Why We Must See Donald Trump’s Taxes
We are still waiting to see Donald J. Trump’s taxes and after another struck down measure in the House Ways and Means committee this week the American people continue to wait. Every major party candidate who has made it to the general election for the past 40 years has released their taxes during the campaign. Candidates releasing their returns is not law, in fact privacy law very specifically prevents the IRS from releasing personal data such as tax returns, but releasing your tax returns is tradition and the accepted practice for good reasons.
Taxes got us into this whole United States of America thing in the first place. Remember the tar and feathering of tax collectors, the gleeful dumping of all that tea, that historic fire known as the Declaration of Independence, and ultimately the war that followed? Taxes were a big part of all that. Yes as a country we have been accused (perhaps fairly) of being materialistic, but there is more to the debate over taxes than just money. Joe Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project claims that:
Americans don’t hate paying taxes They hate other people NOT paying taxes.
There is a certain sense of pride and honor in paying your taxes. Deciding as a community what our priorities are and then supplying funding to make those priorities a reality is a large part of self-governance or ‘being a political grown-up.’ Taxes are a sign of how much we as citizens are willing to back up our big claims with our pocketbooks and they reveal our priorities in an explicit way that cannot be hidden or spun.
In addition to traditional importance, taxes and financial disclosures serve modern purposes as well. For those of you who have never applied for a job in government; your financial status is of utmost importance to get any kind of clearance. It turns out that $15,000 in debt is often enough of a burden to induce Americans into selling secrets. Being elected President conferrers access to the highest levels of classification, but that does not reduce to importance of financial information for elected officials. The American people are the one who decide if we can trust Donald Trump to lead the country, and his taxes would be the first move in the traditional campaign process whereby a leader gains the trust of the people.
Why Mr. Trump’s Taxes?
In my personal opinion Donald Trump’s taxes will probably reveal one of two things, that he really doesn’t pay his fair share or that he is broke and owes money to foreign investors. Furthermore the tax returns would help address concerns over the President’s possible emoluments violations. Yes, Trump has already payed more in a year in taxes than I probably will in my entire life, but that is not the sense of ‘fair’ that I mean. Far more likely is that the Trump Organization was suffering financially before the election. Given the multiple bankruptcies of the Trump Organization in the last 25 years (there are 4, which is significantly above average) the current state of Donald Trump’s finances is questionable. Politifact rightly points out that these bankruptcies were not completely Trump’s fault, and stemmed from the decline of the casino and hotel industry. Forbes goes one step further:
In 1990, however, Trump hyperbole blew back on him. The New York real estate market was crashing, his Atlantic City casinos began struggling, and he was underwater with his new toy, the Trump Shuttle airline. In 1989 FORBES had his net worth at $1.7 billion. By spring 1990 FORBES figured it was $500 million at best. By that fall the overleveraged Trump was “within hailing distance of zero” and dropped from The Forbes 400.
For our purposes, such a decline only makes the argument stronger. No amount of brilliance on the part of Mr. Trump could possibly compensate for the failing industry within which he works. Mr. Trump has rebounded somewhat since the 1990s, but almost certainly falls short of his proposed worth of $10 billion. His taxes would help reveal how he got his business back above water and what deals he had to make to do so.
Debt is common for individuals of Mr. Trump’s stature and he definitely carries his fair share. In a fantastic article, The New York Times estimates that:
Companies owned by Mr. Trump had debts of at least $650 million, The Times discovered that a substantial portion of his wealth is tied up in three passive partnerships that owe an additional $2 billion to a string of lenders, including those that hold the loan on the Avenue of the Americas building. If those loans were to go into default, Mr. Trump would not be held liable, the Trump Organization said. The value of his investments, however, would certainly sink.
Commenting on Mr. Trump’s debt, Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush said:
The success of his empire depends on an ability to get credit, to get loans extended to his business entities. And we simply don’t know a lot about his financial dealings, here or around the world.
Mr. Trump’s taxes would be an important step in gaining knowledge about his financial status, beginning to unravel exactly how much of his debt is owned by the Bank of China and what if any by various Russian groups. Such doubts and questions erode President Trump’s support among the American people. In short, they rob him of his ability to govern, an activity that requires the trust of more than 38% support of the country he currently enjoys. As for the response from Mr. Trump that an IRS audit is preventing him from releasing his taxes, it is completely false according to the IRS. Tax attorneys would not advise Mr. Trump to release his returns as it will result in additional scrutiny, but agree that he can. Mr. Trump’s behavior is nothing new, he has refused to release his tax returns for years, even losing a libel lawsuit he filed because of this reluctance.
Do People Still Want Trump’s Taxes?
Kellyanne Conway went on TV two days after the inauguration to reassure the public that we no longer care about Mr. Trump’s tax returns. Her appearance was partly to address the more than 200,000 signatures a petition to release his tax returns received in just two days.
“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him, and let me make this very clear: Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”
Ms. Conway’s comments are directly contradicted by a poll taken a little over a week (1/16/17) before her interview, showing that 75% of respondents saying they wanted Mr. Trump to release his returns, with 40% of those saying they care “a lot” about release. In addition, 49% of Mr. Trump’s own supporters think he should release his returns. No polls have been taken on the issue of Mr. Trump’s returns since the inauguration, but the petition to release his taxes now has grown to over 1 million signatures.
Adding further evidence that the American people do indeed want to see Mr. Trump’s tax returns was the response to the Rachel Maddow Show on March 14th. That night Ms. Maddow prefaced the show by stating that they had Donald Trump’s tax returns which turned out to be two pages from 2005. This show of Maddow’s reached an all time high of 4,130,000 viewers, an audience surge driven in part by the promise of the tax returns under discussion. All this goes to show that yes, the American people do indeed care about Mr. Trump’s tax returns and will demonstrate so on April 15th for the Tax March planned across the country.
Congressional Democrats have listened to the voices of their constituents and shown that they understand the importance of Donald Trump’s tax returns. For the fifth consecutive week, House Democrats have pushed for a vote to request Mr. Trump’s taxes. According to The Hill:
Democrats have repeatedly brought up Trump’s undisclosed tax returns in an effort to force Republicans to take difficult votes. They plan to offer resolutions on the House floor on a weekly basis until Tax Day on April 18.
Republican House members have been walking a tightrope on Trump and many issues their constituents are angry about. A perfect example is Rep. David Young (R-IA) who told voters at his town hall,“You run for president, you’re president, you should release your tax returns. It’s a distraction and I think the American people should know.” Young then flew home, voted against the measure to release Mr. Trump’s tax returns and had one of his aides call the vote a “partisan stunt for political gain.”
The House Ways and Means Committee, another body with the authority to request Mr. Trump’s taxes has been the epicenter of multiple votes and bill arguments over releasing the returns. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) has been at the center of the action in the Ways and Means Committee citing
A rarely invoked 1924 law [that] could be used to examine President Donald Trump’s tax returns for possible conflicts of interest and Constitutional violations,” USA Today reported. “The 1924 law gives congressional committees that set tax policy the power to examine tax returns. It was used in 1974 when Congress looked at President Richard Nixon’s returns, and in 2014 when the Ways and Means Committee released confidential tax information as part of its investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of applications for nonprofit status.
In a 24–16 vote along party lines this week, the Ways and Means Committee again declined to request Mr. Trump’s taxes. Indivisible, one of the largest new Trump era organizing groups, was having none of this vote listing all of the “nay”voting Representatives in a twitter thread. Among the Republicans voting, everyone’s new favorite Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA).
THREAD: Today, all members of the @WaysandMeansGOP just voted against Rep. Pascrell's resolution to request Trump's taxes. https://t.co/SZKHugZpqX
The continued and intensified efforts shows that the demand for Mr. Trump to release his tax returns continues to grow. If the White House strategy was to simply out-wait this demand, evidence suggests that they are mistaken. There are numerous planned events over the next couple of weeks as American’s get ready to pay their share of taxes and disclose their financial information with a government that will not reciprocate.
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