When he ran for president, Donald Trump refused to make his tax returns public, saying they were under IRS audit. His message was that he would make them public as soon as they were final.
A taxpayer can make his returns public even when under audit. One reason for temporary secrecy may be that the IRS could require that they be amended and the candidate wants to present only the corrected documents. But President Trump’s permanent refusal departs from decades of practice by presidents and candidates.
It seems obvious that Trump has no intention of ever making his returns public or turning confidential copies over to Congress. Equally obvious is that his refusal is not based on a rule or concern about accuracy, but rather because he has something to hide.
Trump is an unusual president. Though his sons manage his company day-to-day, he has remained in business while serving as president. There is no law against that. But, until now, all presidents have worked at the job full-time with no other active business.
Because of his continued company involvement, Trump receives an income from it in addition to his presidential pay. Again, that’s not illegal, but it is unprecedented.
Previous presidents have placed their financial interests in a blind trust. An independent manager controlled their assets and had the right to buy or sell investments without the knowledge of the president. In that way, the president could avoid any conflict of interest in taking official action for personal benefit.
It is likely that Trump’s interests are not sufficiently diversified that they could readily become part of a different investment portfolio. That leaves only two solutions if he wanted to assure voters that he has no conflict of interest.
He could simply have sold his company upon taking office and transferred the proceeds to a blind trust. He would no longer be in the real estate business. Or he could publish his tax returns and related financial information so that the public, courts and Congress could judge if he had any conflicts between his public office and his business.
Because Trump won’t disclose his returns, there’s much speculation about his reasons. Of greatest concern would be a financial relationship with others who are subject to federal government regulation or with foreign countries trying to influence his foreign policy.
Of course, if he engaged in a business relationship with a known or accused lawbreaker, that, too, would be a problem.
Another kind of speculation, fueled by Michael Cohen, formerly his personal attorney and now a federal convict, would be the risk of embarrassment. Perhaps he is not as fabulously wealthy as he would like the public to believe. Even worse, perhaps he misrepresented his wealth to obtain bank loans for his investments.
This week, the New York Times, having seen some of his tax information, said he had lost over $1 billion in ten years when he claimed to be gaining wealth.
There’s also the emoluments clause of the Constitution. It says no federal official can, without congressional approval, “accept of any present, Emolument, Office or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign state.”
By accepting money “of any kind whatever” from a foreign government, a person might be fined or even subject to removal from office. Trump is now challenged in federal court on that matter. If the person lied about such a payment on his tax returns, he could be charged with income tax evasion.
The House of Representatives has requested Trump’s tax returns as allowed by law for its use in lawmaking and oversight activities relative to any conflict of interest.
But Trump believes that the sole purpose of the request is to seek information that could embarrass him politically in next year’s presidential election. No tax information previously revealed to the public has changed a presidential election result.
Out of loyalty to the president, the Secretary of the Treasury, home of the IRS, has refused the congressional request. He claims the House’s request is not lawful, because it is intended to serve political purposes, not for oversight or lawmaking.
The matter will surely go the court. Congress can make a good case that another branch of government cannot determine whether its request is relevant to its functions under the Constitution.
But Trump may drag the case out until after the next elections, when he hopes the Republicans will regain control of Congress and he will be reelected.
Meanwhile, voters are denied their right and need to know.