As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump bowled over the decades-old expectation that serious contenders for the White House disclose years’ worth of their tax returns. He made all sorts of flimsy excuses for refusing to do so. “There’s nothing to learn from them,” he insisted. It’s “none of your business.” “I don’t think anybody cares.” “The only ones that care about my tax returns are the reporters.” And so on.
But Trump and his lackeys returned to one excuse time and again: He couldn’t release his returns until the Internal Revenue Service completed a (possibly fabricated) audit. This dubious claim was offered as recently as April, on the eve of Tax Day, when then–press secretary Sean Spicer said, “It’s been covered before. It’s the same thing that was discussed during the campaign trail. The president is under audit. It’s a routine audit that continues.”
Because Trump’s campaign, and now his presidency, have teemed with so many serious scandals, his financial secrecy never defined him. But as Republicans regroup from their failure to roll back health insurance coverage, Trump’s tax returns, and the excuses he’s made for concealing them, will and should regain scrutiny, because the GOP’s new goal is to fast track regressive tax cuts into law before the year is out.
Trump’s substantive objectives in the looming debate over tax policy are muddled, but almost certainly wrongheaded. If Republicans are going to facilitate them, it will fall to them to respond to the public’s demand for the answers to two questions: How much will Trump be cutting his own taxes, and why did he lie to us about his returns?
Trump never deserved the benefit of the doubt over his ludicrous audit excuse, but he unintentionally removed all doubt when he told The New York Times last month that he would consider his finances off limits to the Justice Department investigators working with Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation.
That redline is flatly incompatible with the idea that, were he not under audit, he’d disclose his tax returns to the general public, allowing Mueller to access them at will.
Trump may have done so for many reasons—to hide crimes, to hide off-putting tax avoidance, to hide debt, to hide his true wealth. But knowing why he did so should be an absolute precondition to any Republican tax plan, if Republicans want the public to accept their tax plan as anything other than a corrupt giveaway to Trump himself.
It is, I suppose, theoretically possible for Congress to pass a tax plan that Trump could sign without disclosure, and also without raising any alarms either. On Tuesday, in a letter to Trump and GOP leaders, Senate Democrats laid out three prerequisites to their support for tax legislation: that it not increase the tax burden on the middle class; that it be subject to a normal committee process and to filibuster; and that it not be financed with higher deficits.
These demands would significantly narrow the extent to which tax reform could serve as a massive windfall to Trump personally. But they are insufficient so long as they don’t include disclosure as a precondition; and in any case, Republicans have already indicated that they will try to pass huge tax cuts on a partisan basis.
The onus on Democrats thus shifts from laying out a negotiating position to making issue of the GOP’s apparent interest in further lining Trump’s pockets, without knowing how lucrative their legislation will be for the president and his family, or why the president lied to them and the public about his financial secrecy.
We can add these concerns to the growing list of tests Republicans have posed to themselves, now that their signature legislative initiative has collapsed.
Amid the wreckage of Trumpcare, some Republicans have rediscovered a willingness to criticize Trump that they misplaced sometime around when he clinched the GOP presidential nomination last year. In a widely cited op-ed, excerpted from a forthcoming book, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake put a fine point on the fact that Republicans alone can sweep away these excesses, but have chosen not to out of expediency or denial. “Too often,” he wrote, “we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that that someone is us.”
It should be straightforward for Flake and two other Republican senators to make good on this confession by withholding their votes until the president adheres to the disclosure norm, so we can know how much he’ll stand to benefit and why he lied about his secrecy for so long. More likely it will ignite the kind of drama that eventually sunk Trumpcare, or these newly chastened Republicans will realize they can tolerate anything for a tax cut.