Cover: President Donald J. Trump listens to a reporter’s question during the coronavirus update briefing Monday, April 27, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
Tax On, Tax Off: The battle for access to President Trump’s tax returns began long before his election and inauguration. Later today, however, President Donald Trump’s lawyers will urge the Supreme Court to let him block access to his tax returns and other financial documents sought by three congressional committees and a New York prosecutor. While Trump is actively working to block the release, the subpoenas in question are not directed at the President himself. Instead, they are attempting to retrieve Trump’s financial records from Deutsche Bank, Capital One, and the Mazars USA accounting firm. On top of Trump’s personal stake in the matter, the eventual ruling will have broader consequences in relation to the ability of a president to refuse formal requests from Congress.
On the Left: Many have ardently pressed for the President to make his financial records available since the earliest days of his presidential campaign. Before Trump’s election, Chris Cillizza, at the Washington Post, theorized six potential reasons for why he refuses to release his tax returns: he has Russian ties, he is being audited, he has not paid taxes, he has mob ties, he contributes little to charity, or he is not as rich as he says. While there’s only anecdotal evidence to back some of these claims, Cillizza argues that Trump could easily discredit such suspicions by publicizing his financial records. Alternatively, Trump’s resistance only worsens suspicions of illicit or unflattering details about his financial circumstances. Trump’s passage of the 2017 tax bill also strengthened calls to release his records to reveal whether he personally benefited from its passage. Several polls taken during the 2016 election showed that an overwhelming 74% of Americans want Trump’s returns, and 62% of Republican voters were among them.
On the Right: Trump and his base have vehemently argued against the President being compelled to disclose his financials, and they have criticized the effort as a political maneuver by Democrats. George Skelton, at the LA Times, writes that congressional oversight committees should be able to privately examine a president’s personal and business returns, “[but] even a president has some rights of privacy.” The former Democratic Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has also argued that it may be unconstitutional and “…it sets a ‘slippery slope’ precedent. Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?” Robert W. Wood, at Forbes, explains that while voters may consider tax disclosures a necessity for trust, the partisan rationale for Trump’s tax returns are moot because “[he] surely lost those votes in 2016, and disclosing them now will surely not win any votes for 2020.”
Flag This: There is no law that requires presidents and presidential candidates to make their tax returns publicly available. However, from Richard Nixon’s presidency, nearly all presidents and presidential candidates have released their tax returns (or other documents illustrating their personal finances). Trump’s refusal to do so would break precedent that has been followed for over four decades. Those against the practice believe it is an overly intrusive violation of the president’s privacy. Nevertheless, there is concern that Trump’s decision could end the de facto custom altogether, which may lead to less transparency in future elections. Regardless of the candidate’s partisan affiliation, it could present troubling consequences with less transparent elections and American voters being less informed about their candidates. An interesting question for those who think Trump should not be required to release his tax return is this: Some believe that Joe Biden and his son need to testify before the U.S. Senate about family business dealings with Ukraine and China. If Joe Biden wins the presidential nomination in November, should he be required to release his returns?