees to disclose tax returns before being placed on the ballot, this could be solved. Getting a federal bill passed is just not going to happen at this point. http://wp.me/p8cEUC-4U

Posted by: Kendra | Jan 23, 2017 9:09:43 AM