On April 15, 2016, White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued a news release.
“Today, the President released his 2015 federal income tax returns,” it began. “The President and the First Lady filed their income tax returns jointly and reported adjusted gross income of $436,065. The Obamas paid $81,472 in total tax. The President’s effective federal income tax rate is 18.7 percent.”
The announcement was an annual tradition. Barack and Michelle Obama had released returns for every year dating back to 2000.
The tax deadline this year is April 17, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar announcement from the current White House.
President Donald J. Trump was the first presidential candidate since Gerald Ford not to release his tax returns, but Ford at least released a summary of his returns for the years 1966 to 1975.
The president’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, had released returns dating back to 1992, the year her husband, Bill, was seeking his first term as president.
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, released returns for the years 2000 through 2007.
Jimmy Carter released three years’ worth of returns. Ronald Reagan released seven, and George H.W. Bush released three.
Even Richard Nixon released several years’ worth of tax returns.
He didn’t particularly want to, but he did. Of course, it later turned out that he had underpaid and that he owed more than $400,000 in taxes and penalties, but that’s another issue.
In case you’re interested, all of these returns and more are available on the Tax History Project website at www.taxhistory.org.
President Trump has released nothing in the way of tax returns. After an anonymous source released a portion of the president’s 2005 return, the White House did confirm that the president paid more than $38 million in taxes that year on about $150 million in income.
During the campaign, candidate Trump claimed he was undergoing one of many audits, and he promised he’d release his returns once that audit was complete.
After taking office, the president changed his tune, noting that in light of his election victory, the voters clearly didn’t care about his tax returns. He said then that he might release his returns after leaving office.
Surveys indicate that most voters disagree with the president on this issue. A Quinnipiac University poll released in February found that two-thirds of respondents wanted the president to release his tax returns.
The conservative columnist George Will offered an explanation for the president’s lack of transparency during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“We have known for at least two years that Mr. Trump, by refusing to release his tax returns, by violating this norm, and taking some heat for it, is hiding something,” Will said. “That is the only reasonable inference.”
And it’s possible that before long, we’ll find out what the president is hiding. Reports have been circulating for months that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has taken an interest in the president’s finances.
“The path to resolution of what Mueller is looking at is going through financial transactions, the key to which are probably in his tax returns,” Will said.
In the meantime, some states have considered requiring the release of a presidential candidate’s tax returns as a matter of law. Candidates in those states would have to release their returns to get a spot on the ballot.
Frankly, Congress should impose such a requirement at the federal level.
A presidential candidate’s financial dealings should be open to public scrutiny. If we didn’t know it before, we’ve surely found that out with the current occupant of the White House.