Friday’s release of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns from his four years in the White House and two years prior is an important and long overdue public service. It ensures the continuation of the half-century-long tradition of Oval Office transparency in which Americans can review their commander in chief’s taxes. It also ensures that legal wrangling over more than three-and-a-half years couldn’t keep the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee from obtaining the tax documents guaranteed to them under federal law.
But the result is still unsatisfying. The returns don’t go back to Trump’s decades as a taxpayer before he ran for president in 2016 and won in a giant upset, even though presidents from Richard Nixon on have released returns from the years leading up to their campaigns. It’s an important principle to follow as a matter of historical record. It also would have been a warning shot to any future presidents who may want to keep their tax returns private.
Going back further might have meant a different type of protracted court fight. But it was the wrong call, since the most revealing part of Trump’s financial history remains buried.
Trump based his run on his personal brand as a savvy business operator, which was, in fact, a myth and a legend he created — an act of misdirection so seemingly profound it would likely make fabulist Rep.-elect George Santos of New York blush. Full disclosure of those taxes would have meant that future voters would have, at the very least, been able to see Trump wasn’t the business whiz he claimed. And it might have made a difference in an election in which Trump won the Electoral College over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a combined 79,646 votes in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin out of more than 136 million cast nationally. Future voters surely deserve that information given that Trump is running to reclaim the presidency in 2024.
Trump had starred in “The Apprentice” for more than a decade, a show that resurrected a moribund career that included having his businesses declare bankruptcy multiple times. News reports also have shown Trump to have been a hugely irresponsible financial risk-taker who reportedly stiffed vendors and lawyers. Several analyses of Trump’s wealth have even found he’d be far richer if he had just stuck his family inheritance in an index fund and watched it appreciate over time. But we can’t fully judge Trump’s claims about his prepresidency business acumen since the documents now made public cover only calendar years 2015-2020.
To be sure, they contain lots of useful information. After all, some information is better than nothing. And as journalists, accountants and other analysts pore over the documents, we’re finding out useful nuggets about Trump, such as his having a bank account in China, per his returns, for 2015, 2016 and 2017. Assessments of his foreign policy can also now properly factor in income Trump received from more than a dozen countries during his White House years.
Then there’s Trump’s charitable giving, or lack thereof, with Trump making no charitable contributions in 2020. There’s also interest on loans given to his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr., which means he may have shifted assets to younger generations to minimize tax on the gifts.
At the very least, Friday’s release confirms the details of the extent of his losses from calendar years 2015 to 2017, stemming in part from real estate and other businesses that did poorly. In 2016 and 2017, he paid only $750 in taxes after losing roughly $32 million and $13 million respectively. In 2020, Trump paid no taxes.
Furthermore, documents released Friday show that in defiance of IRS rules about returns filed by presidents, the tax agency only began to audit Trump’s 2016 filings on April 3, 2019, more than two years after he took office. And it occurred on the same day when Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, asked the agency for information related to Trump’s tax returns.
It’s true that the delay in the release of the tax information came from the battle waged by Trump against its release. Though the Democrats who took over the House Ways and Means Committee in early 2019 cited that section of the federal tax code stating the Treasury “shall furnish” an individual’s returns if a formal written request is made from Congress, Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to release the president’s tax returns.
The ensuing court battle was finally resolved only on Nov. 22, when the Supreme Court gave a greenlight for the Ways and Means Committee to obtain Trump’s tax returns from the former president’s accounting firm. The ruling came just in the nick of time for House Democrats to release the documents, since Republicans reclaim the majority on Tuesday.
Ultimately, though, it’s on House Democrats that the Trump tax documents released on Friday were so limited. The Democrats asked only for a six-year span in the first place, per their original 2019 letter to the IRS. As Ways and Means Committee chair, Neal was the only Democrat allowed to request Trump’s state tax returns — a step he declined to take.
Neal has taken heat from the progressive left for slow-walking the request. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the time expressed frustration and anger at Democratic leadership for not moving faster to obtain and release the documents. Far-left lawmakers like Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Pramila Jayapal of Washington advocated a by-any-means-necessary approach to pursuing Trump, including immediate legal action to begin the process of obtaining his tax returns. “This is what I ran on,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, early in her first term. “There’s a sense of urgency.”
Clearly, though, House Democrats likely feared it would look as if they were on a fishing expedition if they went back years before Trump was president. So the committee justified its court case as looking into the effectiveness of mandatory IRS audits of tax returns of all sitting presidents. That gave its legal claims a clear legislative purpose. Going back further might have meant a different type of protracted court fight. But it was the wrong call, since the most revealing part of Trump’s financial history remains buried.
Friday’s release of Trump taxes is of course hardly small potatoes. And like the 2022 outcomes in which voters rejected a series of election deniers, it’s a sign that there is accountability for open government. But it’s more of an appetizer than an entree complete with just desserts.